For Anthony Joshua it hasn’t been a long road. Walking into the gym for the first time at 18 years old, it would have been tough to imagine that just 10 years later he would be staring across the canvas at the most dominant HW of his era. And yet, two ABA titles, one world championships silver medal, one olympic gold medal, a pro British title and a paper world title later, that is exactly where he will find himself come April 29th.
On paper this fight is Joshua’s to lose. He is the un-anointed king of the division and the world has just been waiting for him to take his rightful place at the top. His devastating run through the division thus far has seen him KO everyone of his opponents in 7 rounds or less. Wladimir Klitschko, as great as he has been, is old. He’s coming off a loss to Tyson Fury, and then there is the small matter of the 18 month lay off from then until now. His performance before Fury was lacklustre in a laboured outing vs the limited Bryant Jennings.
This is surely the night when ‘AJ’ announces himself to the world and all the lofty predictions begin to bear fruit.
Dig a little deeper however and things aren’t quite so simple. Joshua, for all his KO’s, has yet to face anyone in the top 10 of the division, let alone close to the quality of Wlad. Klitschko’s loss to Fury, though closer than some seem to remember, was comprehensive. However the 6’9″ Tyson Fury represented a significantly different challenge to Joshua. His constant switching of angles, feinting and head movement meant Wlad was never able to get set. He couldn’t balance himself to throw the shots that have scored him 53 kos in his career. He could never established his jab. Joshua is far more static. In some ways more similar to the HW’s Wlad feasted on during his decade long reign. If his early fights are anything to go by, Joshua isnt going to be dancing his way around Klitschko like Tyson did.
This leaves Joshua with two options; a tactical chess match where both are trying to establish their jab, set traps and out think each other, or he needs to get on the front foot and press the older fighter to see if the old bones give.
His bout vs Breazeale, probably his best opponent to date, showed a patient fighter looking to bait, feint and put on a more controlled, systematic beatdown. His use of the jab was particularly impressive, even if Breazeale’s technical shortcomings were there for all to see. Rather than a hurtful battering ram that many HW’s favour, Joshua used his to manoeuvre his opponent and anticipate his reactions. He was frequently able to freeze the American behind his high guard using the lead hand, following up with sneaky uppercuts and overhand rights around Breazeale’s defence.
His counterpunching game also showed significant development, even if he was at times slow on the trigger and a little predictable with the counters he was throwing. His left hook especially caused Breazeale a lot of problems when he was trying to set up the jab.
His pull counter however, could do with some fine tuning. The foundation is there, its just a little slow and a little predictable. If Breazeale is able to see it coming, then anyone can. Against Dillian Whyte and Charles Martin also, Joshua was able to bait with the jab to great effect, drawing counters, or anticipating their defensive posture.
Safe to say Joshua is a decent boxer. He has a good sense of distance, he is learning new tricks every fight and adding to his ring IQ all the time. The problem is that in Wladimir Klitschko, AJ is facing the master. The last fighter who tried to box Wlad from a more static position was Kubrat Pulev. This also happened to be the last time that Wlad really looked like a great fighter, dropping his Bulgarian opponent several times en route to a brutal stoppage win.
Wlad excels when he is able to establish his rhythm. The quicker and easier he finds his rhythm, the more trouble you are in. Tyson Fury was able to keep shifting and turning and feinting for 12 rounds, always dictating the fight to Wlad and making him react to his movement rather than the other way around. For Joshua, if he is too cautious and elects to box at a slower pace, he could be playing right into the old veterans hands. He doesn’t have the fluidity of movement, or most likely the stamina, of the big Gypsy King. Nor does he yet have the ring IQ and the boxing experience to get into a thinking mans fight with Wlad. He instead needs to take Wlad out of his comfort zone through other methods.
Klitschko has fought aggressive fighters before. Due to the size and reach advantage he has enjoyed over most of his opponents, it has often been seen as the best way to get at the champion. Unfortunately for many of them, once they had navigated past his hypnotic lead hand, evaded his thudding right and ducked under his thunderous left hook, they were faced with perhaps his most infamous and brutally efficient weapon. The Clinch.
Wladimir is petrified of fighting on the inside. Even the midrange is off limits for the most part. His scientific analysis of his style has led him to conclude that it’s his opponents best chance at victory. To combat this the great Emmanuel Steward taught Klitschko to never fight in there. Under any circumstances. Not only that, but using his great height and bulk, he has even turned the clinch into an offensive weapon, leaning and crushing his shorter opponent until they are exhausted and broken men.
Joshua, however, isnt a smaller man. In fact, the only top level aggressive fighter Wlad has fought who can match him for size is Samuel Peter, who managed to drop a pre prime Klitschko three times in a unanimous decision loss in 2005. For Joshua, taking the fight to Wlad, getting inside his jab, and, crucially, being big enough and strong enough to push himself free from the inevitable clinches, could be his best tactic.
Something AJ does very well when he wants to is to get his lead forearm or both his arms in between him and his opponent and stop them from grabbing hold, and allowing him to keep working when they want him to stop.
He’ll need to be extremely forceful in this fight in not accepting the clinch. Not only can he break free and fight at a range Wladimir is uncomfortable in, he can also show the referee clearly who is doing the holding and who wants to fight, potentially earning Klitschko points deductions as punishment, and making the clinch a far less appealing tactic to the Ukrainian.
AJ has been aggressive throughout his career, with mixed results. Against Dillian Whyte he let his emotions get the better of him, and showed some telling defensive flaws, and was just a few crisp punches from maybe being in serious trouble. Luckily for big Josh, Dillian’s legs betrayed him when it mattered and he couldn’t find a any real crisp punches to follow up.
Other than being an excellent move from Whyte, catching AJ’s punch and returning with beautifully timed counter, it also highlights some big flaws in Joshua’s game. His head moved in a straight line towards his opponent, never changing position and making it easy for Whyte to time. His gloves also didn’t return to their proper place after punching, his right dropping way down to his chest when he tried to throw the left.
Later in the fight however Joshua was able to anticipate, roll under or defend against Whyte’s hook counter.
It was a hard lesson in the dangers of being too gung-ho, but it was one that he learned quickly, and one that he must remember when he is fighting Wladimir, who has an excellent left hook counter of his own. It is essential that he remembers it, because he might not get a chance to adapt this time around.
Wlad is obviously in another stratosphere in every aspect of boxing compared to these fighters Joshua is facing in the clips above. But the foundation is there. The raws materials needed for a style that could give Klitschko hell. Whether he can put it all together on fight night is anyones guess. He is perhaps the least battle tested fighter ever to be involved in a legitimate super fight, and as such we can only base our predictions on the eye test vs fighters who frankly are not fit to lace Wlad’s gloves. It is only in the last few fights that Joshua has really started to look like a real top level boxer, and not just a great athlete learning to box. His performance vs Molina showed a patient and confident fighter. Aggressive, composed and deadly when it mattered. Molina, obviously, isn’t Wlad.
It cant be discounted also that there are many rumours of sparring mishaps vs the likes of domestic level David Price, Olympian Cruiserweight Lawrence Okolie and recent pro debutant Daniel Dubois, that perhaps sow the seeds of doubt about AJ’s durability in the line of fire. Whether you believe all of these stories or not, his amateur career also saw him dropped by Dillian Whyte, stopped by Mihai Nistor and wobbled on other occasions. Its fair to say his chin doesn’t appear to made of steel, even if it might not be the disaster that some seem to expect. On Saturday night he is going to be fighting possibly the hardest puncher who ever lived. At Wlad’s age it is questionable whether he has the timing to deliver that power, but the punches are still going to carry force that AJ has never felt. If he is too predictable with his combinations. Too slow bringing his hands up. Too eager in chasing openings. There is a very real chance we see him flat on his back, and 90,000 fans silenced.
It would be a shame if they were. Klitschko is surely not far from retirement and a Wlad win would put a huge dent in the future of a division that had been desperately lacking spark until Tyson Fury’s brilliant underdog victory in Germany. That spark was extinguished almost as quickly as it appeared, with a Joshua win, maybe we can see the division burning bright once again.