To hear Anthony Joshua’s promoter tell it, he’s the Tiger Woods of boxing.
“All sports need flag-bearers,” Barry Hearn told the BBC. “Joshua is the finest role model I have seen in sport.”
Well, okay. Sure. This comes after Joshua’s thrilling defeat of Wladimir Klitschko at Wembley Stadium, in front of 90,000 of his fellow Britons. After a brutal knockdown in Round Six (the first of his career), Joshua rallied and put Klitschko on the canvas. When the fight was called for Joshua, two minutes into the Eleventh, the judges’ scores were neck and neck. If the fight had gone the distance, either man could have conceivably won by decision.
Instead, we’re calling it the end of the Klitschko era, that decade-and-change where Wladimir and his brother Vitali were both at the top of the Heavyweight heap following Lennox Lewis’ retirement in 2004. Calling it the end of the era, however, ignores two facts: One, that technically the Klitschko era ended with Wladimir’s controversial loss to Tyson Fury in 2015 (or perhaps even ended with Vitali’s retirement in 2013); two, Wladimir put on a hell of a fight Saturday night, has made no indications that he is ready to retire, and indeed seems open to a rematch.
But it sure feels like the end of the Klitschko era, doesn’t it? His loss to Fury in 2015 came by decision in a so-so fight, and the scheduled rematch fell apart due to Fury’s struggles with addiction and depression. Saturday’s fight had the fireworks befitting the fall of an old king and the rise of a young king. I would wager that the Joshua era began with his pulling himself up after that hard right in Round Six, a punch that ought to have stopped the fight, but miraculously didn’t.
And I think we all keep saying that it’s the end of the Klitschko era because we want it to be. It’s no secret that the popularity of boxing in America has tumbled in the last twenty years, and a large part of that has been due to the lack of a charismatic Heavyweight champion since Lewis’ retirement. The Klitschko brothers are Russian, so neither English nor Spanish was their primary language, which put them at arm’s length from the Western Hemisphere of the boxing world. And other than a couple of matches at Madison Square Garden, Wladimir has remained headquartered in Germany, which gives him even less of a hook with the American public. If the Klitschko era spans 2004-2017, you might just as legitimately call those years the Mayweather era or the Pacquiao era, when the relative lack of excitement in the Heavyweight division left fans to make superstars from the new generation of welterweights and middleweights who followed in the wake of Oscar De La Hoya and Julio Cesar Chavez. Today, it’s middleweight Canelo Alvarez who carries the mantle of Boxer-as-Personality that was once the exclusive province of heavyweights like Lennox Lewis or George Foreman. Klitschko is one of the all-time greats, but in this atmosphere, boxing fans could be forgiven for wanting some new blood.
Showtime, in particular, has been grooming Deontay Wilder to be that charismatic American champ for a post-Klitschko world. And indeed, he was ringside on Saturday, inexplicably tweeting “Everything is going as planned,” as if he were Blofeld to Joshua’s 007. Tyson Fury got in on the twitter noise and trash talk as well, telling Sky Sports that he could beat Joshua with one hand tied behind his (morbidly obese) back. And of course, there’s still Klitschko, diminished but by no means defeated. Quoth Peggy Lee, is that all there is?
If this is the Anthony Joshua Era, he is ruling over a pretty paltry kingdom at the moment. And if he is the Tiger Woods of boxing, in that his excellence inspires a new generation of athletes, I just wonder if boxing can wait that long.