It’s a wet and miserable Saturday night in September. The aptly named Storm Ali swirls around the cauldron that is Wembley Stadium, as 80,000+ fight fans gather to worship their heavyweight idol – Anthony Joshua – in the latest chapter of his remarkable story.
Povetkin proved a game challenger under the Wembley lights. Vicious left hooks and sharp counters had the champion under pressure for the opening six rounds. Reluctant to throw his right hand, Joshua took his time, assessing the Russian’s advances. After a stalemate in the seventh, AJ unleashed a flurry of devastating punches; his right hand couldn’t miss as he floored Povetkin, scrambling his senses. There’s an argument that the fight should have stopped there, however, Steve Gray allowed the bout to continue; a further barrage and a savage right hand ended the argument there. 7th round TKO – Anthony Joshua. “And still”.
This has been a meteoric rise. Six years ago I was asked to cover the Olympic boxing at London 2012 where I was first made aware of ‘AJ’ - then a 22-year-old amateur looking to secure a medal at super heavyweight in front of a home crowd. His place on the British team, however, was in jeopardy in the run-up to the games, following a suspension by the British Amateur Boxing Association after being charged by the police with a drug offence.
This was the wake-up call that Joshua needed. Often citing this event as life-changing in his quest for a boxing career, the catalyst is clear; the effect has been astonishing. “The arrest changed a lot”, Joshua said after claiming gold at the London games. “It forced me to grow up and to respect my responsibilities. I’m not happy that I did what I did and there’s no way that kind of thing will ever happen again, but in a way I’m glad it did because it woke me up.”
To say that the heavyweights’ career has gone from strength to strength since would be a vast understatement. Signing with Eddie Hearn’s Matchroom in 2013 was the start of AJ’s adventure into the paid ranks; slowly we would begin to understand the draw that Joshua fashions inside, as well as outside the ring.
Debuting at London’s O2 Arena, then moving onto Sheffield, York Hall, Cardiff and Glasgow, the AJ-train was in full motion on a whistle-stop tour of the UK; just three rounds were completed in these opening five fights as Joshua blitzed through a ‘who’s who’ list of heavyweight journeymen with devastating power.
His first taste of Wembley Stadium came next on the undercard of Froch-Groves II, followed by trips to Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle. It was clear what Matchroom were doing with their young prospect. The AJ-model was being executed with precision, leaving no stone unturned as they built and built the profile of their man reaching a maximum audience; over the last two years, we have seen the culmination of this blueprint achieve unprecedented results.
This isn’t normal. As I sat inside Wembley Stadium tonight it was impossible not to get overwhelmed by the sheer numbers that Joshua has continually pulled in over his last four fights. Roughly 300,000 tickets have been sold for the Klitschko, Takam, Parker, and now, Povetkin fights in just under 18 months. This truly is the Anthony Joshua effect.
A Joshua fight is more than a fight. It’s more than boxing. It’s an event; the type of event that attracts the attention of your mum, your granddad, your children; celebrities, A-listers, Z-listers. They’ve become shows to be seen at, and with the range of fan spanning from your most casual of casuals to your hardcores, seats are filled time after time. To compare the atmosphere directly to a football crowd would be a trite point, but one that holds weight.
It’s a party. Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline echoes around the National Stadium prior to the ring walks as the booze-inspired congregation sing along in harmony; with phones recording every second of this, now, pre-fight ritual, it felt like this was the peak of the evening for many fans, regardless of the potential 36 minutes of boxing that may have followed.
It feels a little manufactured; a little processed, and for genuine fans of the sport of boxing, it can be tiresome to suck it up, accepting that this now comes with the package. Leaving the casual vs. hardcore fan debate to one side, it’s fascinating how seeing an event on this scale makes you feel. A cog in the wheel of a well oiled money-making machine that is controlled by Eddie Hearn, and powered by AJ.
The thing is, this is how it has to be. If we are to enjoy the fruits from boxing continuing to prove itself as a global sport, the wider market needs to be exploited. The boxing community is constantly growing, but still too small to demand some of the events we thirst for on its own.
The biggest clash of fanbases will no doubt come in the near future. Joshua has become the antithesis of one of his biggest heavyweight rivals, Tyson Fury. With Fury, you never know what’s coming next. There is a flamboyance to his character that keeps everyone on their toes, and himself – rightly or wrongly – a constant in the headlines. What you see is what you get with Fury, and with this unscripted, unfiltered personality the Gypsy King has seized a healthy chunk of the British boxing public’s hearts.
The narrative of good vs. bad will be spun when, and if, Joshua and Fury face off; the first big test of the Anthony Joshua effect, and will determine whether the current IBF, WBA, WBO heavyweight champion of the world can continue to sweep up the casual market against a British foe.
If the AJ-train continues on its path for the next five years, he will comfortably become the biggest ticket seller in the history of the heavyweight division. Stadium after stadium, knockout after knockout; the model will continue to be followed as some of the richest in the sport become even richer. As fans, we can only hope that the standard doesn’t slip. Fans buy tickets to see Joshua, regardless of who he is fighting, but for us boxing fans we need to see him tested to his limits in order to gain a true perspective on the heavyweight landscape.
There is no question that the Anthony Joshua effect has been incredible for our sport, however, the Wilders and the Furys of the boxing world need to be next. No excuses.