In the summer of 2014, Anthony Joshua was still a young professional, having just defeated Matt Skelton to improve his record to 7-0. The world he’d entered in the paid ranks after conquering the amateur world and capturing Olympic gold was ruled by Wladimir Klitschko, who was deep into his second run as heavyweight champion, approaching all-time title defense records.
Ahead of his 17th consecutive title defense against Kubrat Pulev, Klitschko asked Joshua if he would like to join him in the mountains of Austria for sparring. Two years earlier, Klitschko was in attendance for Joshua’s gold medal win and told then-trainer Emanuel Steward to keep an eye on him for future camps.
The two sparred about 20 rounds together of the 115 rounds Klitschko sparred in total during the lead-up to that bout. In between sessions, they formed a bond, and Klitschko privately became a mentor figure to Joshua.
Joshua watched as Klitschko destroyed Pulev in perhaps one of his most impressive performances, then a week later, took care of his own business as he splattered Michael Sprott inside one round. Joshua and Klitschko had to briefly break that bond when they fought one another in April of 2017, a storybook ending of an era as Dr. Steelhammer left the ring for the final time and left the division in trusted hands.
But although Klitschko has moved on to his second chapter in life, not all of the fighters from his era have done the same. This Saturday, Joshua is tasked with facing Kubrat Pulev--the man he helped Klitschko prepare for in 2014, a seminal moment in his life and career.
The bout, which will air on DAZN in the United States, is a mandatory defense, due to Pulev’s status within the IBF rankings. The 39-year old has only ever lost to Klitschko, defeating a series of quality, but decidedly second-tier heavyweights in the six years since to position himself for a second crack at all the heavyweight hardware.
The funny thing about heavyweight boxing, a division that sees careers span longer than seemingly any other weight class, is that when you turn pro, some of the folks you watch as a child will be on their way down the mountain to meet you early in your career, and others will still be huddling in the camp at the top even after you plant your flag in the ground.
Joshua has already dispatched of Kevin Johnson, who fought Wladimir’s older brother Vitali, and Alexander Povetkin, who lost to Wladimir. He’s even beaten Wladimir himself. Pulev, then, represents the last threat to the throne from the “old guard,” before the very top of the division can finally leave that era in the past.
"I've been targeting these guys, when I came in after them, they were there and I shot up to try to target these guys. You know when you know there's a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow? I've just got to navigate my way through, and Pulev is someone I have to navigate my way around,” Joshua told Sky Sports in an October 23 interview.
“I had my little slip up last year, we brushed it off and got the belts back. Now I want to get back out there and get back on the gravy train and fight the likes of (Tyson) Fury,” he said. “But without getting past Pulev, who is a tough challenger and competitor, there ain't no talks of Tyson Fury. It'a a tough game. As I said, it's the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but Pulev is a big old heavyweight standing in the way of that pot of gold.”
Assuming he does what’s expected of him, the pots of gold he seeks promise to be overflowing. A bout with Tyson Fury is likely the biggest possible fight boxing can offer at the moment, both in terms of stakes and potential revenue. There is some question as to how quickly that fight could materialize, but even if Fury wasn’t next, or even soon, there is an array of tantalizing matchups on the horizon in the heavyweight division that seemingly all involve people who once sat under the Klitschko learning tree.
The best way to determine who will be a threat in the heavyweight division over the past several years has simply been to look at who has been in Wladimir’s camp. Joshua, Fury, Deontay Wilder, Oleksandr Usyk, Michael Hunter, Filip Hrgovic, Joseph Parker, Dillian Whyte all joined Klitschko in camp. After his retirement, he still kept his eye on the next generation, even going so far as to negotiate with Tony Yoka for a promotional pact, though it didn’t materialize.
In some ways it mirrors the late career Muhammad Ali camps, which featured names like Tony Tubbs, Michael Dokes, and of course, Larry Holmes. Holmes of course turned out to be the best of the bunch, but the camp rosters were a good indicator of who would be the next crop of contenders.
The Klitschkos more or less wiped out several generations of heavyweight hopefuls, but the generation they helped foster behind the scenes is incredibly exciting.
The two men Wladimir seemed to hold in the highest regard were always Joshua and Fury. Fury’s relationship with Wladimir was much more competitive and confrontational, stemming from their infamous sauna battles and culminating with their meeting in the ring in 2015, but Klitschko and Steward were always certain of Fury’s ability to become champion one day.
Fury and Joshua represent the final two fights of Klitschko’s career, the presumable beginning of a new era. As he follows in his mentor’s footsteps, Joshua must now pass over the same ground he helped him tread by defeating Pulev. Only then can the door be closed on the era we wish to leave behind.