When Wladimir Klitschko makes his ringwalk at Wembley for the blockbuster heavyweight championship showdown with Anthony Joshua on Saturday, it’ll take a while for it to sink in that the towering gentleman in the robe is actually ‘Dr. Steelhammer’.
It’ll be surreal watching him arrive without a title belt for the first time since 2005. It’ll be surreal seeing him prepare to fight on these shores for the first time since 2000. Most of all, it’ll be surreal seeing a Klitschko about to compete when he’s not in total control of the setting.
‘Control freak’ is seldom used in a complimentary tone but in the realm of sport, such a consuming drive can be the difference between greatness and the chasing pack. And make no mistake about it, Wlad and brother Vitali are control freaks of the highest standing. It’s why they dominated their weight class for over a decade.
On Saturday, Wlad has zero control. Joshua is the defending champion, with a few additional vacant titles also up for grabs. He’s well out of his preferred comfort zone of German arenas and, against someone like AJ, the fight night gameplan that worked for so many years is unlikely to be enough.
We all saw how a similar size and superior footwork was enough for Tyson Fury to make Wlad look 59 in Dusseldorf, not 39. Now 41, Wlad has not only Joshua’s reach and youthful conditioning to consider, but his frightening punch power.
It was fair to assume that Wlad would have retired immediately after being edged off his perch by Fury 18 months ago. But he was ready for his rematch with Tyson – twice – until the true extent of the controversial former champ’s downward spiral scrapped both attempts. And when that failed, he wasted little time pursuing his former sparring partner and the current IBF champ.
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Only Wladimir himself truly knows why his disdain for taking risks evaporated as soon as his stronghold on heavyweight boxing was loosened. Perhaps he knows he has only one shot to return to the top at his age, and is willing to lay it all out on the line. Maybe it’s as cynical as a simple quest for the most profitable, high-profile last hurrah possible. But for the first time in forever, his in-ring exploits carry an aura of genuine unpredictability.
— Anthony Joshua (@anthonyfjoshua) April 27, 2017
Fury’s victory in November 2015 was a big step towards the heavyweight division emerging from its lengthy slumber. On Saturday at Wembley in record-shattering settings, it should well and truly spring back to life.
It’ll do so whether Joshua tears through the old guard or if the cagey veteran humbles the young lion. Because if the latter is to happen, Klitschko will have to betray every enthusiasm-killing trait that made him a dominant champion for a decade and electrify that alien crowd as if he was 25 again.
Win or lose at the weekend, the bad old days of Klitschko monopoly/duopoly are over. It’s now just a case of whether he passes the torch or finishes with one final, fleeting blaze of glory that instantly eclipses his entire previous reign.
In this writer’s opinion, the fight is Joshua’s to lose. If he’s wise, he’ll build on the Fury textbook and use the advantage of youth to force Wlad to chase him, not vice-versa. With a comparable jab to that of his opponent and better movement, Tyson neutralised Klitschko’s notorious defensive fortress and won on the scorecards, regardless of how much of a chore the 12-round fight was to watch.
If Joshua does the same, he’ll keep the Ukrainian behind on the scorecards. Only difference is, he hits a lot harder than Fury. A lot harder. Those shots he does get in on a desperate and out-of-his-element Klitschko will gradually break him down until the opportunity presents itself for AJ to really tee off.
— Klitschko (@Klitschko) April 28, 2017
The popular criticism of Joshua is that he’s a quick KO artist who could be exposed against a top-line opponent when he goes beyond six rounds. And while Klitschko is indeed a class above Dillian Whyte and Dominic Breazeale, Joshua displayed adaptability and patience in both seven-round victories that proves he’s far from one dimensional, even if not fully conclusive for Saturday.
And seven rounds is a common prediction from experts. Plenty of them truly believe Fortress Klitschko will crumble in the seventh at Wembley. But even if this is the end of the Klitschko brothers in boxing, it’s nice to see it going down in such high-profile and anticipated circumstances than if he had retired as champion after another uninspiring routine defence.