The mutual respect is genuine, but after a while you wonder whether the good manners favour Wladimir Klitschko more than Anthony Joshua.
Adoration is wrapping Joshua in a warm embrace. “My god, he’s beautiful” a Sky television staffer said as all work at the broadcaster’s Isleworth HQ seemed to cease for the final press conference ahead of Saturday’s Wembley showdown.
Inside the quasi airport terminal of ‘Sky Central,’ people lined the railings two floors up and packed the foyer, capturing Joshua’s arrival in thousands of iPhone snaps and videos. Britain’s world heavyweight champion took a bow at the top of the stairs and completed the pre-fight version of a ring walk to the dais where Michael Buffer was introducing him.
Two “intelligent, respectful, elite athletes” is how Sky’s head of boxing, Adam Smith, framed the biggest fight in Britain since the war, certainly if attendance (90,000) and money (an expected £40m turnover) are the criteria. He called Klitschko “wonderfully personable”, which he is, unless you happen to be sharing a ring with him.
This world heavyweight title fight is attempting to square the circle of politeness and ferocious violence. It seeks an unusual brew of shared admiration and attempted destruction. When the first bell goes, you can forget the after-you-Claude stuff.
Joshua is on the cusp of becoming a global star, with room for expansion in America and Asia, just for starters. Klitschko is trying to redeem his career after losing to another British heavyweight, Tyson Fury, who lacks Joshua’s grasp of protocol.
From those two propositions, only one storyline can survive the Saturday night fever. And however much Joshua was praised for his dignity and decency, compliments and sympathy would not protect him from the charge that he took this fight too early in his career.
"The respect will go out the window," Joshua said at Wednesday night’s public workout. "It's a fight, right?”
Correct. Against Dillian Whyte and Charles Martin in recent fights, Joshua has displayed the mean streak possessed by all great champions. In those bouts - the Martin victory brought him his heavyweight championship belt - the 27-year-old Joshua offered Klitschko no evidence of an excessively gentle nature.
Yet the steeliness in ‘Dr Steelhammer' during this build-up is plainly designed to tell Joshua he has wandered out of his depth, 19 fights into his professional career. The younger Klitschko, now 41, is a veteran of 68 contests and is using age and experience to gnaw away at Joshua’s confidence. As hundreds of Sky staff listened rapt, Klitschko pointed to Joshua and said: “His age is exactly how long I have been in boxing - 27 years.” It was not self-deprecation; more, an attempt to assert his seniority, and so his primacy in the fight.
“I see myself in AJ” he went on. This was very much master and apprentice stuff. Joshua, with his immense forearms and tightened gaze, has never been in this position of being borderline patronised (and therefore intimidated) by an opponent with such a long record of dealing with challenges in the heavyweight division. Until the Fury fight, that is, where Klitschko became a passive, confused fighter in the face of his opponent’s giant-octopus like persistence.
Eddie Hearn, the promoter, cannot rack up pay-per-view sales on mutual hatred. But he knows how to spot a promo line. “Is it too early,” he said, indicating Joshua. “Is it too late,” he asked, turning to Klitschko. This really is the essence of the contest, which will be remembered not for how nice everyone was but which was the better, stronger, cleverer fighter.
“Father time’s a terrible person when he shows up - and I think he’s shown up for Klitschko,” said Robert McCracken, Joshua’s trainer. This was about the edgiest comment all day, except when Klitschko announced he he will sew a memory stick containing his pre-fight prediction into the robe he will wear at Wembley. “I’m in love with my goal,” he said. “In extreme form it’s called obsession.”
The politeness does, it must be said, provide a welcome break from stunts. As Klitschko said, this is a huge British sporting event that has taken shape “without any f-words, punching in the face or people throwing tables or glasses.”
So the fight must sell itself, mostly as a test of Joshua’s huge potential, his capacity, next, to raid the American pay-per-view market, where Lennox Lewis took so long to prevail. “I’m a young lion, hungry, ferocious,” he said, after embracing the role of warrior for the non-privileged, for all those chasing dreams.
In this, Joshua is entirely convincing. He is articulate and engaging. The growing commercialisation of his name and talent appears not to have altered that strong sense of self, his urge to stay close to his origins.
People can see that. Sky’s besotted staff certainly could. They were not forced into the role of press conference extras. They simply abandoned their desks to feel Joshua’s aura and energy fill their workplace. A Ukrainian reporter wondered how both men would deal with defeat.
“I’ve been there, done that,” Klitschko said, and turned to Joshua, as if to tell him it was his turn now. “There’s nothing scary about it,” he told his opponent, like a counsellor.
Sky’s employees were giddy. “Guys, guys,” an office manager called, “could you please get off the chairs.”