There is a long line of British heavyweights in the last fifty years that have walked in the boots Anthony Joshua will fill on Saturday night at Wembley stadium.
If the ghosts of British heavyweights past besieged Joshua’s dressing room, each dropping in with a message or charm, he would be witness to the very best and the very worst of boxing in one dream visitation. The old fighters would form an orderly queue to marvel at the youngster’s success, attraction and honesty. There would be envy and there would be respect.
First through the door would be Joe Bugner, the man that so many reject when they compile lists, with his corny humour and face shaped by 83 fights during a 33-year-career inside the ropes. Joshua is still looking up at Bugner, still a distance from overtaking big Joe’s achievements.
Bugner was only 25 when he had his 59th fight against Muhammad Ali for the world heavyweight title one morning in the scorching sun in Kuala Lumpur over 15 rounds. Bugner lost, was accused of not trying and Ali was placed exhausted and incoherent on a drip to rehydrate. “We know how hard it was in there,” said Ali, who backed his friend Joe until the very end.
The following year a former paratrooper from Huddersfield called Richard Dunn was sent to Munich to fight Ali for the title. Dunn was given no chance, not a prayer and went out swinging in five rounds. The fight in Munich was part of Ali’s grand tour when four of five world title defences took place outside America in a tiny 11-month window; the heavyweight title meant more in the Seventies, but fights were often hastily thrown together and slipped under the radar. The Dunn fight was just 25 days after Ali went 15 rounds with Jimmy Young. Joshua has longer breaks between acupuncture sessions.
And then it was Frank Bruno, a fighter like Bugner that too many are quick to ridicule. Bruno fought his way to the same square of hallowed turf that Joshua will occupy on Saturday night when he slipped through the ropes, gently cursing, rocking and reciting a mantra lost to time, to fight Tim Witherspoon for the world title at Wembley in 1986. It was Bruno’s 30th fight, he was part protected treasure and part dangerous puncher; Terrible Tim was shaped in the gyms of Philadelphia and needed every scrap of his knowledge to batter poor Frank in the final seconds of the eleventh of fifteen rounds. “Bruno was a great fighter,” Joshua told me last week. He meant it, Joshua is a sincere type of guy.
It was the start of Bruno’s quest, a mission so savage that it is unlikely to ever be undertaken again by any heavyweight. The days of pain and personal suffering over a 10-year period to get to a title are over in the boxing game. Bruno recovered from Witherspoon and three years later was stopped by Mike Tyson in Las Vegas. He licked his wounds, patched up his broken face and four years later was leading Lennox Lewis at midnight in the Cardiff rain when he was taken out in round seven. Our Frank was not done and at Wembley Stadium in 1995 he finally won the world heavyweight title at his fourth attempt: Bruno was 34 and it was his 44th fight; Joshua won his title last April when he was 26 and in his 16th fight.
Lewis is in London this week to cast his eyes over the young talent and see if there is a bit more brain now behind the brawn, a mix of finesse to compliment the power. “He still has a long, long way to go,” Lewis warned last summer, a few months after Joshua had become arguably the best novice to ever win the world heavyweight title. The old men of the ring still like to measure their glory against the kids, flexing their shoulders when in conversation and eyeing up each other’s fists. Lewis is a scholar and he tends to probe a bit deeper, looking at movement, looking in the eyes for fear.
The other British heavyweights to have fought for or won the world title will be witnesses, mostly silent, but they will all be out there watching and listening. David Haye will be ringside, Danny Williams, Henry Akinwande, Matt Skelton, Audley Harrison, Herbie Hide and Scott Welch will also have their opinions. Tyson Fury sits in rage, an absent ruler in an increasingly chaotic exile.
They will all visit Joshua in some small way this week. Some, like Lewis, will seek a meeting and others will stand in judgement, pointing out the obvious about Joshua’s lack of ring years and the potential danger that Wladimir Klitschko is still fresh enough to deny the 41-years he has on the boxing clock; it is a raw statistic at the very core of the hopes, plans and preparations of the men in the Joshua business. Some might add dreams or fantasy to the list.
“I’ve been in the ring with so-called bums that fought like champions and champions that fought like bums,” Bugner said. “I have been in with the old and young, novices and some of the best and worst - let me tell you, they are all capable of taking your head off.”
If Big Joe was there on Saturday he would take Joshua’s face in his giant mitts and tell him: “Listen, son. Get out there and smash him before he smashes you and get back with enough marbles to count the money you have made.” Joshua will certainly have some old friends on the night living every punch with him and it is possible that he will learn from their words and their triumphs and failures.