Sports fans will come to really appreciate Wladimir Klitschko. Cultural critics might come to appreciate him on several levels. A big, hard punching, but flawed fighter who spent the first half of his pro career being averse to conflict, he hired Emanuel Stewart one of the greatest trainers in the history of the sport to remake his career. He spent over a decade reschooling himself as a fighter and became a smart, clinical technician with tremendous power. As a star athlete, he dedicated himself to being a conscious figure, making several commercials about anti-racism in soccer, and speaking up about sexism and homophobia last year.
For those who might not be up on the cultural dynamics of boxing, I’ll phrase it a different way. In a sport where a fighter like Paulie Malignaggi can use racial appeals to parlay his unwatchable skill set into several million dollar paydays, Klitschko chose to be the un-white hope, making decisions that cost him hundreds of millions of dollars and doing them on principle. He made statements that went against the beliefs of a fight public thirsty to support any white fighter. Instead of a white boxing team, he went and got arguably the most iconic African American trainer in boxing history. More than that, he listened and learned from him. In a century where the alt-right has made Nazism painfully real and to the forefront, Klitschko stuck his neck out as the uber-race traitor, a doctor, cultural pluralist, and man of reason and ethics.
And from the middle of the fifth round of his fight with Anthony Joshua, when he summoned the will he didn’t have as a young fighter to comeback and dominate the middle part of the fight, Klitschko reminded all but the most jaded fans that he is a great fighter and was once a truly great heavyweight champion. For 4 and a half rounds, Joshua looked like a well-schooled young titan. Instead of trying to knock him out early, Joshua used his hand speed and a solid jab to pick apart the old former champion, waiting for him to-once hit hard-revert back to the form that got him knocked out by such plodders as Ross Purity and Lamon Brewster.
And in the 5th it looked like he had Klitschko, and done so with a series of lefts that caused the former champion to buckle to the ground and caused Joshua to try and finish the old man in a frenzy. What Joshua got, however, was one of the greatest last stands in the history of the sport, as Klitschko took all the fortitude that Steward schooled and built in him to almost have Joshua out in the end of the round, then have him down and almost out in the 6th, then beat him from pillar to living post in the 7th.
The theater of it all was tremendous: The old man-at the brink and end of his career-summoning his old self for a few rounds, then-when starting to tire-relying on his wits to outthink a great, yet green young fighter. I must admit I was fixated on Klitschko’s lateral movement, jab, and ring generalship in rounds 8, 9 and 10, that I didn’t fully see Joshua recovering. It seemed like an afterthought, the old champion schooling the young fighter in what was going to be one of the late career wins any fighter would have had in the history of the sport. I thought of Larry Holmes in his Early 40’s, having forgotten more about boxing than Ray Mercer had ever known, conducting class on the ropes and outpointing him in a formidable performance.
Only what Klitschko got, however, is what every fight fan and almost every sports fan in Europe is talking about right now. As well as being one of the most marketable stars and the most marketable boxer in the continent, Anthony Joshua is a terrific, brave, courageous fighter, a champion of staggering will, and remarkable quality. Surviving shots that could have brought down lesser champions, Joshua recouped his senses and hit Klitschko with one of the greatest short uppercuts I’ve ever seen, leading to a flurry that knocked the old champion down, then starting another flurry to knock him down again; ending one greatest heavyweight fights in the last 40 years.
Also, it led to one of the greatest personal moments in the sordid sport of boxing’s history. Joshua has been reticent to talk trash toward his opponents, and against Klitschko, his code took on an aura that old school fight fans could love. The appeal of Joshua was that he was a breath of fresh air that was also old air. This wasn’t Mayweather being a sick ogre. This wasn’t Tyson and his disturbed theater or cruelty. No, Joshua was a neo-classic fighter with classic ethics generations before were attracted to when they watched the fights. Joshua had the nobless oblige of a gladiator who respects his opponents; and against Klitschko, he respected the fact that his opponent was a great fighter and a great ambassador for the sport.
And when the former champion lost in a great, great conflict, so did 90,000 fans. There were no knockout bro memes making fun of his loss. There wasn’t the scorn of a racialist boxing nation that Gerry Cooney felt when he was game but outclassed by Larry Holmes. No, just 90,000 people sophisticated enough to give a fallen fighter a standing ovation. In the biggest heavyweight fight in a generation, Wembley showed fight fan culture at its absolute best.
Speaking of best, how will Joshua, who looked like a bigger Evander Holyfield with tremendous power in both hands, evolve as a champion? I don’t know, but tonight he looked like a great one. He also beat a great champion who gave one of his greatest performances. And the result? Call the sports cemetery! Get the jock morticians! Tell the network funeral homes to rewind the wakes and ceremonies! Impishly, strangely, and shockingly boxing has come out of its grave again. It took a supernova type star in Joshua to do it. And it also took a great (and good) former champion to push him.