One of the biggest stars in world boxing returns to action this weekend. In front of 1,000 fans inside London’s Wembley Arena, Anthony Joshua (23-1, 21 KO) takes on his IBF mandatory challenger Kubrat Pulev (28-1, 14 KO) for three pieces of the heavyweight puzzle.
Pulev could be the final hurdle Joshua has to jump before the pending 2021 mega-fight with WBC and LINNNEAALLLLLLL!!!! (did I nail it, Scott?) champion Tyson Fury. But Joshua has been on the brink of such a contest before – Andy Ruiz Jr’s “Fairytale of New York” in June 2019 scuppered any plans of Joshua–Wilder following later that year.
It’s not exactly shit or bust for “AJ” this weekend, but a win over the talented Bulgarian will see us edge closer than ever to an undisputed fight in the heavyweight division. Shhhh… just don’t tell Oleksandr Usyk.
So, what is there to consider on Saturday night as Matchroom Boxing end their 2020 UK slate with a bang.
Inside or outside, short or long?
After tearing his way through a smattering of the heavyweight division using his size, strength, power-punches and balls, Joshua re-invented the wheel in Saudi Arabia last December in order to combat the fast hands and guile of Andy Ruiz Jr.
It was a mature performance from Joshua under the strict instruction of his trusted, experienced coach Rob McCracken, but one that divided opinion on aesthetics rather than results.
Joshua has prided himself on his seek-and-destroy mentality since turning over from the Olympics in 2013 and has utilized his frame and power to walk through all of his opponents barring Joseph Parker and Andy Ruiz Jr.
How to Watch Joshua vs Pulev
Once again, Joshua will have the size and reach advantage over the stocky, strong Pulev on Saturday night and it will be interesting to see what tactics are deployed in negating this latest heavyweight challenge.
Despite usually showing signs of patience behind the jab, you can imagine Pulev will want to force this fight on the inside and avoid being pinned back by the champion. But will Joshua oblige? Joshua understands the importance of his perception as a knockout artist in the heavyweight division and it won’t take much persuasion to light the fire for a tear-up.
It could be a risky tactic, but one that Joshua and his team are prepared to roll the dice on. Whether Pulev holds the power to capitalist on a fire-fight is another thing to ponder…
How will Pulev’s power compare?
Since taking his solitary L to Wladimir Klitschko in 2014, Pulev has stopped three of the eight opponents he has beaten since. Granite chins in the form of Kevin Johnson and Dereck Chisora have taken him the distance, but with only a 50% knockout rate over his 28 wins, Joshua may fancy his chances if the pair decide to slug it out.
Pulev tends to be patient in his attacks and sets his opponent up behind a solid jab and impressive footwork – working to the body of Joshua might be the best tactic early in the fight if he is unable to close the distance or win the battle of the jabs.
Crisp combinations and movement in and out of range are going to give the Bulgarian the best chance of stamping any authority on this fight, but one-punch power and a shock stoppage? I’m not so sure.
Has Joshua buried his demons?
There is no doubt that Joshua’s defeat to Andy Ruiz Jr in 2019 rocked him, shocked him and damaged his confidence. Joshua was the main cog in a huge wheel that rolled seamlessly to the top of the division, without any real bumps along the road. He was constantly told he was the best, and the gold hanging around his body affirmed this notion. Is there a part of him that thinks this was all smoke and mirrors?
Joshua got beat up inside Madison Square Garden, against a guy that defined the term no-hoper. Now, any opponent is more of a threat than they were before that night in June, with “AJ” still to take a punch that could give him flashbacks to that infamous evening.
If he’s clipped by Pulev on the temple, how will he react? Not physically, but psychologically. There may be a reluctance to ignite that fighters instinct that saw him unable to continue in New York – a change in psyche that could either help or hinder him the next time he is forced to go to the well.
It would do Joshua a world of good to be able to come through some sort of adversity in this fight. Just to prove he has added the required string to his bow.
Fan-friendly for Joshua?
Fans will be allowed to attend a fight for the first time since March in the United Kingdom and Joshua will enjoy the comfort of 1,000 voices inside the Wembley Arena screaming – or politely shouting – his name.
There is no question that the lack of fans inside these “Bubble” fights have added a layer of intrigue to the contests. Fights have become similar to that of a sparring session and heavy favourites have quickly seen their stock diminish due to the unusual circumstances of fighting in an empty room.
Joshua is a fighter that thrives off the roar of a home crowd, regularly selling out Wembley and Principality stadiums in front of 70,000+ fans. Last December saw him adapt and thrive in front of a tempered audience in Saudi Arabia, but Saturday night’s peculiar atmosphere will again be a test of his character.
Joshua is one of the best finishers in the division – ignoring round 3 in New York for the sake of this segment – and may lose that desire, spite and impetus to run through Pulev if the opportunity presents itself.
Will a more measured, less adrenaline-fueled Joshua be able to harness his killer instinct?
Will Tyson Fury crash the ring?
Eddie Hearn has been rather coy this week in relation to Tyson Fury’s attendance on Saturday night. It’s turned into a bit of a “will he, won’t he” saga, with the Matchroom Boxing promoter using this possibility to squeeze more pay-per-view buyers out of the card.
I can’t blame him. I’m a sucker for the allure of a potential stare down following a contest and I’m sure I am not alone in craving a public head-to-head of Joshua and Fury at the final bell on Saturday. This risk is a notion of tempting fate and Joshua, Matchroom Boxing and Sky Sports taking Pulev too lightly.
How would #BrandJoshua look if he was sprawled out on the canvas and the cameras were able to pan towards the reaction of the “Gypsy King”? It’s a fine balance that is required in the promotion. Would Queensberry and Top Rank be happy in Fury essentially helping sell a rival show?
There’s a lot of politics involved in what on the face of it seems a pretty obvious idea. It’s not worth speculating too much or overthinking the consequences, but there is a chance we could see Fury and Joshua size each other up at long, long last.