In an era in which boxing has increasingly become a niche form of entertainment, defined more by controversy and hype than by the spectacle of the sport itself, Saturday’s epic bout was a revelation.
In the wake of Ali and Frazier’s bout in Manilla in 1975, Hugh McIlvanney, the masterful Scots writer who made an art form of sports reporting, reflected on what he had just witnessed.”What we felt was awe at the spectacle of extraordinary men setting new limits for themselves,” he wrote, “pushing back the boundaries of their courage, their physical and psychological capacity.” The Thrilla in Manilla, that extraordinary moment in boxing lore, for McIlvanney, represented the best of boxing, the epic and terrible sight of two men locked in desperate battle. For those looking on, it transcended the mere curiosity of watching a scene of pain and aggression and became something more profound.
It was nights such as these that made boxing a sport apart in the popular consciousness for much of the 20th century. It was a sense that for all the grime that surrounded the sport, the crooks and sharks that controlled it, the brutal and often tragic men who practiced it, there was something enduring and pure at it’s heart. Something that spoke something to humanity in general. In those years boxing established a place in literature that few sports enjoy. Mailer and Hemingway both loved and wrote about it. It was an obvious subject for a writer, filled with drama, suffering and fleeting triumph.
But slowly, boxing’s relevance fell into decline. The sport, never exactly a paragon of good and honest practices, was split between a bewildering array of sanctioning bodies and belts. The prestige of the champion became devalued as the number of “champs” proliferated, many of whom seemed to have picked their way to titles. Promoters realised they could make eye watering sums through pay per view. The biggest fights and fighters disappeared from the airwaves of terrestrial tv. Increasingly, boxing became the preserve of a few diehards, willing to pay to watch it. The era of the boxing champion as a public icon in the vein of Louis, Marciano or of course Ali, appeared to be fading.
With the dawn of UFC, the flashy, better organised and aggressively promoted newcomer added to the sense that boxing was a sport on the decline. The sums involved were of course still huge as Mayweather’s long reign as the most profitable athlete demonstrated. But fighters and promoters seemed reduced to stunts and artificial hostility. Press conferences and weigh-ins became pantomimes of cliched trash talk and simmering bad blood that predictably evaporated at the sound of the final bell.
The fight at Wembley, though, is a defiant testament against the idea that boxing has lost it’s ability to thrill or to enthral the imagination of the masses. The fight was preceded by levels of anticipation rarely seen for decades. Joshua adorned magazines and national newspapers. 90,000 filled Wembley to watch it.
Most crucially of course, the fight actually lived up to it’s billing. These were two fighters engaged in a test that both knew would define their careers from then on. There was no playing for the gallery, no artificial grudges cultivated for the media. There was no need. The fight was enough. No circus required.
What was at stake showed in the way both men endured and recovered from punches that seemingly should have rendered them helpless on the canvas. Both struggled to their unsteady feet with almost superhuman effort. Ultimately it fell to the referee to decide that Klitschko could not withstand any more of the punishment being served to him, although the Ukrainian veteran looked determined to see it out to the bitter end.
Anthony Joshua, in knocking out Wladimir Klitschko, provided irrefutable evidence of his talent. There will always be naysayers, of course. Klitschko, at 41, is a long way from his peak. But Joshua can no longer be dismissed as a spectacularly successful marketing venture. He has proved his pedigree even if some will no doubt begrudge the acclaim he will now receive.
Joshua has always projected an image of humility and magnanimousness. He stresses his work and dedication rather than his achievements. This has at times seemed to some slightly disingenuous. The idea that Joshua’s public persona is a front was one that Dilian Whyte seized on, presumably because he knew the criticism resonated with a section of the audience. But in the post-fight interviews, with his face providing ample evidence of the strain of the fight, Joshua’s words took on a new weight. The earnestness did not seem rehearsed. This was not a presentation, a subtle sales pitch but an exhausted man recalling the herculean effort needed to overcome a foe whose experience and ringcraft was matched only by his pride.
The purse of the bid, with PPV and ticket revenue, is rumoured to have been around £40 million. A huge sum, but one that both fighters earned on the night. In doing so they also restored some lustre to a long stagnating heavyweight division.
It was of course Tyson Fury ,who first stirred the pot and created the conditions for this clash to take place. He was the one to dethrone Klitschko, to take the heavyweight championship back to Britain, to confound the most dominant heavyweight of this century and walk away with a comfortable points victory. Fury’s fan base will note bitterly that the acclaim now being showered upon Joshua was far less emphatic when the “Gypsy King” vanquished Klitschko with comparative ease.
For now though, Joshua deserves to enjoy his success for a while. He has just emerged victorious from a fight that is already being hailed as the greatest of the century so far. Undoubtedly becoming world champion in such a spectacular manner, in the country’s most iconic stadium, is up there amongst the best nights for British boxing.
McIlvanney, speculating (somewhat prematurely as it turned out) on Ali’s looming departure from boxing described that titanic night in the sweltering heat of Manila as a sort of “requiem for the heavyweight division.” Is it overly lofty to say the same of what we saw on Saturday night? But just as Saturday night alluded to a bygone era, when boxing could command the attention and emotion of an enraptured public, it also hints at one to come. Tyson Fury has stated his intention to return to the ring. Deontay Wilder, the pick of the American heavyweights, was in the crowd at Wembley. Perhaps, it was not only a requiem for the past but also the baptism of a new era.