ANTHONY JOSHUA clinically stopped Alexander Povetkin in seven rounds to defend his IBF, WBA and WBO heavyweight titles and reaffirm his status as the world’s leading heavyweight.

Since adding his third world title with March’s victory over Joseph Parker, the return of Tyson Fury and frustration over his inability to secure a unification match-up with WBC champion Deontay Wilder has threatened that very reputation.

That an estimated 68,000 were present at Wembley Stadium – significantly fewer than the 90,000-strong crowd that attended last year’s victory over Wladimir Klitschko – demonstrated that, but he professionally overcame an opponent of ambition and class.

The 39-year-old Povetkin, like Joshua an Olympic gold medallist, had previously lost only to Klitschko and over the distance when the great Ukrainian was at his peak. Joshua capitalised on his aggression in a way that Klitschko could not, dropping him once before stopping him on his feet.

Joshua had spoken in the week of feeling “tons of pressure” to perform and the confirmation of the December 1 date for the higher-profile fight between Wilder and Fury will not have helped, but if he felt that pressure in the ring it did not show.

With the physical advantages over an opponent who fought Klitschko on the same evening Joshua made his professional debut, it would have proved a significant upset had the champion secured anything other than his latest victory.

Anthony Joshua retained his belts
Anthony Joshua retained his belts (Nick Potts/PA)

By becoming only the second man to defeat Povetkin – and the first to do so inside the distance – Joshua dismissed questions of his power that came as he went the distance for the first time against Parker and required until the 11th round to stop Carlos Takam before then.

The Briton remained composed having been hurt by a left hook in the opening round that left him bleeding from the nose, but his confidence grew as he began to control the range and pace of the fight and break down his challenger.

It was as soon as the third when Povetkin showed signs of struggling as he repeatedly swung and missed with wild left hooks.

The champion hurt his challenger with a big right hand towards the end of the fourth having consistently succeeded with his jab and opened a cut by the Russian’s left eye.

If his pace then slowed throughout the fifth and sixth as Povetkin occasionally landed further lefts, he convincingly rediscovered his intent in the seventh to secure victory.

A powerful right hand sent the Russian backwards, and two lefts and a further right secured the first, heavy knockdown from which he did well to return to his feet.

Alexander Povetkin returned to his feet after the first knock down
Alexander Povetkin returned to his feet after the first knock down (Nick Potts/PA)

With Povetkin then unable to defend himself from another hurtful barrage referee Steve Gray intervened to rescue him from further punishment after one minute and 59 seconds, when Povetkin’s corner were also attempting to withdraw him.

It was through earning the status of the WBA’s mandatory challenger that Povetkin, whose reputation had previously been damaged by two failed drug tests, had secured his shot at one of the world’s leading fighters.

At 39 and with demand for fights between Joshua, Wilder and Fury he will likely never again challenge for a world title. Joshua’s next title defence had already been scheduled for Wembley on April 13, when it would surprise if his next opponent was not Dillian Whyte.

Anthony Joshua is already looking towards his next defence
Anthony Joshua is already looking towards his next defence (Nick Potts/PA)

Joshua’s London 2012 team-mate Luke Campbell earlier earned a unanimous decision victory over France’s Yvan Mendy to earn his shot at the WBC lightweight title in his first fight under new trainer Shane McGuigan.

Victory also avenged the first of his two professional defeats, but there was a disappointing defeat for heavyweight David Price, whose third loss from four came when he retired after four rounds against Sergey Kuzmin with a right biceps injury.

Afterwards Joshua paid tribute to Povetkin and revealed he had also been suffering from flu during his preparations.

Joshua told talkSPORT: “You have to give him credit. We’re against serious competitors for this championship belt.

“I’ve suffered with a flu. This camp has been difficult. I knew I just had to stay in there.”

Joshua might have broken his nose but he was determined to battle through.

“Through hard work is the only way you can succeed,” he said. “It was going to get tough in there but I knew if my mind was at it my body could follow through.”