Every hope invested in Anthony Joshua was justified in an epic fight, a study in the courage of two boxers that elevated Britain’s world heavyweight champion to the highest tier of world sport. He overcame multiple crises to prevail in a bout that probably came too soon for him but has made his reputation around the globe.
It was bound to be fierce, but nobody expected a contest of such drama, of so many switchbacks. Joshua was hammered to the floor by a straight right from Klitschko in the sixth-round and appeared seconds from defeat. But somehow he recovered his senses, found his ring discipline again and swooped in the 11th, unleashing a brutal uppercut that opened Klitschko to a fight-ending barrage.
There were moments here when Klitschko, 41, seemed to have turned back time. He looked implacable. All his experience and technical expertise were being inflicted on an opponent 14 year his junior. He worked his way into the fight in the middle rounds and caused Joshua constant difficulties. But there was no accounting for what Joshua did to him in the 11th. He was serene before the fight and calm in the phase that brought his victory in one of the most compelling bouts staged in these isles.
“I’m not perfect, but I’m trying. And if you don’t take part, you’re going to fail,” he told the 90,000 crowd. Yes, it was a risk to take this fight and yes, he will need to avoid wars of this sort from now on if he is to enjoy a long reign as champion. For now though he can bask in the acclaim of a British public mesmerised by the legalised violence they witnessed.
Three years ago Joshua opened the show on the Carl Froch-George Groves undercard, and was showered and dressed in time to watch the big fight, along with 80,000 others. This time he was the headline act, with a further 10,000 punters spread around Wembley, courtesy of a special dispensation from Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, who sat in the press area, observing his city’s long love affair with he dark trade.
Joshua had won all his 18 pro fights since October 2013 inside the distance. He won the IBF belt off Charles Martin in April last year and had defended it against Dominic Breazeale and Eric Molina. But Klitschko stepped into this ring a veteran of 28 world title bouts, and was aiming to join Muhammad Ali, Evander Holyfield, Lennox Lewis and his own brother Vitali as three-time world heavyweight champions.
‘Dr Steelhammer’ - a slightly regrettable nickname - won his first world title against Chris Byrd in 2000 when Joshua was 10 years old. He had beaten 10 world champions before this fight. “Obsessed” was the word he used, well, obsessively, since the chance to dethrone Joshua came his way. Klitschko, though, had not fought in the 18 months since Fury baffled him in Dusseldorf with his idiosyncratic brawler’s style.
Unusually for a world title fight, the pair were bound by shared experiences and strong mutual respect. Klitschko claims to have picked out Joshua as his protege: a memory he made much of in the build-up to this Wembley spectacular, as if claiming paternal rights.
Somewhere along the line this may have started to irritate Joshua, who mixes politeness outside the ring with a nasty streak between the ropes. Beating up the friendly elder statesman in the other corner was unlikely to present any moral difficulty to a fighter who displays an impressive capacity to separate normal life from business in the ring.
A hyped London crowd watched a ring walk that qualified for Hollywood movie length, with as many special effects. Here, with Klitschko already prowling the ring in his black robe, Joshua stood on the cusp of a spectacular elevation. “Welcome to the Lion’s den,” he declared on the big screen as Klitschko watched. Cool cat. Big cat. Then the white-robed figure parted the crowd and Joshua stood between two burning letters: AJ, of course, while the crowd sang his name.
This was pitching it high. The impresarios looked pleased. But a potentially colossal sporting contest loomed: the biggest test thus far of Joshua’s undeniable talent. He stood serene, with hands clasped in front of himself, like a preacher, while the hoopla broke the scale. Then he broke Klitschko’s resistance, after almost being broken himself.
“I just want to fight everyone. I’m really enjoying this,” he said in the ring, in a pitch-perfect victory speech. You could hear American pay-per-view cash tills ringing - assuming they can find opponents at his level (Deontay Wilder, the World Boxing Council champion, is one). Closer to home, this fight takes high rank in the history of London sport, of British sport.
It was startling and stirring, if you like this kind of thing. Most of all, it was a demonstration of a young champion accepting a daunting challenge, struggling with it for parts of the contest, and finally triumphing with a brilliant flourish; a study in someone walking through fire to win.