Death by uppercut. That was the sentence Anthony Joshua handed out to Kubrat Pulev on Saturday night.
Joshua took his time, he made everyone wait, but when the ninth round knockout was finally administered it had a savage beauty. He battered Pulev with uppercuts before finishing him off the Bulgarian with an overhand right worthy of space in any highlight reel.
It’s now 18 months and one week since Joshua’s shock defeat to Andy Ruiz at Madison Square Garden. That night sent reverberations through the heavyweight division, reverberations that were still visible in AJ’s performance. At times he seemed gun shy, slightly fearful to let the hands go, just in case he got caught with something meaningful coming back.
These two were supposed to meet in October 2017, but Pulev pulled out with an injury just 10 days before. Carlos Takam stepped in as a late replacement, he caused Joshua a few problems and hung around longer than expected before the fight was waved off in the tenth.
The first two rounds last night were tentative from both men as they tried to shake off the inevitable ring rust that comes with spending so long without fighting. Sparring is great, but it’s nothing like the real deal.
In the third round, though, the fight exploded into life and Joshua put his foot to the floor and showed that Pulev was in way out of his depth. Pulev turned his back and ran towards his corner, appearing to quit. The referee would have been well within his rights to call the fight here.
Fortunately, he didn’t. Instead, he sent Joshua into a neutral corner and administered a standing count. Joshua picked up where he left off, flooring Pulev with a combination of punches. It seemed the fight was done, but Pulev managed to survive till the bell. “The old AJ would have emptied the tank in the fourth round,” Joshua’s promoter Eddie Hearn told IFL TV, “but he’s much wiser now and that’s how he’s going to beat people.”
The 1,000 lucky fans who were allowed in Wembley Arena and the millions watching around the world were expecting a fast finish. “He [Anthony Joshua] is one of the greatest finishers we have seen when he has his man hurt,” said Gareth A. Davies on DAZN. It was a surprise that the predator-like instincts we have seen from Joshua over the years didn’t kick in.
The six rounds in between the early knockdowns and the finish were strange. Joshua kept behind his jab, choosing to play it safe. Pulev gradually recovered and began to come back into the contest. We do need to be clear, though, apart from one right hand the Bulgarian never really threatened and the Brit won every round.
Since he was rocked by Dillian Whyte and put on the ground by Wladamir Klitschko there has been a sense of fragility, a lingering doubt, a what if about Joshua. Those feelings were only heightened by the loss to Ruiz last summer. So, as Pulev began to slide his way back into the fight those same feelings started to come to the for again. What if? Pulev lands a big right hand the whole fight could be turned on its head.
As the fight entered the ninth round the questions still remained, but Joshua put them to bed in stunning fashion. He sent Pulev to the canvas with a flurry of uppercuts that Joshua dedicated to Mike Tyson in a post-fight interview. Pulev survived the count, but looked hurt. This time the predatory instincts were there for all to see as Joshua unleashed a bomb of a right hand that his opponent crumpling to the canvas.
It was a knockout that cast the mind back to his victory over Zumbano Love in his eleventh fight. The knockout of Love was a warm-up for the bigger test of Kevin Johnson; was Saturday night the warm-up for a mega-fight with Tyson Fury? You’d certainly hope so.
Fury holds the WBC belt, while Joshua has the IBF, IBO, WBO and WBA belts firmly in his grasp. The undisputed fight has to happen. It is rumoured that the purse split between Fury and AJ has been agreed. These fights aren’t easy to make, though, the money at stake is astronomical and both men are heavily entrenched in complicated contracts.
There seems a real willingness to make the fight on both sides, a lot more than when Joshua and Hearn were trying to clinch a deal with Deontay Wilder. The public blasted them for not sealing that deal, but if the bout with Fury is made that disappointment will vanish in a heartbeat.
By Alex Brinton