“I’ve never really subscribed to the theory that boxing has to have a heavyweight superstar in order to be healthy,” Stephen Espinoza, the boxing czar at Showtime, was saying the other day. The but, of course, was coming, because boxing has been healthier in recent years than the sport is given credit for, and yet …
“There is an extra level of cache, a level of a buzz, around a heavyweight champion,” Espinoza says. “It certainly elevates the sport.”
Which brings us to Anthony Joshua, the British boxing champion with a gold medal from the 2012 Olympics and a 100% knockout rate in his first 20 professional fights. The bet here is that Joshua will be boxing’s next great heavyweight champion and that his upcoming bout (or series of bouts?) with Deontay Wilder will comprise the best heavyweight action since men like Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, Lennox Lewis and Riddick Bowe ruled boxing. Boxing being boxing, proceed with cautious optimism.
Joshua and Wilder have the potential to bring heavyweight boxing back from a Klitschko-induced slumber. No disrespect intended there. It’s true that the Klitschko brothers are both Hall of Fame fighters. It’s also true that their reign sapped so much excitement from the sport’s most exciting division.
On Saturday, in Cardiff, Wales, Joshua will meet another undefeated young heavyweight champion in Joseph Parker, who is 24-0 and from New Zealand. Their fight will be shown on Showtime (at 5 p.m. EST) in the United States, with three belts (IBF, WBA, WBO) going to the winner. Joshua predicted blood and theatrics and promised not to overlook Parker for the Wilder bout that looms.
Speaking of, that would be the biggest heavyweight fights since … ?
“Certainly since Lewis-Tyson,” Espinoza says, adding a “without question.”
That’s one reason to like Joshua. He’s only 28 years old, and he’s not waiting until he’s 35 to face legitimate championship opposition. He won his first belt in April, 2016, knocking out Charles Martin, and rather than take a series of vacations, he loaded his 2017 with fights against Wladimir Klitschko and Carlos Takam. Many tabbed his bout against Klitschko as the best of last year. Joshua both handed out a knockdown and rose from the canvas to score a Round 11 TKO. “I have to admit: I thought the fight was essentially over when he went down,” Espinoza says. “I was already thinking about comeback fights and rematches and how he would deal with a loss. To have him come back like that, in Wembley Stadium, crowd roaring, it was the kind of thing that would strain credulity in a Rocky movie.”
What’s happening with Joshua doesn’t happen all that often in boxing anymore. His last two fights, the victories against Klitschko and Takam, drew just under 170,000 spectators. Add the Parker total in there—expected attendance in the neighborhood of 80,000—and that’s 250,000 tickets sold for Joshua, without having fought in the U.S. Espinoza calls that drawing power a “phenomenon we haven’t seen in modern boxing.”
Just like Joshua. In an interview with SI.com, he said he hadn’t watched or followed or studied boxing while growing up in both Nigeria and the United Kingdom. He played soccer and trained for 100-meter races, where he could run in the low-10-second range.
He moved to the UK at age 12 but didn’t try boxing until 2007, when he was 18 and followed his cousin to a local gym in North London. He was just goofing around at first, and he found his fair share of trouble outside the ring at nightclubs and in street fights and was once arrested for marijuana possession. He started wanting to simply lose 25 pounds but soon realized that much more was possible. He joined the Finchley Amateur Boxing Club.
“That was it,” Joshua says. “I realized that this is the real deal.”
He adds, “Boxing saved my life.”
Joshua started to study boxing at that point, watching film of the great heavyweights like Muhammad Ali and Joe Louis. He spent less time at nightclubs and more time working with elite trainers in Great Britain, studying sports documentaries in his spare time to pick up new training methods. He even called Lewis for advice. “I started becoming a pure fighter,” he says.
It was the sport he found less than pure, after he won gold and received an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) for his boxing. “The landscape of the sport has changed,” he says. “I don’t mean with boxing fans or purists. I mean how it’s all about views, about clicks, about who talks the most. I feel like boxers aren’t allowed to make mistakes anymore, to lose.”
He pauses. “You have to do your best while people are still interested,” he says.
Where boxing and heavyweight boxing in particular once pitted great champion against great champion, now Joshua says he must contend with A-sides and B-sides and all sorts of non-ring nonsense. His plan to restore the division to its former glory is to fight everyone, immediately, starting with Parker but Wilder included. That’s what he says, anyway, while promising that boxing fans won’t have to wait six years like they did for Floyd Mayweather Jr. to face Manny Pacquiao. Espinoza confirms as much. “Much sooner rather than later,” he says.
Even as Joshua prepared to face Takam last October, he says he had 2018 on his mind. That was the year he wanted to introduce himself to portions of the U.S. sports market that hadn’t heard of him. In that bout, same as against Klitschko, he dropped his hands too often, and he was as heavy as he had ever been for a fight. He still won by knockout.
“He certainly has all the hallmarks of someone who can be a true international star,” Espinoza says. “The number of athletes who have developed this kind of following without ever having spent any meaningful time in the U.S. is pretty small. We’re talking Pele. Or David Beckham before he came over.”
Espinoza isn’t wrong. Should Joshua keep his hands up and his cardio on point, should he defeat Parker, he’ll likely fight in New York this September. There will likely be one more fight before he meets Wilder, but when he does—when they do—that will mark two in-prime heavyweights who have shown just enough vulnerability that one could make a case either way as to who might win.
The bet here is on Joshua. He’s younger, has taken on a more aggressive schedule (and at a younger age) and he’s 6’6” with power in both hands. “No disrespect, but when I wanted to turn professional there wasn’t any big money,” he says. “The blue-chip brands weren’t interested like they are now. People weren’t talking about me and Wilder. I was trying to tell my story, but a global audience wasn’t interested.”
They are now; or, if not, they will be soon enough.