IN front of 1,000-ish fans, Floyd Mayweather Jnr, a smattering of media and some carefully selected cheerleaders, Anthony Joshua did what he had to do and smashed the stuffing out of Kubrat Pulev.
Well, kind of.
Four counts and countless more jabs, hooks, crosses and uppercuts were not enough to dissuade the Bulgarian veteran from wanting more inside Wembley SSE Arena. The pesky IBF mandatory, who had thoroughly enjoyed his time in London where he made it his mission to get under Joshua’s skin, was in no mood to walk away quietly, even after being counted out at 2-58 of the ninth round. He peeled himself off the canvas, told his handlers he was still good to go and repositioned himself in Joshua’s face. The WBA, IBF and WBO heavyweight champion – fresh from a congratulatory embrace from Mayweather – had no desire to kiss and make up, either.
What followed threatened to get ugly, the fake smiles on both fighters’ faces did nothing to hide the bad feeling as the crowd roared its approval of the potential afters. The villainous Pulev, like he had all night, fed from the noise. The hero of the piece did not take kindly to his celebrations being hijacked. Like a suspicious boyfriend returning from a pub toilet to find his missus deep in conversation with another man and not wanting to make a scene in front of his mates but nonetheless keen to make his presence felt, Joshua slammed his gloved fists into Pulev’s – not once but twice – in a warning to not overstep the mark.
Joshua’s mood had not soothed by the time Sky Sports’ Andy Scott, a man whose job is at times excruciatingly difficult, put a microphone under his mouth and invited him to call out Tyson Fury. Perhaps tired of talking about Fury, perhaps annoyed that he had just won a difficult fight only to immediately be asked about another, Joshua wasn’t keen to give the broadcasters the soundbite they so dearly wanted.
Two hours later, after spending time with Mayweather in his dressing room, and declining requests from the written media to be interviewed, Joshua told the BBC’s Mike Costello that WBC boss Fury was indeed who he wanted to fight next. What it all spoke of was of a man keen to do things his own way, in his own time, and one increasingly frustrated with his personality, words and desire being scrutinised so relentlessly.
Joshua-Fury, or Fury-Joshua, surely has to come next. The division has been waiting for too long already and the sport’s credibility depends on it. Joshua – the crucial piece in the jigsaw – feels the pressure to deliver, no question.
Arguably the most recognisable athlete on the planet, “AJ” continues to learn – about life, about boxing, about being a bona fide superstar – while under the microscope of the world. That he copes with that pressure while working tirelessly behind the scenes to improve should only underline his determination to be the best he possibly can be.
It should never be forgotten that Joshua, even at 31, is still a work in progress. From the moment he was rocked by Dillian Whyte in 2015, Joshua has been aware that brute force alone is not enough to be great. He experienced a steep learning curve, beating fighters like Wladimir Klitschko and Alexander Povetkin in gruelling affairs before the loss to Andy Ruiz Jnr last year highlighted that his education was far from complete. The manner in which he’s come back from that sole loss – dominating the American over 12 rounds in their December 2019 Saudi Arabia rematch – should only generate praise.
Reinforcements were made to his training team after the first Ruiz contest. Angel Fernandez and Joby Clayton joined forces with long-time coach Robert McCracken and what we saw against Pulev was a fighter showcasing new skills, new patience and new ways of thinking. At times it was muddled, he was sporadically clumsy, yet on the whole he proved he’s a truly formidable fighting machine.
What he isn’t, and what he’ll never be, is perfect. There isn’t the time for that, particularly for someone who found the sport in their late teens, but what he has – a bedazzling mix of skill, power and speed alongside an increased understanding of how to get the most from those assets – is incredible for a fighter who has only been in the sport for a dozen or so years.
Pulev, a 2008 Olympian, trumped Joshua when it came to overall experience. But crucially the 39-year-old challenger had been treading water as a top contender for many years and was not battle-hardened in the same way. His only two fights of note since losing to Klitschko in 2014 were untidy points wins over Dereck Chisora and Hughie Fury; compare that to Joshua’s run of Whyte, Dominic Breazeale, Klitschko, Joseph Parker, Povetkin and Ruiz, and it’s obvious why the Briton was such a huge favourite.
Yet the Watford fighter opened this bout both carefully and respectfully. It was a full 90 seconds before he poked in his first jab. Pulev, it’s only fair to say, was even more reserved. The Joshua of old, that explosive puncher, showed up in the second round when he ripped a series of hooks into the defences of his opponent. Pulev merely smiled.
Joshua was at his best in the third. His jab was busy and offsetting Pulev’s chances of firing his right. A smart AJ right hand scored, an uppercut whipped under Pulev’s guard before another span the challenger around. The underdog instinctively galloped to his own corner, looking for cover, ducking down, turning his back and groggily raising his gloves to defend himself. South African referee Deon Dwarte, who was kind to Pulev throughout, pulled the champion away and erroneously administered a standing eight count. It could and perhaps should have been stopped instead.
But Pulev regained his senses quickly. Joshua went for the finish, a left hand bulleted into his man. He spitefully pushed the reeling Pulev into position to take a right hook and then another uppercut sent Kubrat down. By the time he was on his knees, that old Pulev bravado had returned. Smiling but unsteady, he made it clear he still wanted to fight. Another assault followed. Pulev screamed in delight as Joshua attacked only for the bell to save the lunatic from Sofia. To prove he was still around, he then tossed an illegal blow after it.
Pulev’s mind games, if that’s what you can call his bouts of hysteria, had drawn a reaction from Joshua at the weigh-in the day before and seemed to unsettle the champion in battle. After all, Joshua had been caught cold when he thought Ruiz was there for the taking in New York and was conscious not to make the same mistake again. But it was also clear that as the fourth round began, Joshua was breathing very heavily.
Pulev was canny and cautious. He refused to go for broke and at no point in the contest did he look like pulling off the upset, though his slingshot right hand was occasionally a threat. Bulgarian judge Yordan Ezekiev scored the fourth to his countryman (Ezekiev’s credentials were questioned beforehand in an anonymous and ominous email from Bulgaria to Boxing News) but the scoring was fair: Ezekiev and Phil Edwards had Joshua up 79-71 at the finish while Italy’s Mateo Montella favoured the champion 80-70.
Joshua was biding his time, scoring with the occasional power shot, but lacked his earlier effectiveness during the middle rounds. Sky Sport’s Johnny Nelson could be heard shouting for Joshua to use his jab but his failure to do so offered Pulev some hope. Without that lead being pumped in the challenger’s direction he had more time to plot his own attacks. Even so, Kubrat was forced to swallow more uppercuts in the sixth but he tagged Anthony with a right hand – Pulev’s best of the fight – in the seventh. Joshua was generally sound defensively when on the front and back foot. He bullied Pulev in close and in the eighth he ducked beneath a left hook from his opponent that drew a reaction from the raucous crowd.
Joshua had seen enough by the ninth. Two minutes into the session he stepped inside Pulev’s lead leg, connected with a jab, immediately launched an uppercut, and another, threw a short range-finder with his left before two more huge uppercuts took Pulev off his feet. The plucky veteran climbed upright again but this time, tellingly, there was not a hint of amusement on his face. Joshua calmly took aim with his right hand before cannoning it into his rival. The cross, perfectly formed and beautifully timed, crashed through the gaping hole in Pulev’s defence and sent him down for the count.
Fury immediately tweeted that he would stop Joshua in three rounds. Mayweather leapt from his spot at ringside and demanded the champion’s attention. The WBO made it clear that Oleksandr Usyk is their mandatory challenger and, unless he steps aside, the Ukrainian will be fighting for that title in his next bout. Pulev asked for a rematch as the referee reached for Joshua’s hand to raise it in victory. The microphones soon began to appear in his face. Fans in the arena chanted his name.
Everyone wants a piece of the angry young man.