The first thing you notice is that the size difference is fairly breathtaking. That, by the way, is just the two combatants as compared to the mere mortals surrounding them, who, it is impossible to ignore or discount, are in particularly conspicuous supply for this, the biggest Heavyweight boxing match in recent memory. But the size disparity is striking. These are two behemoths – 6’6” tall and 250 pounds apiece – not Joe Frazier heavyweights or Mike Tyson heavyweights. The calling card of those two long-ago all-time greats was savage ferocity. For Anthony Joshua, current alphabet titlist and the sport’s latest anointed savior, and Wladimir Klitschko, the long-time division kingpin turned 41-year-old comeback kid, it is sheer size, or at least that is the primary draw among many. Certainly, the world of sports has shown us transcendent athletes of this stature and even above before, most often in the sphere of basketball – where it is fairly commonplace, however varying the weights and different the skillset – but also occasionally on the gridiron, where open warfare is tacitly encouraged, whatever the morality involved. Pro wrestling routinely matches man against mammoth (or one monster against another) in a pointed and transparent nod to its ancient carnival/country fair roots, a heritage that boxing – perhaps the only entertainment enterprise on Earth comparably shameless, or, at its zenith, more sensational – shares wholeheartedly. You could tell from the raucous atmosphere, from the stakes, stories, and, above all, from the two perfectly matched physical specimens in the ring, that something special was brewing.
To call ascendant British Olympic hero Anthony Joshua’s dramatic 11th round TKO victory over Ukranian monolith Wladimir Klitschko the biggest Heavyweight fight since Lennox Lewis knocked out Mike Tyson fifteen years ago would be to sell it considerably – and, given the substance of my lede paragraph, ironically – short, and I know my readers have come to expect only the best in hyperbole from DAE. In terms of stakes, the same three alphabet titles were on the line in 2002, but also the impossibly intriguing notion of who the better man was – if not in the eyes of impartial observers who, you know, had eyes, then at least in the gnawing subconscious of those who bought hard into the myth of Tyson’s invincibility years before it was conclusively, and repeatedly, refuted. While Tyson spent a few more years staggering between paydays, Lewis’ foregone coronation via violent 8th round KO paved the way for his own shocking retirement the following year, at the literal hands of Klitschko’s older brother Vitali, and it is the life-and-death struggle of Lewis-Klitschko that makes a more apt template for or lens through which to regard the high drama of Joshua-Klitschko. It’s worth noting that 2003 fight marked not just the end of Lewis’ career but, in consensus opinion, sounded the death knell of the Heavyweight division as the engine that drove boxing. In subsequent years, mostly anonymous American challengers (and Evander Holyfield) would swing at figurative air while an influx of Eastern European technicians efficiently choked the life out of the division, chief among them the towering, domineering younger Klitschko, a stoic clinician who, beginning in 2005, would hold a piece or more of the Heavyweight title for a solid decade.*
*Making Klitschko’s, whatever you might think of him aesthetically, the second longest Heavyweight title reign in boxing history, behind only Joe Louis’ twelve-year rampage through the late ‘30s and 1940s.
London’s Wembley Stadium is arguably the most famous sports arena outside America. HBO’s aerial coverage made the venue, lit up with atomic wattage to add dynamic contrast to a dazzlingly clear April evening, look like a flying saucer, or, with its trademark extraneous arch, the sort of ringed planet such a spaceship might visit, or orbit. Within, the proceedings took on a similar outsized, outlandish feel, as some 90,000 adoring spectators thrilled to the arrival of hometown hero Joshua atop a hydraulic lift, enveloped in fireworks and flanked on either side by giant, flaming block letters, an ‘A’ and ‘J’ respectively. (Boxing’s Wrestlemania-adjacent DNA is far more tolerated overseas.) Beyond the combatants’ otherworldly size, the second unshakeable detail – the more surprising, the more telling – is that Joshua appeared the clearly bigger man, which was itself an anomaly. If Wladimir Klitschko – who, while no marvel, was still a deadly serious and fundamentally sound in-ring technician – had a blueprint to his decade of dominance, it was to terrorize and often bully opponents who tipped normal scales but were appreciably undersized compared to him, cowing them at the end of a nigh impenetrable left jab with a deadly right poised behind it to strike at particularly vulnerable moments, effectively chopping them down like Paul Bunyan did so many redwoods. This trajectory came to a screeching halt in 2015 against heavy-handed, motor-mouthed, inveterate British fame whore Tyson Fury, a lazily-drawn cartoon villain whose sheer size and oozing moxy stymied the champion into a sort of hapless inertia. Critics were so taken aback by Klitschko’s raging ineptitude that Father Time made a prominent, inevitable cameo in their match post-mortems, and in a sport where you’re often only as good as your last fight, a significant portion of the intelligentsia, who had never had excess use for Wlad to begin with, summarily washed their hands of him.
Still, young champions need mountains to conquer, and Klitschko’s lost past seventeen months – during which Fury vacated his freshly-won belts in a drug scandal – somehow left his mystique largely intact. He remains every bit the Everest of his era, like Lewis or Tyson before him, or Larry Holmes and Ali before them. During the intervening period, the imposing, youthful (for a heavyweight, at 27) Joshua muscled his way into the vacant spotlight, developing such a buzz in boxing-mad Britain – equal parts meritorious and nativist – that it was even audible Stateside, scavenging alphabet titles as he decimated meager competition and, despite his hardware, assuming the designation of “next big thing” largely on the basis of a superlative amateur career, tantalizing pro potential, and the fact that the position was open to begin with. Into the breach to reclaim his place stepped the bowed but as yet unbroken Klitschko, who, it must be said, wears the mantle of challenger surprisingly well. In the build up to the fight, the supporting stories basically wrote themselves, with the young lion Joshua poised to legitimately end an era and finally capture the throne that many observers already thought was his by right, while his opponent, and elder by fourteen years, wriggling free of an ignominious recent past and newly, fearsomely dedicated, found himself, as both challenger and underdog, the subject of much conjecture and speculation, not to mention in certain circles a sentimental favorite for the first time ever in his astonishing career.
Any ringsiders girding themselves for the immediate arrival of a classic fight were either caught up in the moment or engaged in some serious wishful thinking. Instead, the early going was of an overly cautious disposition, with Joshua (19-0, 19 KOs) tentative, heavy of foot instead of hand, and Klitschko (64-5, 53 KOs) almost obsessively deploying his trademark rangefinder jab without heavy artillery to back it up, albeit with a bouncier step and much more lateral movement than was his historical wont. The challenger presented at a chiseled 240 pounds, or approximately twenty fewer than his normal fighting weight, while Joshua, though in shape himself, looked, at 250 pounds, every bit the role of destroyer he’d been assigned. Or, as HBO’s Jim Lampley suggested and Roy Jones affirmed, Joshua came into the fight built for the knockout, whereas Klitschko, the grand KO artist, was built to box. Though generally uninspiring, Joshua connected with enough regularity to carry all or most of the fight’s first act before the worm finally turned in round five. A piston Joshua right lashed out at Klitschko, caught him flush, and sent him stumbling to the floor. The inexperienced champion, whether euphoric at the legend of his opponent’s suspect chin apparently coming true or simply overwhelmed by the enormity of the moment, hoisted his arms skyward in victorious exaltation, only to witness Klitschko regain first his feet and then, with equal improbability, his fighting spirit. The remaining fifth was a stirring existential struggle, and an early candidate for round of the year, with a sense of steadily accumulating momentum the surging Klitschko carried forward into the sixth, there punctuating his revival with a searing right cross that sent the suddenly exhausted Joshua to the canvas for the first time in his professional career.
As Joshua had owned the fight’s first third, so Klitschko dominated its second. The scorecard difference, once a chasm, steadily shrank to the point that its outright reversal felt a simple matter of time. The teeming Wembley throng, overstimulated in multiple directions, roared like a low-flying jet with Joshua’s every forward step but seemed collectively incapable of breath, let alone sound, whenever he relented or was tagged. Klitschko suffered a gruesome cut above his left eye while weathering the fifth; Joshua cannily engineered a brief but crucial reprieve during the sixth round deluge by spitting out his mouthpiece and forcing referee David Fields to retrieve it. Joshua worked admirably, and, it should be emphasized, professionally, to regain first his composure and then his taste for battle, but could not quite seem to seize back the initiative from an opponent who, however storied and decorated his time wearing the crown had once been, was now doing arguably the best work of his fistic life as a hungry old man. In no other sport than boxing are the tides of battle so fickle, however; bodies in motion openly mock Newtonian law, are short-circuited in a heart-stopping instant, and laid low the very next. Joshua began his comeback in earnest during a rugged round ten, but waylaid Klitschko a frame later with one of the most scintillating, baldly violent uppercuts I’ve ever seen. At once, the Ukranian’s redemption story was dashed upon the rocks. Klitschko rose from the first knockdown only to fall again, then gained uncertain feet once more to doggedly face his destiny. Joshua’s flurries gained in conviction – part primal bloodthirst, part blessed relief – with each punch thrown, and the crowd neared crescendo as critical mass. When Fields finally stopped the onslaught with less than minute remaining in the eleventh, Wembley exploded in a riot of joy, leaving the two combatants as seen from above, surrounded by a flood of supplicants and well-wishers – again so much larger physically than normal men – nevertheless diminished for a moment, and then strangely, subtly, but tangibly, changed, in the wake of the epic journey they’d shared, and the sweet, exquisitely cruel task they’d undertaken together.
The magnitude of an event isn’t always evident before it happens. Scribes and promoters pleaded with us for as many weeks as existed that this fight had all the ingredients – the stories, the stage, the stakes – to be truly special, but we, as fans, have of course been burned before. Almost every noteworthy Heavyweight title fight this century has featured the surname Klitschko on one side of the ledger or other. Fans grew increasingly weary with a division many felt was being held hostage. Wladimir was distant and untouchable for so long that we took him for granted, and thus looked for championship competition elsewhere. That seems much more than seventeen months ago, now that things have appreciably changed. In London Saturday, an exultant, perhaps understandably oblivious Joshua led the crestfallen Klitschko around the four corners of the ring, ostensibly to bask/share in the crowd’s adulation, like a kid dragging a puppy through the mud, or an elder brother with his sibling in a headlock. Klitshcko, always a gentleman before and after the bell, endured it to the best of his ability but finally wrenched away, his normally granite demeanor for a change soaked through with emotion. He’d trained far too had to stomach any part of this moment. It’s fascinating to consider, with a dominant, historic, first-ballot Hall of Fame career behind him, that this chapter, a close, mortally dispiriting loss, and whatever comes next may end up telling the true tale of Wladimir Klitschko the fighter. No matter what we thought we knew, he had more to show us. If, as is his prerogative, this should be our final glimpse of him in the ring, it would still be one worthy of respect and reevaluation. Hell, it was worthy of a movie.