By Matt Christie
WHEN Anthony Joshua and Deontay Wilder embarked on their original collision course, between six and seven years ago, writing a preview featuring either of them was a straightforward task. Depending on the durability of the opponent, the conclusion was either a blowout or a mid-to-late rounds stoppage and it was just a case of crafting the appropriate storyline to get there. But merely predicting that Joshua, 34, and Wilder, 38, will respectively walk through Otto Wallin and Joseph Parker with the minimum of fuss would be to ignore too much of what has gone on since.
What hasn’t changed, however, is the desire for Joshua and Wilder to ultimately fight each other and that, largely, is the point of this fistic extravaganza in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on Saturday night (December 23). As appetizers go, this is as lavish and hearty as they come yet there is no guarantee that once we get to the end of it the long desired main course, even though tentatively scheduled for March 9, will follow.
That danger, for both Joshua and Wilder, makes this event enticing in a way that Joshua versus knock-over and Wilder versus road sweeper wouldn’t have. Yes, we can grumble that we’re not getting Joshua-Wilder now, but this is how it is in boxing. We go round and round the houses while trying to avoid going round the twist. The fact there is jeopardy in both bouts, as opposed to it all feeling like a waste of time, is something of a relief to those of us who now appreciate the importance of living in the moment.
Out of the two, it is widely presumed that Tuscaloosa, Alabama’s Wilder, 43-2-1 (42), is closer to his old self than Joshua. That might be true, depending on how you viewed a peak Wilder in the first place. Since the first fight with Tyson Fury, five years ago, any success Wilder has seen in a boxing ring has been limited to approximately nine punches, with six of them coming in fights he lost. One: He took out Dominic Breazeale with one punch in one round in May 2019. Two: He lost six rounds before flattening Luis Ortiz with one punch in the seventh round in November 2019. Three: He landed one hearty blow to Fury’s forehead early in their February 2020 rematch before being smashed to pieces in seven. Four, five, six, seven and eight: In their third bout, in October 2021, Fury was dropped from a single blow in round four and again, while still dizzy, from another two, and then seriously wobbled on two further occasions during a punishing encounter that saw Wilder take far more than he dished out before he was knocked cold in the 11th. Nine: In his only action in the last 26 months, Wilder needed one punch to uproot Robert Helenius from consciousness and leave him wide-eyed and corpse-like at 2-57 of the first round in October 2022.
There are two things we can draw from all of that. One, Wilder took some truly horrible punishment against Fury in their last two fights so is surely past his best, and, despite those flashes of explosivity, has not shown any real improvement for a long time. Two, he’s still capable of turning any human body to mush if he hits it in the right spot. What Wilder might discover against someone as skilled as the New Zealander, however, is that it’s not quite as simple to find the openings as it used to be. One of Wilder’s greatest strengths – alongside the electricity in his punches – was his ability to remain unflustered while studying his opponents in combat. He could lose rounds while being content that, before too long, his rival would repeat a mistake and, hey presto, he’d hurl a fist into their skull and the fight would be over. But one wonders if, at 38 years old and with barely any recent match practice, his train of thought from brain to hand is as quick as it used to be. And it only needs to be a millisecond slower, don’t forget, and Wilder could be made to look even clumsier than he did for large sections of his peak.
That, in a nutshell, is the good news for Parker. The bad news, aside from the bad news we’ve already disguised as good news, is that Parker is Parker. In the time it took for Wilder to land those nine punches, Parker’s twice been life and death with Derek Chisora, squeaked past Junior Fa, been knocked out by Joe Joyce and, among other indiscretions, taken the full 10 by blown-up cruiserweight Jack Massey. Though the 33-3 (23) Parker is skilled, powerful and can be slick and elusive, he’s not once been slick and elusive for long enough to suggest he can be for 12 rounds against someone like Wilder. What’s more, he’s a thinker. A wholly loveable thinker, admittedly, but one who might be so preoccupied by staying out of Wilder’s way that he inevitably doesn’t.
But it’s worth remembering that a win against Parker, 31, might well be the best victory Wilder has ever recorded, should he record it. The only others who were established contenders at the time of defeating them were Bermane Stiverne (first time round) and Luis Ortiz. And Ortiz, across two bouts and a shade under 17 rounds, gave Wilder an awful lot of trouble. Though Parker is not as wily as Ortiz used to be, it’s certainly conceivable that his hand speed – if he can employ confident foot movement alongside it – can give Wilder serious problems to the point he loses almost every round.
Parker, however, always presents his opponents with opportunities. In conclusion, while a Parker victory wouldn’t be the surprise that many are suggesting, the pick is for Wilder, after being made to look ordinary for periods, to add to his showreel of violence in the second half of this 12-rounder.
That’s one half of the main course in place. But what about Joshua? In Otto Wallin, the archetypal awkward southpaw, he encounters someone who can go rounds and box tidily to a plan in the process. The Swedish contender, 26-1 (13), has won six in a row since he gave Tyson Fury a scare in 2019. The Englishman required a reported 47 stitches to repair a gaping wound above his right eye, one that in different circumstances might have triggered an intervention by the referee. It remains one of Fury’s more difficult assignments and that alone makes Wallin a ‘live’ opponent. It’s also the only reason he is a top 10 contender.
Wallin’s opposition since, and in truth before, shouldn’t strike any fear into Joshua. The 33-year-old looked decent while outpointing Murat Gassiev in September but that is, by some distance, the most noteworthy victory of his career. Let’s also remember that Joshua handled Wallin in 2011, beating him comfortably over three rounds in the amateur vest.
A popular opinion is that Joshua, 26-3 (23), is at the crossroads of his career; that he’s been stuck there since the two points losses to Oleksandr Usyk in 2021-22 and the two victories he’s picked up since, over Jermaine Franklin (pts 12) and Robert Helenius (ko 7), were not impressive enough to generate any real forward motion. Others argue that Joshua hasn’t been the same since 2017, when he went to hell and back against Wladimir Klitschko, a trip that forever made him gun shy. The 2019 stoppage loss to Andy Ruiz, as big an upset as any seen this century, only adds to the doubt.
What is likely closer to the truth is that Joshua is simply evolving. Whether that turns out to be for the better or worse remains to be seen. That he parted company with Robert McCracken to join Robert Garcia, who was then traded in for Derrick James, suggests the Watford man is desperate to eradicate any chinks in his armor even if it means, say critics, he’s focusing on those weaknesses at the expense of his strengths. For this fight, Ben Davison – Fury’s head coach at the time he beat Wallin – has been a key member of the training team. Some may therefore point to Joshua feeling unsettled, others may merely conclude he remains as eager to learn as he’s always been. What seems certain is that he’s grown tired of the analysis that accompanies his every move. Though he’ll strongly claim otherwise, it’s feasible that such endless chitter-chatter, and thus the pressure to impress, is rarely far from the back of his mind when he’s fighting these days.
What can we draw from his recent showings? The win over Franklin didn’t tell us a great deal nor was it the woeful performance some claimed – he barely lost a round. The way he orchestrated Helenius’ downfall exhibited technical improvement even if what came before gave credence to those who opine he’s not nearly as gung-ho as he needs to be. Regardless of all of that, when compared to Wallin – at least on paper – Joshua is levels above. While trying not to dwell on any negatives, think about the following: The Brit has fought and beaten Klitschko, Ruiz (in a rematch), Parker, Dillian Whyte, Carlos Takam, Alexander Povetkin and Kubrat Pulev. He was competitive in the rematch with Usyk. He dominated Franklin and Helenius. Without any doubt, he is a world class operator. The criticism may ultimately turn out to be something that just accompanied a transitional phase in his career.
Let’s break it down further. Wallin is nowhere near as good as Klitschko, as skilled as Usyk, nor does he possess the quick hands of Ruiz. The southpaw stance will give Joshua plenty to think about, but one would presume that Joshua’s straight right hand – still his weapon of choice – will present Wallin with even more.
Wallin comes with very little to lose. That he’s long felt avoided will only heighten that sense of fearlessness. But even if Joshua is struggling to find the right style, or not letting rip like some trigger-happy nutcase, there’s no real evidence of a sharp decline, nor anything from Wallin’s past to suggest he wins this fight. Harder to predict, then, is exactly how he’ll lose.
Against Helenius, Joshua – as early as round two – was looking for openings for the finish. But it would be a surprise if Wallin, a sturdy spoiler whenever he encounters trouble, was dispatched in the first few rounds. Wallin will likely have pockets of success, but Joshua’s jab and right hand remains a fearsome combination and he’s certainly determined enough to find his way. The notion that ‘AJ’ will crumble under the slightest pressure is a falsehood.
It is tempting to predict a laboured points win for Joshua but the way that Wallin seems to instinctively go to the ropes, as he looks to conserve energy and counter, is a recipe for disaster against Joshua. Wallin’s jab, that he likes to double and treble, is not a particularly forceful weapon and the lazy manner he can throw his left will also invite trouble. Furthermore, Joshua surely hits harder than anyone Wallin has faced as a professional. And unless Joshua is taken clean out in the early going, he will get the opportunity to test the resolve of Wallin’s chin. It may take Joshua longer than his harshest critics expect, but the feeling is that he’ll get the job done inside schedule, perhaps in the last third of the scheduled 12.
Neither pick is a massively confident one, however. There is a nagging feeling that we’ve simply left it too late to make Joshua-Wilder and at least one of these two fights will provide another damning lesson in staging contests at the right time. By now, however, we’re used to the chase, and we know the drill. We came to terms with missing out on Joshua-Wilder years ago, back when it would have been one of the biggest events in boxing history. From here on in, we’ll take whatever we can get.