Boxing's heavyweight division has regained grandeur

Andy Lewis 23:32 30/04/2017
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Heavyweight champion: Anthony Joshua.

Anthony Joshua’s stunning 11th round stoppage of Wladimir Klitschko was a rarity in this modern era of prizefighting – a blockbuster bout which more than lived up to the hype.

Two years ago, an ultra-cautious Floyd Mayweather and a secretly-injured Manny Pacquiao contested the mother of all stinkers in an event which smashed all records but left a global audience shortchanged and disgruntled.

This couldn’t have been more different. This was an instant classic, a throwback, boxing at its cinematic best. It was the type of fight which draws new fans to the sport. This was the rebirth of boxing’s marquee attraction – the heavyweights.

Precious little in the whole of sport is as intoxicating as a genuine heavyweight thriller, and this one was played out in front of 90,000 live spectators and tens of millions more watching in over 140 countries worldwide.

This was both a tipping point for Joshua’s mass appeal and a watershed moment in the recent history of boxing’s top division.

The emergence of names like Joshua, Tyson Fury, Joseph Parker and Deontay Wilder has seen interest in the big men rekindled. On Saturday night, it caught fire.

This crop may not be on the same level as the fabled names of yesteryear, but is surely a massive improvement on the endless line of one-dimensional suspects who have been sleepwalking into Klitschko’s fists for more than a decade. And in Joshua, this new generation has a leader. A transcendent star with global appeal who has the potential to restore heavyweight boxing to something like its previous popularity.

Former champ Lennox Lewis was still “buzzing” last night as he sent out a series of tweets which encapsulated how most boxing fans were feeling. Almost 24 hours had passed and he was still trembling with excitement, unable to come down off of an almighty high.

Lewis had been sat ringside to watch the biggest heavyweight event since he knocked out Mike Tyson 15 years ago, and as it turned out, by far the best title fight the division has produced since he and the elder Klitschko sibling, Vitali, exchanged blows in five furious rounds in his final fight in 2003.

Lewis is often referred to as the last of the great heavyweights, such was the paucity of entertainment during the Klitschko era which followed his retirement.

The Ukrainian brothers will go down as all-time greats for their sheer dominance, but there’s no hiding the fact that in their hands, the heavyweight championship of the world went from being the most prestigious title in all of sport to virtual obscurity, a faded trinket fought over in the provinces of Germany to little or no acclaim.

And as Vitali retired and Wladimir grew older and more cautious, the knockouts dried up and what little interest remained evaporated. It was bad enough that the result was predeterminable, but without the consolation prize of a brutal finish, the tedium became almost unbearable.

Fury’s victory over Klitschko in 2015 cracked the division wide open and restored its unpredictably. Joshua has brought back the glamour and the knockouts.

Klitschko also deserves immense credit for his role in Saturday’s drama, his rare preference for a bold approach finally bringing the fanfare his talent deserves. It also proved once again that in boxing, legacies are built on much more than just a flawless record.

He’ll give a rematch serious consideration, but AJ has options. Wilder looms up ahead in a fascinating UK/US showdown, while the biggest fight to be made would be if Fury could return fit and healthy to settle a rivalry which has been simmering away.

These are no longer merely big fights in the division, these are some of the biggest fights in the whole of boxing. The heavyweights are back.

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