Joshua v Pulev: Heavyweight pressure, a need for blinkers and a boosted profile

By Mike CostelloBBC boxing correspondent
Mike Tyson quote: "The heavyweight championship will drive people crazy. You know that right?"
Costello recalls striking words Mike Tyson once shared with him
Anthony Joshua v Kubrat Pulev
Venue: Wembley Arena Date: Saturday, 12 December
Coverage: Commentary on BBC Radio 5 Live & BBC Sounds from 22:00 GMT; live text coverage on the BBC Sport website & app


The reaction bellowed by Anthony Joshua in our ringside interview on BBC Radio 5 Live after he had avenged his defeat by Andy Ruiz Jr to regain three versions of the world heavyweight title in Saudi Arabia a year ago this week.

Joshua was proud beyond measure to have joined the list of two-time heavyweight champions which has grown exponentially in this era of four recognised world sanctioning bodies. He also became a member of a more select group - only he, Floyd Patterson, Muhammad Ali and Lennox Lewis regained the title(s) in an immediate rematch.

Joshua's redemption mission continues, his preparedness to deal with the onus and responsibilities of a champion strengthened by harsh experience. The challenges emerge on either side of the ropes and are emphasised in the words of another two-time champion, Mike Tyson: "The heavyweight championship will drive people crazy, you know that right?"

Tyson was speaking on our podcast, 5 Live Boxing With Costello and Bunce, in response to Joshua's thrilling win against Wladimir Klitschko at Wembley Stadium more than three years ago. "It's like the crown of thorns," Tyson told us, "everyone wants to test you, to use you for something. It's like being the president of the United States."

He followed up with a strikingly prescient assessment of what lay ahead for Joshua, which could only have come from a wearied mind once skewered by those thorns: "Joshua has the potential to do a lot of things. But there is so much pressure on him. Let's see if he can handle all that stuff."

Anthony Joshua v Kubrat Pulev in 60 seconds

Tyson's first reign as champion ended in February 1990 when he was stopped in 10 rounds by James 'Buster' Douglas in a shock generally regarded as the biggest in heavyweight championship history. It became the result against which Joshua's downfall against Ruiz Jr 18 months ago was measured.

Joshua had come to recognise "all that stuff" referred to by Tyson - and in a searingly honest discussion in Saudi Arabia, having avenged the Ruiz defeat, Joshua's reflections sounded like an echo: "The responsibilities of being world champion are difficult. All that stuff, feeling so tired, dealing with obligations."

As he prepares for the first outing of his second reign, Joshua has spoken of the need to be more "uncivilised", to instil an uncompromising, selfish approach designed to protect his prowess in the ring.

This week, he finds himself in familiar territory in that much of the build-up to the fight against Kubrat Pulev has centred on where he goes next. Just as a potential showdown with Deontay Wilder dominated the narrative around the first Ruiz fight, so the prospect of facing Tyson Fury once or even twice next year is an ever-present theme this time. In horse racing parlance, Joshua must apply the blinkers.

It could be argued that Joshua's reputation has been boosted during his year-long absence from the ring. The surprise win for Alexander Povetkin in devastating style against Dillian Whyte in August reshaped the perspective on Joshua's performance against the Russian in September 2018. Joshua was troubled early on but rebounded to batter Povetkin in seven rounds, a result which now carries much more credit.

Whyte's reverse was one of a trio in what has become the year of the heavyweight underdog. Povetkin, Fury and Joe Joyce all started second favourite in their respective big fights and all left the ring the winner.

Wilder was a narrow choice with the bookmakers to beat Fury in Las Vegas in February and Daniel Dubois was heavily-favoured to overpower Joyce in London last month - the outcomes returning the division to a state of unpredictability and serving as notes of caution to Joshua.

At 31, Joshua has the scope and the mentality to build anew. He is a student of the history of the heavyweight championship and the annals show how Ali beat George Foreman at the age of 32 and Lewis outpointed Evander Holyfield at 33.

Joshua is the underdog in the early betting for any contest against Tyson Fury but the odds could be reframed based on his performance against Pulev on Saturday. In Saudi last year, Joshua accepted that his reputation would be forever tarnished should he suffer a second successive reverse against Ruiz and defeat by Pulev carries a similar threat to his legacy.

In the Bulgarian, Joshua faces a dour stayer who has been on the fringes of the elite during a spell dating back to the reign of the Klitschko brothers. Pulev's only defeat in 29 fights came in 2014 against a prime Wladimir, who called on Joshua for sparring in preparation for the fight. On the night, Pulev shook Klitschko with a jab in the opening seconds but was later decked four times himself, three of them from heavy left hooks.

For Joshua, Klitschko represents inspiration - as a man whose standing in heavyweight lore is based almost entirely on his second reign as world champion.

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