Two years ago, when Wladimir Klitschko suggested Anthony Joshua could one day be the final opponent of his career, he would have had little idea how ominously prescient those words potentially were, nor scarcely believed the circumstances in which their upcoming bout would be consummated.
Back then Klitschko was still on top, peerless at the pinnacle of heavyweight boxing and merely offering some benevolent soundbites to peckish British journalists.
That in such a short turnaround he would have lost his belts in ignominious fashion to Tyson Fury, been written off as a spent force, and now be heading to London to face Joshua in a title bout as both challenger and betting outsider, might all have been a little too fanciful even for the erudite and worldly mind of Dr Steelhammer.
Klitschko may have more knockout victories (53) than Joshua has boxed rounds as a professional (44) – but that is the scenario facing the Ukrainian.
Yet while a heavy defeat on Saturday would likely see him bludgeoned into retirement, he prefers to envisage how a victory and becoming a three-time heavyweight champion would elevate him to new levels of greatness.
And despite a growing army of naysayers confidently predicting his demise, literally nothing in Klitschko’s words or demeanour in the build-up has suggested he harbours any doubts in his own mind or fear in his heart. It’s absolutely clear that he fancies the job in front of him.
Whereas with most fighters you’d dismiss that as the extreme bravado of their default setting, it’s harder to do so with the 41-year-old Klitschko, whose thirst for knowledge extends beyond the realm of linguistics or his PhD in Sports Science and is always rigorously applied to his opponents.
In Joshua, with whom he sparred ahead of his 2014 annihilation of Kubrat Pulev, he sees a man he can beat. A man whose attributes he can nullify. A fight he can control. Klitschko and his team feel that Joshua’s aggressive seek and destroy style is tailor-made for him. The Ukrainian’s trainer, Jonathon Banks, has seen it up close, having worked Dillian Whyte’s corner the night he gave Joshua his biggest scare as a pro when he clipped him with a left hook – an underrated weapon in the Klitschko arsenal – in the second round of their British title fight in December 2015.
Of course, to suggest ‘AJ’ hasn’t matured since then would be foolish, but despite all the talk of mutual respect, the deep belief in the Klitschko camp is that they are catching Joshua before he’s ready for a challenge of this magnitude.
They are convinced his inexperience will be the crucial factor, that his chin is suspect and that the muscle-bound tyro will run out of gas if dragged into the championship rounds for the first time in his fledgling career.
The irony there is that in Dusseldorf 17 months ago, it was Klitschko who ran out of steam as he was stunningly dethroned by Fury. His dismal performance that night began the sequence of events which leads us to a 90,000 sellout at Wembley Stadium, but Klitschko is adamant it will be the version of him which ruled heavyweight boxing for a decade who will show up, not the muddled veteran so hopelessly duped by Fury’s chicanery.
He looked spooked that night, perhaps the logical conclusion to a madcap prelude where Fury lurched from praise to profanity, respect to ridicule, and then backed it all up with a display of beguiling feints and agile lateral movement which rendered the long-reigning champion gun-shy and impotent.
However, in Klitschko’s mind, it was an aberration, an off-night after he’d uncharacteristically allowed an opponent to get inside his head. Indeed, in spite of his formidable intellect, the ego simmers just below the surface and perhaps the notion of losing to the clownish Fury grew so abhorrent that it became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
He has certainly appeared happier soaking up Joshua’s respectful platitudes, and far more comfortable with hatching a gameplan for an opponent he expects to come to him.
The doubters say his inability to pull the trigger against Fury, a laborious victory over Bryant Jennings six months earlier and a 17-month lay-off are compelling reasons to crown Joshua. Klitschko begs to differ, and is clearly in no mood to pass the torch just yet.
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