When Kubrat Pulev was supposed to fight Anthony Joshua three years ago, you would be hard pushed to find many people who would give Pulev a chance. When they step into the ring on Saturday night, it seems less of a foregone conclusion.
It is not Pulev who has changed. He is three years older – and at 39 that means three years more over the hill – and his most significant win in the interim was a laborious points win over Hughie Fury, who was hampered for nearly the entire fight by a bad cut. It might be the same Joshua too, but people’s perception of him has changed.
Back in 2017, Joshua was a wrecking machine, fresh of his win over Wladimir Klitschko in one of the most thrilling heavyweight title fights in recent memory. He might have reversed his New York loss to Andy Ruiz Jr in Saudi Arabia in December, but the memory of it has not gone away.
It is the very nature of boxing that you are judged as much by your defeats as your victories. The last man to have a claim to be undisputed world heavyweight champion was Lennox Lewis (although he never held the WBO title), but even though he avenged both his defeats to Oliver McCall and Hasim Rahman, they are still pointed too when discussing Lewis’s legacy.
More important right now than Joshua’s legacy is how that loss will have affected him. He showed a safety-first approach to beat Ruiz in a rematch and he has hinted that his approach this time will be a bit of both, box his way in, wear Pulev down and take him out.
This fight was supposed to have taken place in June, but Joshua says he has not wasted the intervening period, saying he has constantly been working on his technique.
“I’m more polished because I am more experienced,” he said. “[Against Ruiz] I was adapting a style I'd never used before, but I have more confidence now, knowing it’s in my locker and knowing I’ve got the punching power too.
“Through lockdown I trained to merge all these different dynamics - good feet, hand positioning, combination punching, the art of the jab. Now I am looking forward to putting on a great performance.
“Pulev is not going to be like someone in my tenth fight where they’re waiting to be hit, but it will be a clinical performance where I break him down - and then when the time is right I am going to go in there and knock him out in devastating fashion.”
Pulev’s previous world title bid came against Wladimir Klitschko. He spurned defence to engage Klitschko in a swinging match and was knocked down three times, Klitschko finishing the job with a huge left hook. It was the final knockout of Klitschko’s career.
He will have learnt from that experience and has had three years to study Joshua. At the weigh-in he went out of his way to get into Joshua’s head. It was a rush of blood that began Joshua’s downfall against Ruiz in New York, as he charged in for the finish after knocking the Mexican down. Logic suggests he will be relying on Joshua mistakes for his chance at Wembley.
As well as a messy build-up and late change of opponent, many believe a reason he lost to Ruiz was the possibility of facing Deontay Wilder next. With a potential blockbuster with Tyson Fury looming over this fight, Joshua has tried to ensure that his focus has remained on Pulev.
“My main focus is always Pulev but it’s tempting to look beyond,” he said. “We’re painting the bigger picture. That's what I’m trying to create. It’s tempting to look at what's beyond me, but it’s motivation rather than a distraction - get through this and move on to the bigger fights.
“I feel more confident. In Saudi, there was massive pressure. If I don’t take this guy deadly serious, I’m giving him a chance to beat me. If I’m deadly serious, it’ll eliminate any chance for him to beat me.”
Ron Lewis is a senior writer for Boxing Scene. He was Boxing Correspondent for The Times, where he worked from 2001-2019 - covering four Olympic Games and numerous world title fights across the globe. He has written about boxing for a wide variety of publications worldwide since the 1980s.