Anthony Joshua will defend his heavyweight titles against Kubrat Pulev on Saturday, and this is usually where some will tell you that Pulev is dangerous, that he is heavy handed, that if Joshua isn’t on his game the once-beaten unified champ could absorb his second upset loss in as many years.
Except he isn’t. Sure, Pulev, 39, is a worthy title challenger, with one defeat on his resume, a knockout loss to Wladimir Klitschko in 2014. Since then Pulev has rattled off eight wins in a row, including a decision over Dereck Chisora and a knockout of ex-title challenger Samuel Peter. In an era of undeserving mandatory challengers, Pulev has legitimately earned his opportunity.
But, if we’re being honest, the chances of Pulev pulling off an upset are minimal. Despite Bob Arum’s bluster—Arum, Pulev’s promoter, has been shouting for months that Pulev (28-1) would derail a planned title unification fight between Joshua and Tyson Fury which, given Arum’s status as Fury’s co-promoter, is akin to resolving a leg cramp by cutting off the leg—few inside Pulev’s inner circle are optimistic about his chances. This is a payday and, despite the challenges of the pandemic that will limit the crowd to 1,000 people inside London’s SSE Arena, a significant one.
This fight isn’t about Kubrat Pulev.
This fight is about Anthony Joshua.
It has been 18 months since Joshua’s shocking knockout loss to Andy Ruiz in New York, 12 since Joshua (23-1) avenged that defeat on a rainy night in Saudi Arabia. The win restored Joshua, 31, as a three-belt champion, but after watching Joshua box his way to a decision, it raised new questions: Had Ruiz changed Joshua? Would one of boxing’s most ferocious finishers become content with winning lopsided decisions?
There’s precedent for it. After Lennox Lewis lost to Oliver McCall in 1994, Lewis hired Emanuel Steward, who drilled into him the art of fighting off the jab. Steward did the same thing with Wladimir Klitschko, evolving Klitschko from the reckless power puncher that was stopped twice in the early 2000’s into one of the most successful heavyweights of his era, albeit one that was rarely in fire fights.
Will Joshua become the same?
Eddie Hearn doesn’t see it. Hearn, who has promoted Joshua since he turned pro in 2012, was ringside in Saudi Arabia for the Ruiz fight. Joshua’s more cautious approach, Hearn says, was a product of strict instructions, not an evolved instinct. He recalls watching Joshua land big punches on Ruiz and hearing the voice of his longtime trainer, Rob McCracken, imploring Joshua not to stand and trade with Ruiz after.
“If I knew he didn’t really want to explode and knock Andy Ruiz out, I might answer differently,” Hearn told SI. “It was very difficult for him to stay on the leash in Saudi. When he got out of the ring, he asked me if the fight was boring. I said, ‘f--- boring. You did everything you were asked.’”
To Hearn, the Ruiz loss gave Joshua an opportunity to address long festering issues.
“AJ spent long periods of his career not knowing what he was doing,” says Hearn. “And he knew that. He knew he had to change. It’s just difficult to change when you are knocking people out. The Ruiz fight was kind of a blessing in that respect. I think you will see a more refined fighter. But AJ loves to entertain and he loves to knock people out. You can’t take away what he has inside him. He is a spiteful punisher, a spiteful finisher. No way he will he hurt Pulev and let him see his way out of the round.”
Last week, Joshua reclined on a couch in an empty room in his training facility. Much has changed in the last year. Deontay Wilder, not Joshua, is the fighter under scrutiny after Wilder was stopped by Fury last February. “He didn’t have it as tough as I did,” says Joshua. “I had fighters telling me I should not have taken the immediate rematch. I had fighters telling me I should retire if I lost again.” He didn’t, and in an interview with SI Joshua vows that Ruiz won’t fundamentally change him, either.
“Physically he hasn't changed me,” says Joshua. “I still carry and possess the power. I feel technically-wise he's improved me, he's changed me for the better. He changed my mental focus as well about what this really means. Because I was that guy that just come into the boxing gym, three years later I was Olympic champion. When I turned pro, three years later I was world champion. So I didn't even really embrace what I was doing.”
“And then I get to see Andy Ruiz living life over in America and Mexico, I was like, ‘Wow, that's what it means to be champion.’ What [Ruiz] has done, he made me realize there's two different things. There's what we call defining performances, and there's defining fights. So I feel like when I boxed Andy Ruiz in Saudi, it wasn't a defining fight, but it was a defining performance. I had to go out there and I had to put on a spectacular performance, which was sticking to my game plan to win. With Pulev, the defining performance does include power punches and earning his respect. I definitely still possess that killer instinct and that gladiator mindset, for sure. I haven't lost it.”
Indeed, Hearn believes the heavyweight monster remains within Joshua—he’s just not sure he needs to come out. Not in this fight, anyway. The stakes are high for Joshua: Win, and a showdown with Fury awaits. The financial components of a mouthwatering heavyweight unification fight have been agreed upon, a 50-50 split of revenue that should zoom well past $100 million. Lose, and Joshua is right back to where he was against Ruiz, rebuilding for a rematch.
“Quite honestly, with everything that is on the line, I just want him to win,” says Hearn. “The value of your next fight is ultimately determined by your last performance. If he knocks Pulev out, the Tyson Fury fight will be a lot bigger. But that fight remains massive even if it is a stinking fight.”
Joshua says he isn’t thinking about Fury, and that’s where there has been a change. Before his first fight with Ruiz, much of the pre-fight talk was about Wilder, specifically the failed negotiations that would have resulted in a long awaited fight. Back then, says Joshua, “you could live rent free in my head.” He reflexively defended himself against accusations that he was ducking Wilder, regardless of how ludicrous they were. “I’ve learned to just focus on myself,” says Joshua. “I don't have to prove myself anymore. And that's why I feel more settled within myself now.”
It will be Joshua-Pulev on Saturday, and in the build-up Joshua is saying all the right things. He has praised Pulev’s jab, his experience, how he expects Pulev to attempt to bully him in the ring. And he will. But this fight is about Joshua. About if winning is all that matters to him. Or if how he wins still matters a little bit more.
“Let me just get back on the gravy train and get back to my old ways of showcasing what I can do,” says Joshua. “It will be a bit more technical. Hopefully I would have improved and become smarter. But it will still be with that mindset of, ‘I want to hit this guy and I want to hurt him.’ That's what my game plan is.”