The future of boxing set to return to the ring Saturday

Kevin Iole
Combat columnist

Boxing is in a renaissance period of sorts, led by a flood of extraordinary young talent. There are more quality fighters under 25 in the game now than there has been at any time in the last decade, maybe longer.

These fighters also bring with them a throwback attitude: They’re not only willing, but eager to face elite opposition.

None of those young potential stars, though, is singularly as important to the sport’s future as a 28-year-old Brit who less than 10 years ago had never been near a boxing ring.

Today, though, heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua, a delightful combination of wit, charisma, power, courage and artistry, stands alone at the sport’s summit, the one man who can propel boxing into the mainstream consciousness.

Joshua, who is 19-0 with 19 knockouts and holds the IBF and WBA versions of the heavyweight crown, defends his title on Saturday in Cardiff, Wales, against late replacement Carlos Takam in a bout televised live in the United States on Showtime.

How Joshua ended up fighting Takam is one of the reasons fans should embrace him. He was supposed to fight Kubrat Pulev, who last week was injured and pulled out of the fight.

Under most circumstances, that would have been it. The fight would have been canceled or postponed and it would have left fans no closer to the match they really want to see: Joshua vs. WBC champion Deontay Wilder.

Eddie Hearn, Joshua’s whip-smart promoter, had Takam in the bullpen, training for this possibility so that if something happened to Pulev, he could step in. This all, though, was contingent upon Joshua being OK with it.

Have no doubt that Joshua signed off on the plan when the Pulev fight was signed, but there was no indication anything would occur.

Yet when Pulev was hurt 10 days before the fight, as Joshua’s preparations were winding down, it would have been easy to say no. Joshua, though, eagerly embraced the change.

Anthony Joshua scored an impressive win over Wladimir Klitschko in April. (Reuters)

“There was no doubt in my mind that I would still fight,” Joshua said on a conference call about when he learned of Pulev’s injury. “If Eddie had opponents lined up, I was definitely still going to fight. There was no point in my mind where I thought that I’m not going to compete or didn’t know what I was going to do. A real bonus is that I always work on myself in the gym, so I haven’t had like 100 Pulev clones coming to the gym. I haven’t been working just solely on the style to defeat Pulev. I’ve been working on improving on my weaknesses and building on my strengths. So, when I heard I wasn’t going to be fighting him and that the next guy in line was Takam, it was like, ‘OK, cool,’ because I’ve still been developing myself anyways.

“You could put me with anyone. What I’ve worked on in the gym and what I’ve built myself into two of these last three months, I should be able to fight anyone. I’m just happy that I don’t have to wait because it probably would have been March or April. That would have been a year out of the ring. I don’t think now is the time to be taking that much time out, so I’m really grateful that the show could still go on.”

Joshua, who was the super heavyweight gold medalist at the 2012 Olympic Games in London, answered whatever questions remained about him in an entertaining victory over Wladimir Klitschko in April.

Yes, Klitschko was 41 and coming off a loss. Yes, he retired after the bout.

But it was a motivated and in-shape Klitschko in the ring, and for 20 years that usually meant doom for an opponent. Joshua, though, not only matched the big man punch for hard punch, but he pulled himself from the deck to win in exciting fashion.

Given the place that heavyweights hold in the hearts of boxing fans – there is boxing and there is heavyweight boxing – that kind of a victory made a point.

After turning to boxing late in life, Joshua made it a point to go to the internet and watch some of the classics. One that he studied was a Jan. 24, 1976, bout in Las Vegas between George Foreman and Ron Lyle that to this day remains one of the most entertaining bouts ever.

Both men were down in a bout that had high expectations going in and exceeded it. Joshua often asked himself what he would do if he found himself in a position like Foreman’s, favored to win and in deep difficulty.

Against Klitschko, he found out.

“Now when I watch boxing, I watch it completely differently,” Joshua said. “When you watch a George Foreman and Ron Lyle kind of fight or [a Muhammad] Ali and Foreman fight, where a bit of their soul and spirit disappears, I always wondered how they were doing it and how they were taking those shots. You always question how, why and what makes people do what they do. Until I went through it, I would always watch boxing but now I don’t just watch it, I understand it. I know the thing that you can’t be taught is how to survive in the trenches. I just feel like my heart is very big, and I wear it on my sleeve in this sport.

“It’s just that mindset. I’m willing to do whatever it takes to win. That’s one thing. I just realized as well what the division needs because I think the masses of people can relate to a boxer’s life. It’s labor, you’re up early, working, you’re resting and providing for your family. There’s also the glitz and glamor of getting money but that disconnects from so many people. The wealthy people are 1 percent of the world, so people just want to see you fight. They want to see you go to war. That’s another thing I’ve learned. … What people want and desire for in this sport [is] to kind of bring the attention back to boxing. I don’t just do it, I don’t just watch it, I really understand it. I know what to do to deliver.”

And deliver he does. He’ll likely pulverize Takam, and while he won’t deserve much praise for that because Takam isn’t remotely in his class talent-wise, his openness to not only fight Wilder, his biggest fight, but also to do it in the U.S. in order to make it as big and as widely seen as possible makes him unique among most fighters.

He is the example that all other fighters should aspire to follow.

A sport filled with men with that attitude would be as healthy and as vibrant as it’s ever been.

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