By Gareth A Davies, Boxing Correspondent for The London Telegraph
Anthony Joshua has been marked by some as 'the saviour of boxing's heavyweight division’ the belief being that he can breathe life into what was an interest-deficient weight class until Tyson Fury ignited the flame seven months ago to consign Wladimir Klitschko’s slumbering reign to dust. The 'dying heavyweight division’, as some had labelled it, has new blood, new feist. At the heart of popular interest - Joshua, with the perfect resume: London 2012 Olympic super heavyweight champion, 16 professional victories, all by knockout, and a newly-minted world champion.
Fury, holder of the WBA, WBO and The Ring Magazine titles, is the legitimate divisional No 1, and regards Joshua as a ‘paper’ champion. Yet it is Joshua who holds the popular vote.
The burning debate on most fans lips, however, which will swirl around Joshua with every victory, is whether he can be the first man to unify boxing's blue riband division since Lennox Lewis in 2003 ? Has it all come too quickly for a neophyte champion who admits himself that he is “ a work in progress as a boxer” ?
Could Joshua be the new kingpin of boxing’s big men ? And what is the time frame ? Does it need to be carefully manicured ? Or will Fury get there before Joshua ? The match-making for Joshua will be essential of course, as it always is in professional boxing at this level. Eddie Hearn, the 6ft6ins tall, 18st behemoth's promoter, sees Joshua unifying the belts by the end of next summer.
For Hearn, the route is clear: Dominic Breazeale on Saturday night in London, IBF No 1 challenger Joe Parker or Tyson Fury (provided he beats Klitschko in their rematch on July 9) late this year or early spring next year, and then Deontay Wilder, if he still holds the WBC crown, next summer.
What is undeniably true is that control of the division lies in Europe both promotionally and financially, and crucially, the American market is interested again, and wants a part of it. Both the American media and television are entranced by Joshua, and indeed Fury.
Joshua’s International Boxing Federation heavyweight title defence this weekend against American Breazeale will be shown on Sky Box Office in the UK, but also on SHOWTIME, the powerful CBS-owned boxing network, the second time the young north London fighter has had airtime on mainstream US television in a world title bout. When Joshua took the IBF belt from Charles Martin on April 9, it was the Briton's SHOWTIME debut. Interest has grown since then.
“Anthony quickly went from a diamond in the rough to really one of the foremost stars in the UK and Europe, and we are happy to be his partner as he establishes his presence in North America,” purred Stephen Espinoza, Executive Vice President of SHOWTIME Sports.
Joshua, indeed, spoke to the US media on a conference call this week and listening in, I found him mightily impressive. Joshua has the disarming ability to talk himself down. “I’m not the cream of the crop in the gym. I’m around guys that are achieving things on the same level so I’m still hunting. I still have that mentality as if I’m a main killer in the jungle. I haven’t lost that hunger,” he told them.
There is also the modesty of owning only a portion of the heavyweight crown. On winning the IBF title in just his 16th fight, against Martin in London in April, the 26-year- old added: “It didn’t mean much. I still have another couple titles I need to get my hands on. I’m still hunting. There’s still work to be done. So it only ticked one of the boxes on my to-do list.” Then there is the USA. It remains a continent to conquer for every elite fighter. I just keep on hearing the United States is where it’s happening. And if I come to the U.S., I’m going to shut it down.”
With Joshua’s growing presence in the media and an adept, modern savvy PR machine surrounding him, the contrast with the irascible and always-compelling Fury has America spellbound. There is little doubt that TV executives in the US are entranced by Britain’s two standout heavyweights.
And Joshua leads that race right now.
Some of the great heavyweights who have been there and done it, see it as no different. Evander Holyfield has kept an eye on Joshua. And Tyson Fury, for that matter. In conversation with Holyfield in Las Vegas recently, the four-time world heavyweight champion and former undisputed world cruiserweight champion told me that both young fighters intrigue him, and that Joshua looks to him like a record-breaker.
“You’ve always got to find someone who wants to break records, and Anthony Joshua wants to do that," reasoned 'The Real Deal'. "What if Don King hadn’t done what he did for Mike Tyson? Tyson wouldn’t be the youngest heavyweight champion in history. He was the youngest heavyweight because Don King gave him that opportunity.
“Some people don’t want any records broken. But it’s progress (what Joshua has done). I won my first title in my 12th professional fight. I went 15 rounds against Dwight Muhammad Qawi [winning the World Boxing Association cruiserweight title].
“They said I was too young. But I went with him for 15 rounds, I won, and people were still saying I was too young. But because I won it means I was ready.“
"It’s a great thing for Anthony Joshua to be winning at this level, at this stage. He’s good enough, in my view. Leon Spinks fought Muhammad Ali for the world title in his eighth fight [and won]. That means it’s a person who has got the talent. Sometimes we just have to do it now, in that moment, because the moment can be lost.”
Holyfield believes that Joshua could break all heavyweight records. “He’s brand new and fresh. He’s the champion in his 16th fight. He’s got a great chance at breaking Rocky Marciano’s record. He could get to that 49-0 and he won’t even be old. Now line them up.” Some call for heavyweight boxing’s new kid on the block who could become an undisputed ace.
Gareth A Davies is Boxing Correspondent for The Telegraph.