April 29 2017. Photo credit: World Series Boxing.

Anthony Joshua’s quest to emulate Mike Tyson

BY EDMUND WILLISON

Not since Mike Tyson has a heavyweight boxer dominated elite opposition as if they were journeymen. Can Anthony Joshua follow in his footsteps against Wladimir Klitschko?

The dominance exhibited in Anthony Joshua’s career to date has led the general public, and consequently the oddsmakers, to instal him as the heavy favourite in his fight against Wladimir Klitschko. Eighteen brutal knockouts against journeymen, British champions and fringe world title contenders have fuelled the belief that he can do the same to one of the sport’s greatest heavyweights.

Not since Mike Tyson, has a heavyweight boxer been able to dominate the elite of the sport as if they were journeymen. This evening Joshua attempts to do the same. He is fighting to secure a place in boxing’s illustrious history.

After Mike Tyson’s vicious body assault of club fighter Sterling Benjamin in November 1985, he addressed the awaiting press: “I’d like to know; will you people, in the media, consider him a good fighter after I knocked him out in the first round? When I fight better fighters, if they make the mistake as he did, the same thing will happen”. Tyson was proven right. He had just rattled off his eleventh straight early stoppage. As the strength of opponents improved the outcome remained the same.

Within a year, which included a further fourteen knockouts against fringe contenders, “Iron” Mike became the WBC Heavyweight Champion of the world.  He dispensed with Muhammad Ali’s conqueror, Trevor Berbick, as easily as he did his first-ever opponent. This step up in class mattered little.

His savage aggression, power and the lust for blood he ignited in millions of viewers worldwide led to Tyson Mania. From as early as his eleventh professional fight, boxing fans knew that Tyson was unique.

“That night was my first live dose of the intoxicating, primal anticipation that I would experience for much of the next two and a half years,” journalist and Tyson camp insider, Tim Layden, said reflecting on the Benjamin match. “I had known nothing like it in sports before and have experienced nothing like it since, a full-body paralysis of expectation. From the moment Tyson stepped between the ropes, you could not look away, you could not speak, you could not move, for fear of missing not just news, but history.”

And history it turned out to be. Tyson’s continued to dismantle all challengers which led to him being crowned the youngest ever undisputed heavyweight world champion. Unification bouts against James “Bonecrusher” Smith and Tony Tucker, coupled with victories over former WBC champion Pinklon Thomas and Olympic champion Tyrell Biggs, preceded his signature wins over Holmes and Spinks.

The all-time great Larry Holmes was dealt the only knockout of his seventy-five fight career. Tyson then stopped Michael Spinks, who still lay claim to the lineal championship, inside ninety seconds in a megafight. Michael Spinks’ pre-fight look of fear remains an iconic moment in boxing.

This bout closed the chapter on three years of Tyson’s unparalleled dominance. From debutant to world champion, from an unknown fighter to an unforgettable superstar, Tyson beat every opponent in near identical fashion. He left an indelible mark on the sport’s history.

Anthony Joshua has had a mildly similar early career trajectory to Mike Tyson. He has amassed a loyal and fervent fanbase who fill arenas wherever in Britain he fights. They come baying for blood – forget quantity, quick, brutal knockouts is what they crave. All his contests have ended inside the distance but, like a teenage Tyson, he too has only fought fringe contenders – including Charles Martin.

Joshua’s physique is extraordinary and his speed and power have overwhelmed his eighteen opponents to date. The question remains whether the Wladimir Klitschko fight has come too early. Should we believe he can be even half as dominant against elite opposition?

“He has the ultimate test. A test which should come maybe after 27 or 28 fights,” acknowledges his promoter Eddie Hearn. “Why risk it now? He wants to challenge himself. Is he the guy everyone talks about as the future of boxing?” Fights against world-class fighters like Kubrat Pulev and Alexander Povetkin before Klitschko would have gone some way to answering this question. However thanks to Mr. Hearn this sense of the unknown has only added to the excitement of what lies ahead.

With so few career rounds under his belt, it is difficult to assess whether Joshua has the footwork, head movement, anticipation and mastery of distance he may need against Wladimir Klitschko. That’s if brute force and electric speed are not enough.

One must not forget that Tyson, while equally as powerful, was also hard to hit. Before his lifestyle took its toll, Tyson’s perfect footwork and constant head and body movement laid the foundations for not only ferocious combination punching but also an elite defence. These skills, taught by his trainer and father figure Cus d’Amato, are something Anthony Joshua cannot call upon this evening.

Joshua is aware of this and in Thursday’s pre-fight press conference admitted “I may not be the best but what I do well, I do brilliantly.” He even mocked himself in Anthony Joshua: The Road to Klitschko and joked “deep down I am a shit boxer” after failing to master the “sparbar” on return to his childhood gym. Despite the obvious overstatement the point stands: he is aware of his limitations.

Thus the task ahead of him is arguably even stiffer than that faced by Tyson against Berbick. Joshua, with a more limited skillset, is looking to beat a greater champion. Can he knock out Klitschko like he has his less accomplished opponents? Is his power all conquering?

Uncertainty remains around the Ukranian himself. In a sport where you are supposedly only “as good as your last fight” the Tyson Fury defeat has proved troublesome for some. Despite few signs of deterioration before the fight, Klitschko failed to let his hands go consistently in any of the twelve rounds. Yet this is a trait Klitschko has shown ever since taking the late trainer Emmanuel Steward’s advice to fight “tall”.

In a seven-round knockout of Hasim Rahman in 2008, Klitschko refused to throw combinations despite his opponent being propped up against the ropes for most of the bout. The contest only ended after intervention from the referee. Klitschko’s height and reach, along with fleet of foot, have always allowed him to fight safe and take as few risks as possible.

This was not the case against the taller Tyson Fury. He often found himself out of range and consequently never comfortable enough to close the distance by the amount needed to win. This matchup issue goes at least some of way to explaining his bad performance. If his brother Vitali is anything to go by, once the second best heavyweight in the world at age 41, Wladimir Klitschko still has more to give.

Anthony Joshua is up against both history and a formidable foe tonight. If Klitschko reigns supreme again his legend will grow to new levels. If Joshua can win by devastating knockout, the result will be shocking. And if the latter happens perhaps older viewers will be reminded of the excitement, if only for a moment, that Mike Tyson once brought into their lives.

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