Every sport deserves to have its icons. football has Messi, athletics has Bolt and the now retired Ennis-Hill, motorsport has Hamilton and Rossi…
An icon should not just be the best at the sport, though. An icon needs to be instantly recognisable but, more importantly, they need to inspire others to take up the sport and have an image of which all others in the sport are happy to associate.
On 28th November 2015, Tyson Fury became the WBA (Super), WBO, IBF, IBO, The Ring and lineal heavyweight boxing title holder by beating Wladimir Klitschko by a unanimous points decision. Fury’s pre-fight antics and his views on homosexuality and women make him an unpopular figure.
At the same time, another British boxer was making his move in the sport. His name is Anthony Oluwafemi Olaseni Joshua. He was born on 15th October 1989 in Watford, but was sent to boarding school in West Africa as a teenager in a bid to stop him drinking, taking drugs and getting involved in petty crime.
Ay school, Joshua was already showing signs of sporting prowess, holding the year 9 100m record of 11.6 seconds. He also had trials at Charlton Athletic but has chance to become a professional footballer ended when he attacked an opponent and was given a warning for actual bodily harm.
In 2008, Joshua’s cousin Ben tempted him to give boxing a go. During his first fights, he had to wear ankle tags because of his earlier convictions. In 2011, police stopped Joshua for speeding and found 8oz of cannabis in his car. Instead of jail time, the judge gave him a 12 month community order and made him do 100 hours of unpaid work.
This was a turning point for Joshua.
The arrest changed a lot. It forced me to grow up and accept my responsibilities. I would have been in drugs gangs and prison but for boxing.
Four years after starting in the sport, Joshua met Roberto Cammarelle in the super-heavyweight final at the London Olympics in 2012. Joshua beat the defending champion, being awarded the gold medal on countback after the judges scored the fight an 18-18 tie.
Joshua turned professional after the Olympics, but not straight away, turning down a £50,000 contract and choosing to instead bide his time. When he did take the chance, he embarked on a run that saw him win his first 18 fights, all by knock out and mostly all within the first few rounds.
With Fury battling inner demons, the paths of Klitschko and Joshua met at a packed Wembley Stadium on Saturday 29th April, 2017.
The build up to the fight was not what one normally sees. Both men refused to trash talk the other. Joshua broke boxing etiquette by saying that he would learn the lessons of any potential defeat. Klitschko, for his part, said that he would congratulate Joshua if he won, and help him come back when he lost.
Klitschko entered the ring to a chorus of boos drawing out the strains of Red Hot Chilli Peppers that accompanied his ring walk. In truth, he was only a pantomime villain as he was against the home favourite. His amateur career including his own Olympic gold in 1996 as well as a professional career that has him considered as one of the greatest ever afforded him the respect he deserved from the 90,000 in attendance.
As the bell rang for the start of Round 1, an expectant Wembley roared their man on. The expectation was that Joshua would win early or late (taking advantage of the age difference to his 41 year old opponent), but that any ground in the middle would offer the Ukranian an opportunity.
In the fifth, Joshua knocked Klitschko to the canvas only to see him get up and, minutes later in the sixth round, be floored himself for the first time his professional career. Joshua survived the count but looked unlikely to see out the round. Klitschko turned the contest around, showing tremendous resilience and no end of skill.
As the men came down for the 11th round, there was a growing consensus that Joshua had to KO his opponent to win the fight. Joshua produced two minutes of sustained punching including a brutal upper cut that left Klitschko on the floor once again. Once again, he got up. Joshua carried on where he left off and, with Klitschko unable to defend himself, the referee ended the contest.
The fight is being considered as one of the greats but, for me, the spectacle of the event was overshadowed by the performance of its two athletes. This was more than two men at the top of their game. This was two men digging deep to beat their vulnerabilities. Klitschko thought his way through the fight using a wealth of experience to turn round his early struggles. Joshua dipped further in to his reserves than he has ever been asked to do before and, with the pressure on, was able to produce.
Joshua speaks of always learning and developing. With his arms raised, stood in the centre of the ring, he said:
I’m not perfect but I’m trying. If you don’t take part you fail. I want to give a big shout out to my trainer and GB boxing, to 90,000 people in the arena and lastly a massive shout-out for Wladimir Klitschko… he is a role model in and out for the ring and I’ve got huge respect and love for Wladimir Klitschko … I am a little bit emotional because there are people who think I can’t do it. I dig deep and you never know the outcome.
Boxing is about character. When you go to the trenches, you find out who you are.
In sport, there are winners and losers who are normally crowned on the back of results. In the case of Tyson Fury, the winner is not always the one that the sport deserves.
Wladimir Klitschko will go down in the record books as losing his last two fights. Anthony Joshua is embarking on a journey that could see him become the greatest of all time. If this was the passing of the baton from master to apprentice, then so be it. This was an evening of humility and respect that pushed the sport past its limits. It was inspirational.
Both men, despite the result, are truly icons of their sport.
I was caught
In the middle of a railroad track (thunder)
I looked round
And I knew there was no turning back (thunder)
My mind raced
And I thought what could I do (thunder)
And I knew
There was no help, no help from you (thunder)
Sound of the drums
Beating in my heart
The thunder of guns
Tore me apart
Rode down the highway
Broke the limit, we hit the town
Went through to Texas, yeah Texas, and we had some fun
We met some girls
Some dancers who gave a good time
Broke all the rules
Played all the fools
Yeah yeah they, they, they blew our minds
And I was shaking at the knees
Could I come again please
Yeah them ladies were too kind
I was shaking at the knees
Could I come again please
Thunderstruck, Thunderstruck, Thunderstruck, Thunderstruck
It’s alright, we’re doin’ fine
It’s alright, we’re doin’ fine, fine, fine
Thunderstruck, yeah, yeah, yeah
Thunderstruck, baby, baby
Thunderstruck, you’ve been Thunderstruck
You’ve been Thunderstruck
Thunderstruck by AC/DC