ANTHONY JOSHUA kept his WBA, IBF and WBO heavyweight titles when he knocked out Bulgaria’s pesky Kubrat Pulev in the ninth round to clear the path to a rich undisputed showdown (or two) with WBC boss Tyson Fury in 2021.

The veteran challenger, the IBF mandatory and therefore unavoidable if all belts were to be retained, had become a nuisance to Joshua after first pulling out of a proposed 2017 bout with an injury and then hanging around those IBF ratings like the proverbial bad smell.

And he took some removing inside Wembley SSE Arena. The astonishingly tough Pulev survived two counts in the third, numerous hefty uppercuts, another trip to the canvas in the ninth before Joshua picked his spot and finally dropped his man for 10 seconds with a booming right. The finish came at 2-58 of the round.

The ferocious “AJ”, who has now won nine of 10 world title fights,  was predominantly impressive but the gnarled Pulev had some success with his slingshot right hand. The mind games of the challenger, with his bizarre habit of smiling and screaming in delight every time he was hurt, seemed to slow down Joshua too.

In the end, though, the 31-year-old sent the 1,000 fans in attendance inside Wembley SSE Arena out into the night chanting his name.

One hopes that many more will witness Joshua-Fury next year, should it happen. Joshua afterwards insisted he’d be happy to fight Fury next and promoter Eddie Hearn suggested it could happen in May.

Tyson declined promoter Hearn’s invitation to attend tonight and it was reported he could yet be forced into a third fight with old rival Deontay Wilder. Joshua also has Oleksandr Usyk – another mandatory – pressing for a shot at the WBO title. Until those situations are resolved, talk of Joshua and Fury fighting each other will remain only talk. But the indications are very positive: Joshua and Fury want to fight each other and no one else.

Joshua-Fury heightened the importance of this assignment with Pulev and generated plenty of attention in the media beforehand as the 39-year-old visitor was cast as the man capable of wrecking the superfight. In truth, he was unlikely to do anything of the sort. Lost in all the hoopla, it seemed, was the fact that Pulev was so far past his best he struggled last time out with a fat and ancient Rydell Booker (November 2019), he hadn’t beaten a bona-fide Top 10 contender for seven years and was perhaps never at championship-winning standard, even when at his peak.

However, Pulev, for all his obvious disadvantages (in height, reach, age, form and reflexes), came to London with only victory in mind. He weighed a trim and ready 239 3/4lbs which was the lightest he’d been since 2009. In the days before the bout he was relaxed and amicable, apparently playing Jenga in the ‘bubble’ hotel and joking with reporters. At the weigh-in the veteran irked the champion with his chirpy mischief, stirring a reaction and a curious exchange that ended with Pulev saying “I am amazing!” and Joshua, while surely breaking any social distancing rules, leaning into his rival with a promise to teach him a lesson.

Anthony Joshua vs Kubrat Pulev
Dave Thompson

Joshua weighed just shy of 241lbs, which marked a four-pound increase from when he dominated Andy Ruiz Jnr in their Saudi Arabia sequel 12 months ago. The Englishman, who lost to Ruiz in the seventh round of their New York opener in June last year while weighing a stockier 247lbs, is growing increasingly more versatile though does seem to be caught between two styles: the boxer-and-mover and the out-and-out destroyer.

In the opening round, Joshua fought carefully and respectfully. It was approximately 90 seconds before he scored with the jab. A wayward right hand was the only other punch of note. Joshua upped the pressure in the second round. He increased the output of his lead before – midway through the session – he fired a series of shots around the guard that smashed into Pulev’s gloves. The challenger felt the force and smiled.

In the next, that force increased again. A jab was followed by the right and Pulev wobbled badly. Joshua sensed the finish and raided with authority. Pulev raised a smile again but he was hurt as he stumbled into his own corner, turning his back and seemingly signaling surrender. The arguments that it should have been stopped there, as opposed to being granted a standing count, carry weight. But the underdog scrambled to his senses and managed to force another smile. An uppercut followed and Pulev was on the deck. The end seemed close.

Joshua looked to be breathing heavily at the start of the fourth. His punch output decreased. Pulev fired his own right hand as Joshua, still evolving as a fighter, took his time. The Bulgarian, from Sofia, was guilty of rabbit punching and should perhaps have had a point taken away.

Through the fifth and sixth rounds Joshua seemed to be conserving energy. Uppercuts landed but Pulev took them and his madcap grin may have deterred Joshua from going all out for the finish. Pulev’s right hand remained dangerous in the seventh as it he scored with his best punch of the fight. But Joshua was never in danger of losing.

The end came in the ninth. Joshua landed a series of uppercuts and Pulev rocked back. Joshua poured on the pressure, Pulev went down again but pluckily hauled himself upright. But he was badly dazed. Joshua watched, moved deftly to find the space to slam a right cross into Pulev’s chin.

It was, at last, all over. The finish was truly spectacular. The fight was entertaining. It was delightful, truly delightful, to hear a crowd – and kudos to promoters Matchroom Boxing for that. But despite what the marketeers will tell you and what the IBF rankings allude to, Pulev is no longer a leading heavyweight. There needs to be no more jostling for position in a division that has been waiting for the defining bout since Lennox Lewis retired at the start of the century.

What has to come next is the real ‘mandatory’ requirement; the one thing that should now be made compulsory above all else: Joshua-Fury or Fury-Joshua, a genuine No.1 versus No.2 fight and, whichever way you spin it, a fight the sport so badly needs.