The Benefit of Distance

Champion Anthony Joshua makes his point by slipping his mask.

Yesterday’s heated weigh-in for the WBA/IBF and WBO world heavyweight titles to be contested at the SSE Wembley Arena between champion Anthony Joshua and challenger Kubrat Pulev in London, England tonight is nothing new in boxing. The recent history of paid fistic combat is littered with confrontational situations around the scales to either stoke the fires of an event to draw in the paying public, unsettle an opponent’s equilibrium or merely to exude a fighter’s own self confidence and strength. In some cases it’s all three.

It’s always difficult to read into such a confrontation and get a true perspective on the primary motivation and most importantly what effect this will have on the outcome of the fight. What we know is the hometown champion Anthony Joshua (23-1, 21 KO’s) and his Bulgarian challenger (28-1, 14 KO’s) are primed and ready to fight. We also know that despite the current social distancing restrictions in place that Joshua felt necessary to remove his mask and respond to Pulev’s goading. This escalated, and verbal exchanges continued for some minutes.

What we don’t know is whether come 22:00 hours GMT we’re going to see a fight from the opening bell or something resembling a stand-off for the early rounds, which ignites, or not, further down the stretch.

One very close former professional boxing friend of mine always resisted the temptation to bad mouth an opponent or engage in pre-fight verbal bravado. He explained “Why do you need to do any of that…you have twelve three minute rounds to truly show how you feel about them”. That in essence is why it’s usually a complete waste of time.

Look at any of the vintage weigh-in photos from the pre-heavyweight fights of the 1940’s and 1950’s – Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano et al – the total respect shown between the two fighters pre-fight. Those contests ultimately resulted in some of the greatest fights of all time.

We can guess and read various interpretations on what was said at Wembley yesterday. But, as the Americans fondly say “It’s all gravy”. Tonight both fighters will either put up, or shut up. The weights in a heavyweight contest are usually irrelevant, unless there is a significant differential, which in this case there is not. Both fighters looked trimmed; Joshua (240.8lbs) only four pounds over his last contest in December 2019 and Pulev looking a lean 239.7lbs, his lowest since 2009.

The champion has talked all week about adopting an “uncivilized” boxing mindset tonight. That, in itself is dangerous. Uncivilized and boxing success rarely go hand in hand. The essence of success in this sport is to ‘hit and not get hit’ through a controlled and well executed game plan.

However, that ‘uncivilized’ approach is where AJ’s core strengths lie. True, he was an elite amateur reaching the peak of the sport in the London 2012 Olympics, but Joshua is at his best when he goes at an opponent.

There is a view that the ‘street’ mentality of Joshua has been coached out of him. His early amateur career was typified by his explosiveness, albeit more controlled aggression as he moved up the levels. The Wladimir Klitchko fight in April 2017, the nadir of his professional accomplishment, and one of the greatest heavyweight fights of this century, was a case in point that when he forces the pace his raw strength, power and athleticism will prevail.

It is necessary to be cautious, to a degree, but viewers on the Sky Box Office platform and thousand or so lucky enough to be in the arena will be disappointed if we see another performance of patience and circumspect as witnessed in Saudi Arabia last December.

True; the important thing for the end game (a megafight with Tyson Fury) is getting the ‘W’ – but whatever his stock in the UK, and that is galactic, he now needs to show the world he is the ‘real deal’. A 39 year old Bulgarian top ten opponent, who admittedly is elite and waited three years for the opportunity, is dangerous, but is there to be beaten – convincingly.

Provided the champion combines his aforementioned mindset with some control The Undisputed sees Joshua stopping his brave challenger around the eighth stanza. It will though be interesting for as long as it lasts.

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