Anthony Joshua’s demi-god status was worth absolutely nothing for nine minutes of hell at Wembley on Saturday, when the heavens opened and drenched spectators wondered why Alexander Povetkin wouldn’t just lie down, writes James Dielhenn.
It has felt for the past week and throughout a dreary, miserable Saturday that a curse hovered above Joshua, that the universe was conspiring against him to burst his bubble and deal him the harsh reminder that every fighter eventually receives that they are not superhuman.
One day, perhaps in months or perhaps in 10 years’ time, Joshua will be forced to regroup after losing his world heavyweight championships, but with every vanquished opponent, the burning question becomes more pertinent: how do you beat him?
Only when Joshua’s flaws are exposed are we reminded of how difficult he is to beat and how brilliant a boxer he has become.
Those treacherous first three rounds felt like the culmination of days when an unkempt Joshua has been snappy, under-the-weather, irritated by the absence of Deontay Wilder, and annoyed that he was simply expected to brush past a vastly-experienced Russian, who owned an Olympic gold medal and a powerful left hook.
Joshua was clocked early, and his legs did a little dance; in that moment his gold belts and the celebrities at ringside couldn’t help him. He was reduced to a 28-year-old man who fights for a living, and is learning on the job.
His clear message from the seventh-round TKO of Povetkin is that there is still no blueprint to ending the most exciting rise in British boxing history.
Joshua is not just physically tough and mentally determined, he has become a high-level, high-pressure problem solver inside the ring. Beforehand, he compared boxing to “violent chess” because it forces you to think several moves ahead – he has wiped out plenty of pawns, withstood digs from knights and, over the weekend, smashed Povetkin over the head with his king.
The barrage that the Russian visitor unloaded in the first three rounds was unlike anything Joshua had experienced, and that includes the knock-down suffered under totally different circumstances against Wladimir Klitschko.
Povetkin was learning how to blast past bigger men when Joshua was still a child. Four inches shorter, nearly two stone lighter, and with a seven-inch reach disadvantage – we warned you that these misleading dynamics would suit Povetkin’s game-plan. He ducked, crept up upon his heavier foe, and every punch he threw for nine minutes was an attempted KO.
Those introspective moments in the peace of the corner, with blood coming from Joshua’s nose and his senses fragmented by Povetkin’s punches, were when he decided not to lose. That is a difficult choice to make, even for world champions, when you’re tired and you’re hurt and you know there’s more to come.
Joshua the back-foot boxer, the version that out-pointed Joseph Parker, steered him through as the pendulum slowly swung but the world heavyweight champion’s greatest attribute sealed victory. A trait he shares with Wilder, and what makes their eventual meeting a dream, is that he possesses the brutality of a predator when it first draws weakness from its prey.
When Joshua clenches his teeth and wants to finish off a teetering rival, there are few sights as exhilarating.
Somewhere out there exists the methodology to beat Joshua. But who can say, for certain, that they know what it is?
Hard eastern Europeans with a generation’s worth of extra experience have failed to out-box him. Athletic Americans haven’t matched him. A rugged African proved the 6’6” champion is unlikely to be bullied by brute force. He has lost his temper in a grudge match with a local rival and stayed icy cool in a unification bout against someone from the other side of the world.
Wilder or Tyson Fury may have the answer. Wilder will believe he is faster and hits harder, Fury will trust in his unorthodox style but both of those men have more questions to answer – to themselves, as well as us – than Joshua does.
Sometimes it’s hard to put your finger on how Joshua keeps winning, but that intangible is the greatest strength that a world heavyweight champion could have.