THIS time last year Anthony Joshua outboxed Andy Ruiz Jnr to restore order to the heavyweight division, though was, like everyone else, oblivious to the fact real disorder lurked just around the corner and could not be controlled by a jab. Back then it was the one blow he couldn’t see coming; the one opponent for which he wasn’t prepared.

Then again, one could argue the attitude of Joshua and the two other top heavyweights of last year – Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder – perfectly encapsulated the arrogance, naivety and sense of entitlement with which we were all wandering through life in 2019. Heads high and whistling down the road, the trio, having already made millions and positioned themselves to make more, believed they had the game of life sussed and that not a thing could hurt, derail or stop them. They thought they had all the time in the world and the world in the palm of their hand. They could say what they wanted, do what they wanted, and the boxing world would listen, understand, wait, and adjust their expectations accordingly. They were, as a team, stringing us all along, cynically, greedily, stretching potential rivalries as far as they would go until the band was begging to be snapped. Masters of timing, all three feared only the possibility of a shock upset ruining their plan.

But how wrong they were. How wrong they were to think a heavyweight wild card like Andy Ruiz was the one thing capable of wrecking their dream of timing rivalries to perfection and cashing in when the moment was right. How wrong they were to consider themselves untouchable and not anticipate the world having a message for them.

That message came this year in the form of a global pandemic, of course, and it left Joshua, Fury and Wilder, the latter two at least having fought in February, searching for attention and relevance in a year of collective uncertainty. Through no fault of their own, the pandemic robbed all three of momentum, it cancelled fights, and it forced them to console their sizeable egos and for once confront their own insignificance, if temporarily.
For the best part of the year Joshua was seen only in television adverts or protesting on London streets, Fury was seen only in his living room doing star jumps alongside his wife and children, and Wilder discovered theories and cures for every issue he had ever faced aside from the one most pressing.

They were not the only ones, either. Also humbled during the pandemic, this unforgiving leveller, was Dillian Whyte, the self-appointed fourth wheel, or forgotten man, of the heavyweight division. He was humbled the old-fashioned way – that is, knocked out cold by Alexander Povetkin, a Russian whose best days are behind him – and must now go over old ground to return to the perch from which he fell.

Thankfully, Joshua, the heavyweight with the most belts and the most to lose, has lost nothing this year except momentum and perhaps a payday, which in the grand scheme of things is a) for him not a big deal and b) not something anyone paying to watch him box should care about. In reality, his biggest disappointment has been the cancellation of an ordered IBF title fight against Kubrat Pulev, originally scheduled for June, which has been three years in the making and now at last takes place on December 12.

Anthony Joshua

This fight, a virus all of its own as far as Joshua is concerned, is not so much a fight the WBA, IBF and WBO heavyweight champion wants as one he simply wants behind him. It has been niggling away at him since October 2017, the time when Pulev was first meant to be his opponent, and is a fight both he and everybody else has been told, repeatedly, must be put to bed before Joshua, 23-1 (21), can return to more interesting assignments.

In some respects, then, Joshua too is going over old ground, only this time it feels worse. Now the one thing bleaker than the prospect of a fight against Kubrat Pulev in 2017 is the prospect of a fight against Kubrat Pulev three years later during a pandemic. Now, rather than going through the motions before a stadium crowd of 80,000 people, Joshua will be asked to do the same job in front of just 1,000 at Wembley Arena, unsure whether the fans at home will be desperate to see him back in the ring or, because it has been so long and so much has happened this year, have found other things to do with their spare time.

In truth, there should be greater interest in Joshua now given the journey he went on last year – a year in which he was written off as a hype job in the summer and celebrated as a genius come winter – and all the undue drama he created for himself, then overcame. He returns, somehow, as both a better fighter and a more beatable fighter. He returns, certainly, as a more watchable fighter, not that this was something Joshua, typically entertaining, needed to work on.

As watchable as the 31-year-old is, however, it’s equally fair to say Joshua vs. Pulev is the least appealing Anthony Joshua fight since the first time it was set for October 28, 2017. That night, with Pulev out injured, Carlos Takam filled the void and gave a good account of himself, stopped unjustly in the 10th round. This time, though, with Pulev fit and 39, a fight three years in the making, which nobody really wanted to see in the first place, will end up defining 2020 to a tee.

A year on from Joshua’s last outing, this defence against Pulev unfortunately lacks all that Joshua vs. Ruiz II possessed in spades. The dynamic between champion and challenger is as forced as the fight itself and the reality is that Joshua would have no interest in boxing Pulev had them meeting not been ordered by the IBF. That, in a nutshell, is the story. It’s all there is to it.

By way of summary, Pulev has worked his way into a mandatory position, been denied his title shot because of an injury, and then waited around a bit longer for a second chance. It can be called a story of perseverance, fine, but it should and will never be confused with Andy Dufresne and Shawshank. It is instead closer to the perseverance you see on the face of the man working in an Amazon warehouse during a global pandemic. You don’t doubt he has paid his dues and earnt every penny and break he gets, but, if given the option, you would prefer not to pay £24.95 to watch how he relaxes on his night off.

Kubrat Pulev
Mark Robinson/Matchroom Boxing

At least Andy Ruiz’s six-month fling with Joshua was quick, dramatic and worthy of following. Ridiculed at first, he burst on to the scene out of nowhere, took and made the most of his opportunity when others – like Pulev – might have said no, maybe, or waited, and then, in the rematch, followed the path made fashionable by James “Buster” Douglas, returning the titles in exchange for a life without limits, changed beyond his wildest dreams. As it happened, we didn’t have time to get bored of him. He was in, he was out, and he left behind all the questions we had long been wanting Anthony Joshua to answer. In six months, he made quite the impact.

Bulgaria’s Pulev, on the other hand, has had three years to make an impression yet will, by the time the first bell rings on Saturday, still be a name and face unfamiliar to most fans watching. Indeed, it could be said the only thing more predictable than the fight itself will be the way it is promoted and served to fans on the night. In an effort to seduce, there will no doubt be repeated mentions of Pulev’s 28-1 (14) record and how the only defeat he has suffered as a pro came against Wladimir Klitschko at a time when Klitschko was in his prime and seemingly never going to lose another fight. There will also be a reminder that this defeat occurred in 2014, that’s six years ago, and that since then Pulev hasn’t come close to losing again. They might tell you he beat Dereck Chisora, now apparently a UK pay-per-view headliner, but won’t mention it being a split decision. They might even tell you he beat Tyson Fury’s cousin but won’t mention it being a fight nobody would ever watch twice.

Something else they won’t tell you is that Pulev, in his last bout, went the full 10 rounds with Rydell Booker, a 39-year-old former cruiserweight schooled by an out-of-shape James Toney all the way back in 2004. Nor will the television pundits go into much detail regarding the reason why Pulev’s profile has been enhanced in the past couple of years without fighting anybody of note, his lips having produced more damage and attention than his fists.

Frankly, remove Pulev’s 2019 kissing scandal and there is little else. Though winning, “The Cobra’s” standout victory since losing to Klitschko remains his 2016 split decision over Chisora and Chisora, we recently learnt, is some way short of the likes of Oleksandr Usyk, the former cruiserweight king tipped to face Joshua next year, let alone the titleholders. That puts Pulev’s form in perspective and shows, too, the prestige of this fight in relation to the others in Joshua’s future.

But the good news for Pulev, and for those watching the fight, is that Andy Ruiz has given every Joshua opponent a better chance of dethroning him than they would have had before June 2019. He has given them hope, he has given them a kind of blueprint, and he has reminded the world that form – whether past wins or physical – counts for little when two heavyweights share a ring and start trading punches.

Moreover, while he fights nothing like Ruiz, Pulev does possess the kind of top-level experience Ruiz lacked and is schooled and technical in a way that could, if only for a few rounds, test the supposed improvements Joshua has made in this department. Indeed, it will be interesting to see whether Pulev takes the fight to Joshua the way he attempted to do with Klitschko all those years ago, and the way Ruiz did with success against Joshua last year, or is instead more circumspect and trusts his boxing skills from range. It will be just as interesting to observe how Joshua, this champion who transitioned from head-hunting front-runner to patient artist in six months, goes about the task of defusing a man for whom he has been preparing, on and off, for three years now.

Rest assured, this will not be another example of Joshua fighting someone on short notice only to find himself shocked by their style, ferocity and desire, as was the case 18 months ago against Ruiz. More likely is it that this time Joshua will be so sick of the sight and sound of Kubrat Pulev, and so irked to have seen his year reduced to a single unfulfilling date in an empty restaurant, that he will aim to put on a performance worthy of a three-year wait.

Now knowing its value, Joshua won’t waste time on a starter.