Joshua v Klitschko flashback: AJ must reach new peak to secure heavyweight legacy

By Sports Desk April 29, 2020

Tens of thousands of jubilant fans cheering, shouting and singing in unison is one of the most appealing an enduring aspects of major sporting events – an experience of communal joy so lacking in today's altered reality.

However, the most striking memory from Anthony Joshua's bravura display against Wladimir Klitschko at Wembley three years ago is not the delirium that followed a stunning 11th-round victory.

That came in round five, when British boxing's golden boy crashed to the canvas as he appeared to be unravelling entirely under the great Klitschko's veteran fists. Heard from the media seats, the sound of 90,000 people gasping into a worried silence was unlike anything else.

As it transpired, Joshua regained his senses and harnessed a first significant brush with adversity to pummel his way to the sweetest of triumphs in a heavyweight fight for the ages.

On that night at England's national stadium, a mere 10 miles from the Finchley ABC gym where he first laced up gloves, Joshua was the man. Similarly, unbeaten knockout artist Deontay Wilder did not have a comparable victory on his record and the heavyweight division's other undefeated champion was in a period of torrid absentia.

"Tyson Fury, where you at, baby?" hollered Joshua in the ring afterwards, drunk on adrenaline and solid right hands.

"Come on - that's what they want to see. I just want to fight everyone. I'm really enjoying this right now."

FRUSTRATION AND STAGNATION

For a chunk of the intervening years, an argument can be made that Joshua was guided by the magnitude of his heroics against Klitschko, as opposed to the factors that landed him in trouble in the first place. He would suffer accordingly.

For that 19th professional bout, Joshua weighed a career heaviest 17st 12lbs. At least, that was until he put on four more pounds for his next outing against Carlos Takam, staged at the Principality Stadium in Cardiff.

That laboured 10-round triumph was followed by a points win over Joseph Parker to add the WBO title to his IBF and WBA straps. Joshua going the distance for the first time in his career was the most notable aspect in an impressive, yet cagey and rather forgettable win.

Back at Wembley on a sodden September evening in 2018, the champion overcame early problems and a bloodied nose against Alexander Povetkin to almost deposit the veteran Russian through the ropes in round seven.

Once again there was vulnerability and drama from British boxing's box office star on the biggest stage. But there was a mounting problem when it came to giving the people what they wanted. Like Takam and Parker, Povetkin was a fine and worthy foe. But he wasn't Fury and Wilder.

WILDER AND FURY PLOT THEIR OWN PATH

The cynical opportunism big-time boxing does better than any other sport was emphatically on show when Wilder's December 2018 showdown with Fury was confirmed on the same day Joshua fought Povetkin. It marked a shift in the heavyweight division's centre of gravity.

However much Joshua's team had sought a Wilder bout through increasingly fractious and public negotiations, the other two members of the big three facing one another reflected badly on their man in the court of public opinion.

Wilder would also be proved guilty of a miscalculation. Now the dust has settled on two unforgettable bouts with Fury, it is easy to forget what a rank outsider the 'Gypsy King' was going into their initial meeting at Los Angeles' Staples Center.

Yes, he was the man who beat the man, having dethroned Klitschko in November 2015, but personal issues temporarily halted his career.

That Fury returned to the prize ring at all was an achievement and bouts lacking any particular merit against Sefer Seferi and Francesco Pianeta should be viewed in that context. Before taking on Wilder, Fury had not had a meaningful bout in three years.

And yet, he had the better of the majority of the fight, even after being put down in round nine. All of that was a mere warm-up for a scarcely credible 12th – Fury rising improbably and cinematically from a brutal knockdown to reach the final bell and be rightly disappointed by a split-decision draw.

Both men marked time in 2019. Wilder inflicting his stupefying power upon Dominic Breazeale and Luis Ortiz, while Fury banked a pair of high-reward/low-risk wins on American soil against Tom Schwarz and Otto Wallin.

In between those two wins, Joshua showed winning Stateside with the deck stacked in your favour offered no guarantees.

BRIT BASHING IN THE BIG APPLE

AJ was a couple of pounds lighter than when he fought Klitschko as he ponderously pawed his way through the opening two rounds against late replacement Andy Ruiz Jr at Madison Square Garden.

Still, his shuddering muscularity found a wonderful combination to deck the Mexican in the third. The juggernaut appeared to be charging on until a stunning derailment.

Just as he had done against Klitschko, Joshua surged in for the finish, only to get caught himself. Scrambled from a shot to the temple, he crumpled to the canvas. He was back there again by the end of the round.

Unlike at Wembley, the senses did not clear. The powers of recovery failed him.

Despite being inferior to Klitschko in just about every department, Ruiz did not share the Ukrainian's innate caution. His fast hands continued to fly, a befuddled Joshua went down twice more in round seven and the heavyweight division had its biggest upset since James 'Buster' Douglas beat Mike Tyson.

REDEMPTION IN RIYADH, DEMOLITION IN VEGAS

Now, of course, all four major belts are locked down in the United Kingdom.

After out-boxing Wilder first time around, Fury simply beat up his foe in February to win the WBC title – a win that, aligned with his Klitschko triumph, gives him a resume to compete with many of the most celebrated big men in history.

Joshua heeded the lessons he should have learned in the haze of his post-Wembley triumph by coming in 10 pounds lighter for the return with Ruiz, jabbing and moving with a nimble speed not seen since his early days in the professional ranks. 

You can only beat what's in front of you. And there was an awful lot of Ruiz in front of him. A title won in the gym and the ring six months earlier was partially lost by failing to count calories.

Joshua bears no responsibility for his opponent's unprofessionalism and becoming the fourth man to regain the heavyweight title in an immediate rematch after Floyd Patterson, Muhammad Ali and Lennox Lewis puts him in esteemed company.

Nevertheless, the topsy-turvy triumph over Klitschko still shines brightest on his 24-fight record. If this remains the case, it will mean Fury, or maybe even the vanquished Wilder, have ended this resurgent heavyweight era on top. Once mandatory obligations are satisfied, those are the fights Joshua needs more than ever.

Everything felt possible for Joshua after his famous Wembley night and that is still broadly true. But if he is to top that dizzying high and follow the trajectory that seemed so certain back then, there is work to be done.

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    The union had become broken to the point of no return in the closing stages, but there were plenty of good times before the inevitable break-up.

    FALLING HEAD OVER HEELS

    Ozil arrived at Arsenal in September 2013. The Gunners did not just break their transfer record to sign him from Real Madrid, they shattered it by paying around £42.5million.

    "This is an exciting day for all of us. We have signed a world-class player who is one of Europe's brightest young talents," said Ivan Gazidis, Arsenal's chief executive at the time, when the deal was announced.

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    Arsenal's big-name recruit did not take long to make an impact, setting up a goal for Olivier Giroud 11 minutes into his Premier League debut away at Sunderland. It would be the first of many laid on for the Frenchman, who benefited more than any other team-mate from the playmaker's abilities.

    Ozil's eye for a pass and talent for producing subtle moments of skill saw him quickly enchant the club's fanbase. How could they possibly do anything but fall for him?

    His opening year in England saw him score five goals and contribute nine assists in 26 league appearances. He won the FA Cup, helping Arsene Wenger's side rally from an early 2-0 deficit to defeat Hull City 3-2 in the Wembley final. Two months later, he was lifting the World Cup in South Africa.


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    Ozil's second season included a lengthy spell on the sidelines, restricting him to 22 outings in the Premier League. He did help them retain the FA Cup though, this time with a comprehensive 4-0 victory over Aston Villa.

    However, the Gunners saw the best of him in the two years that followed. In 2015-16, he laid on 19 assists – one shy of Thierry Henry's record – and created 146 chances, the latter number the most by any player in the competition for a single season since 2003-04. He was also the subject of seemingly thousands of Twitter memes, too.

    Arsenal ended up second in the final table, 10 points behind surprise champions Leicester City. The glass half-full type pointed to it being their best finish in 11 years, while the less optimistic sort strongly suggested it was more a missed opportunity.

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    Then, in February 2018, came Ozil's new contract. "I signed dat thing," he tweeted at the time, having committed through to 2021. Wenger was with him in the picture, though nobody knew at the time that the manager was coming towards the end of his tenure.

    A lucrative deal handed out to ward off potential suitors and tie down one of the club's leading names appeared a necessity at the time but would quickly become a millstone around the player's neck. The reported weekly salary was referenced so often in the media it should have been added to his name by deed poll.

    In terms of his future output, Ozil managed a mere six goals and five assists in 48 league games after the moment he put pen to paper for three more years.


    DRIFTING APART AND THE INEVITABLE SPLIT

    Relations became strained as Ozil shifted from eye-catching centrepiece to expensive luxury. The focus had switched from how much he produced on the ball to what he didn't do without it. The phasing-out process began during the Unai Emery reign, then led to him being completely ostracised by former team-mate Mikel Arteta.

    Yet it is easy to forget that he did start in the Spaniard's first game in charge, away at Bournemouth. "To be fair, his attitude in training since the day that I walked in the building has been incredible," Arteta told reporters after the 1-1 draw on Boxing Day in 2019.

    Still, six months later, when the Premier League returned following the coronavirus-enforced break, Arteta's tune had changed somewhat. After completely omitting Ozil from the squad to face Manchester City in June in the first game back, Arteta said: "I'm going to put him on the pitch when I think he can give his best.”

    There were two more fixtures when Ozil made the bench, only to be an unused substitute on both occasions. The 2019-20 season saw him play 18 times in the league and he managed a solitary goal and two assists. His final outing for the club came on March 3, 2020 – a 1-0 home victory over West Ham.

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    And yet, as the divorce is confirmed, there is a sense of relief for all involved that it is all over. It was fun, for a while, but the time is right to move on.

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