Anthony Joshua vs Wladimir Klitschko and the rich history of boxing megafights at football arenas

Anthony Joshua and Wladimir Klitschko during the press conference at Wembley Stadium, London. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Wednesday December 14, 2016. See PA story BOXING Wembley. Photo credit should read: John Walton/PA Wire

On Saturday, Anthony Joshua and Wladimir Klitschko will contest the biggest heavyweight bout in well over a decade. They’ll do so in the most fitting place for such a high-profile fight: a massive football stadium.

The two sports have quite the historic marriage thanks to fight sport’s occasional need to jettison the usual 5000-20000 crowds it can routinely pull in order to seat close to six figures for a truly monumental showdown.

And, ahead of AJ-Wlad’s colossal collision at Wembley, here’s a brief look at some of the boxing bouts at soccer stadia throughout the course of sporting history.

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1939: Len Harvey bt Jock McAvoy (points, 15 rounds)

Joshua vs Klitschko is set to equal the British boxing attendance record after 90,000 tickets were made available. That record has stood for almost 80 years. At the former home of Queens Park Rangers and 1908 Olympic venue White City Stadium, Harvey emerged victorious from a gruelling 15-round decider against the Scotsman with whom he was tied at one win apiece going into the history-making clash

1963 & 1966: Cassius Clay bt Henry Cooper (TKO, round 5 and round 6)

In 1963 at Wembley, 35,000 fans watched Cooper drop Clay – the man who’d go on to become boxing’s and perhaps sport’s greatest ever competitor – with his famed ‘Enry’s ‘Ammer only for a controversial break in the action to allow Cassius time to recover and open up the home hope for the stoppage. Three years later, Clay was Muhammad Ali, a world champion and on a mission to prove his superiority once and for all. He did so over six rounds at Arsenal’s old stomping grounds, Highbury.

1987: Frank Bruno bt Joe Bugner (TKO, round 8)

British favourite Bruno paved the way for a second world title shot when he defeated the Australian veteran at Tottenham’s current (for now) home, White Hart Lane. That second opportunity ended in defeat to then-unstoppable unified world champ Mike Tyson – but Bruno would finally become a world champ when he dethroned Oliver McCall at Wembley in 1995, another huge moment in the stadium’s boxing history.

1993: Lennox Lewis bt Frank Bruno (TKO, round 7)

Bruno’s title win over McCall was in fact his fourth opportunity – between that and the failed tilt at Tyson came an all-British clash with the legendary Lennox Lewis at Cardiff Arms Park. The ground served as an early home for both Cardiff City in their previous life as Riverside Football Club, as well as a fledgling site for home games of the Welsh national team.

1993: Julio Cesar Chavez bt Greg Haugen (TKO, round 5)

Also that year, Mexico’s gigantic Azteca stadium gave us a global boxing attendance record that stands to this day. 132,274 punters paid to watch national hero Chavez deliver a good old-fashioned pasting to the American, who helped ensure both the record crowd and the painful loss in the build-up by claiming Chavez had only ever beaten ‘Tijuana taxi drivers’ before him and that there weren’t 100,000 people in Mexico who could even afford a ticket.

1993: Nigel Benn draw Chris Eubank (12 rounds)

Yes, ’93 truly was a big year for big fights. 47,000 fans clamoured to see the rematch between bitter rivals Benn and Eubank at Manchester United’s Old Trafford in what is regarded as the predecessor to Froch vs Groves 2. Hilariously, Don King had it written into the contract that both the winner and the loser of this bout would join his stable of boxers. The contract didn’t specify what would happen in the event of a draw – and King was thus unable to tie down either man to a long-term deal.

2000: Mike Tyson bt Lou Savarese (round 1)

An over-the-hill Tyson fighting at Hampden Park in Glasgow was surreal enough. When the bell rang, things got even more bizarre. Tyson went for the kill almost immediately and floored Lou with his first serious shot after 15 seconds. Savarese survived that, but it was all over after 38 seconds, leaving the crowd booing. Tyson, who admitted in his book that he was high on cocaine for this fight, then launched into a now-infamous post-fight promo: “Lennox Lewis, I’m coming for you man. My style is impetuous. My defense is impregnable, and I’m just ferocious. I want your heart. I want to eat his children. Praise be to Allah!”

2007: Joe Calzaghe bt Mikkel Kessler (points, 12 rounds)

To unify the super-middleweight division a decade ago, the unbeaten Welshman and Dane put their unblemished records on the line in a truly monumental showdown at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium. Calzaghe won in front of his hometown crowd of over 50,000 and would retire with a perfect 46-0 record a year later.

2008: Ricky Hatton bt Juan Lazcano (points, 12 rounds)

Hatton for many years was Calzaghe’s unbeaten British peer. When he dropped his first bout in a huge clash with Floyd Mayweather, he rebounded in some style – in front of 55,000 passionate and partisan fans at Manchester City’s Etihad Stadium. The victory was far from a vintage ‘Hitman’ performance. In fact, it was clear that his maiden loss had stripped Hatton’s unstoppable ‘aura’. Nonetheless, the setting and the attendance record make it a big moment in British boxing history.

2011: Wladimir Klitschko bt David Haye (points, 12 rounds)

Wlad has plenty of stadium experience as a fighter. And his far-too-comfortable win over Haye in 2011 at Hamburg’s Bundesliga home the Imtech Arena saw him unify all but one of the heavyweight titles – the WBC strap at the time belonging to his brother Vitali. Haye famously endured years of stick for blaming his disappointing performance on a broken toe. The stigma may well have led to him attempting to battle on this year against Tony Bellew on just one leg.

2012: David Haye bt Dereck Chisora (KO, round 5)

Even Haye’s world title win in 2009 falls behind his big grudge bout with ‘Del Boy’ Chisora on the list of his greatest nights in the ring. As unsavoury and controversial as the two Brits’ brawl in Germany was, West Ham’s old Boleyn Ground was packed for their five-round dust-up. The Hammers’ longtime stadium had also hosted Irons fan Kevin Mitchell’s heartbreaking defeat to Michael Katsidis in 2010.

2014: Carl Froch bt George Groves (KO, round 8)

The fight everybody compares Wlad-AJ to, having drawn 80,000 to Wembley three years ago. The bad blood and controversy from Groves’ initial unsuccessful challenge of double world champ Froch turned into a licence to print money and Carl’s picture-perfect finish of the Londoner was good enough to convince the ‘Cobra’ that he would never experience a bigger high than this fight, and he retired months later.

2015: Tyson Fury bt Wladimir Klitschko points, 12 rounds)

Fury’s somewhat-surprising world title triumph at Fortuna Dusseldorf’s ESPRIT Arena may not have been a great fight to watch – and his subsequent ‘reign’ was filled with controversy and disappointment – but his tactical masterclass made the decade-dominant Klitschko look a decade older than he was at the time, and burst a dull duopoly of a division wide open after so long.

It also indirectly led to April 29, 2017 – where Klitschko finds himself in the role of challenger for the first time in forever against another Englishman looking to put him to pasture once and for all.
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