Photos by Esther Lin/SHOWTIME
It can be easy to forget that heavyweight boxers have little practical use for weigh-ins. Unlike fighters in every other division, heavyweights can be as large as they want. So in the absence of any regulatory function, the act of putting two big guys on a scale only serves to promote the fight.
Over the last few decades, as the heavyweight division lagged behind more entertaining weight classes, that promotion has served to compensate for a lackluster product.
That wasn’t a problem in London at Friday’s weigh-in ahead of IBF champion Anthony Joshua’s Saturday-night bout against legendary heavyweight Wladimir Klitschko. There wasn’t any redundant, bombastic nonsense or what sportswriters refer to as “wrestling shit.” Mike Tyson did not threaten to eat anyone’s children.
The fight already sold out Wembley Stadium, which added an additional 10,000 seats for a post-war record crowd of 90,000. So instead of accusing anyone of receiving botox injections, as Tyson Fury did to Klitschko ahead of their 2015 bout, the most successful and experienced heavyweight on the planet was able to share some sober thoughts about Saturday’s fight.
“It’s going to be challenging for [Joshua],” Klitschko (64-4, 54 KOs) said after weighing in at 240.5 pounds. “It’s going to be challenging for me. And I said both chances are 50-50. Each of us have as much potential to win the fight.”
But if Saturday’s fight is a coin flip right now, it’s only because that in spite of his title, Joshua (18-0, 18 KOs) remains a relative unknown. He simply hasn’t been tested. Were it not for Joshua’s knock out of Charles Martin—a man who won a vacant IBF crown when opponent Vyacheslav Glazkov slipped and tore his ACL during their 2016 bout—he wouldn’t have any title to defend.
“It is a big step for A.J.,” Klitschko said. “He hasn’t fought that type of quality fighter yet.”
Joshua does deserve some credit for knocking out all 18 opponents he’s faced. The 27-year-old Watford native also took gold at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.
And he did survive the only true test of his career back in 2015 against Dillian Whyte, who actually beat Joshua when the two were amateurs. Before the fight was stopped in the seventh, Whyte briefly turned the tables in the second round and appeared to hurt Joshua, who recovered for a dominating win.
“He did get hurt and he responded well,” Showtime boxing analyst Steve Farhood explained. “Now that wasn’t against the highest level of opponent. But he did get hurt and he responded and won the fight. That told me something about him that maybe some people are overlooking.” (Saturday’s fight is will be broadcast live on Showtime at 4:15 p.m. ET followed by a rebroadcast on HBO at 11 p.m. ET).
As Farhood explained, Whyte isn’t Klitschko—a behemoth who looked unstoppable in between his 2007 loss to Lamon Brewster and his disappointing performance in a unanimous-decision defeat to Tyson Fury in November of 2015.
It was during that time that the 6-foot-7 Klitschko worked with late trainer Emanuel Steward, who helped create the modern heavyweight, for better or worse.
“Emanuel Steward changed him as a fighter technically,” Farhood said. “Nobody was better at teaching big heavyweights how to fight tall like Emanuel. Now I know Wladimir’s first fight with Emanuel was the Brewster knockout, so he didn’t get off to a very good start. But once he was able to implement his teachings, I think Klitschko became a different fighter. And he became a lot less exciting and a lot less fan friendly, but a lot more effective in the ring because he fought tall, he never fought on the inside and if you got close to him, he draped his body over you and held. And it wasn’t pleasing to watch, but it was effective.”
The strategy turned heavyweight fights into slow, plodding affairs and nobody embraced that more than Klitschko.
His power didn’t go anywhere, but Klitschko still became far more reliant on his jab. Incredibly over his last 14 fights, 60.4% of Klitschko’s landed punches were jabs, which is 32% higher than the CompuBox average. And whereas the average heavyweight throws 24.3 power punches per round, according to CompuBox, Klitschko has averaged only 14.9 power punches per round over his last 14 fights. (Interestingly enough, Klitschko and his older brother Vitali, the current mayor of Kiev, share the CompuBox heavyweight record for jabs landed in a round with 38.)
Things got even slower in his last fight when Klitschko appeared frustrated by Fury’s 6-foot-9 frame and staggering reach.
But to some, that performance was an aberration for the 41-year old.
“His strength is his jab and his right hand,” Farhood said. “He’s always been hesitant to use [the right]. I don’t think that’s necessarily something new. To judge him in a physical sense or a strategic sense from the Tyson Fury fight, I think is a mistake because Fury fought a certain type of fight with constant movement and the range to be able to stay away from Klitschko. And that made Klitschko even more hesitant to throw punches.”
Fury, who has since taken a leave from the sport to deal with depression, may not immediately seem more mobile than the 6-foot-6, 250-pound Joshua. But even though he’s in better shape than his countryman, Joshua keeps his movement to a minimum, stepping and pivoting whenever necessary.
And even though Joshua’s opponents have landed fewer than eight punches per round over his last four fights (just half the heavyweight average, according to CompuBox), his limited footwork will put his defense to the test.
“I think being that Joshua is not particularly a mover,” said Farhood. “I think this will give Klitschko more of an opportunity to throw that right hand.”
“There’s a lot of flaws that Joshua has,” said WBC champion Deontay Wilder, who could ultimately face the winner of Saturday’s fight. “A lot of people look at Joshua and they’re going off of his physique and they’re going off of the hype that their countryman has brought to them.”
That doesn’t make Joshua a bad fighter. But his reputation as a paper champion is warranted. Like Wilder, Joshua has suffered for the lack of elite heavyweights in recent years.
Neither has a signature win against a talented, skilled opponent. Should Joshua beat Klitschko—a 41-year-old whose future in the sport remains clouded—then the 31-year-old Wilder (38-0, 37 knockouts) would have a young champion against whom he could test himself.
And while Joshua has only a shred of Klitschko’s experience, he does possess boxing’s great equalizer: knockout power.
“With Joshua, he’s got the height and he’s got the power,” Wilder continued. “In the heavyweight division, you don’t need skills. As long as you have the power, that’s what makes up the heavyweight division. You’re in the game once you’ve got that power.”