27 April, 2017

One of the biggest fights in British boxing’s history is set to take place at Wembley Stadium on Saturday night, as Britain’s ever-smiling Anthony Joshua defends his IBF heavyweight title against Wladimir Klitschko, boxing’s self-styled intellectual.

Joshua is an affable, PR-drilled ‘role model’. Following a brief run-in with the law in his youth, the boy turned out pretty good, winning the Olympic gold at London 2012 and embarking on a, so far, successful professional career. He will reportedly earn up to £15m quid — win or lose — for his time in the ring this weekend. And, if he does win, he’ll be enthusiastically confirmed as ‘the future of boxing’, which wouldn’t, in fact, be the great thing for the sport his promoters want us to believe.

The heavyweights should be boxing leading lights, but for a longtime now the division has been in the doldrums thanks to Wladimir and his brother Vitali’s reign of stupor. While the brothers’ stranglehold was ended by Vitali’s retirement and Wlad’s defeat to Tyson Fury, there’s little sign that Joshua has the kind of charisma to carry the sport’s glamour division on his broad shoulders.

Boxing has always been about more than just the fights, and the build-up to a massive fight like this is all part of the thrill for fans. It also contributes in no small part to making historic fights worth remembering. Think Muhammed Ali in 1974 ahead of the Rumble in the Jungle against George Foreman: ‘I done something new for this fight. I wrestled with an alligator. I tussled with a whale. I handcuffed lightning, I thrown thunder in jail. Only last week I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalised a brick. I’m so mean I make medicine sick.’ Or the antics of self-proclaimed ‘baddest man on the planet’ Mike Tyson, who claimed to want to bathe in one of his opponent’s blood. He didn’t, of course, but at least he regularly created exciting, albeit often tasteless, narratives. And, more recently, what about Tyson Fury’s dressing as Batman to spook Klitschko at one of their pre-fight press conferences? Some would say it was more entertaining and memorable than their actual dust up.

For such a huge fight, the build up to Joshua vs Klitschko has been ridiculously placid. The most pointed barb Joshua has thrown — if you can call it that — is that ‘Father Time’ has caught up with his opponent and that that will be his undoing. That some of the press attempted to package the latter as bad blood only illustrates how dull this whole affair, thus far, has been.

‘You’ve got to deal with all the emotions, the trash talk, the this, the that, your energy levels. That’s a part. It’s a dimension of how to win the fight,’ Joshua droned on recently in that quiet, ultra media-trained way of his. It’s like he’s reading from the same short and uninspiring script every single time, and it’s a routine that got boring a long time ago.

Sadly, there is little onus on Joshua to come out of his shell. Through Sky Sports’ aggressive marketing he has become a multi-millionaire before even truly proving himself in the ring. Joshua has the potential to become a very good boxer indeed, and a spectacular win over Klitschko would push him further down that road, but his lack of charisma will surely count against him when his career is over and his legacy is assessed. Boxing at its best is absurd, nasty and wildly entertaining showbusiness – and its most beloved stars create the spectacle both inside and outside the ring.