By Terence Dooley
After ascending to the heavyweight world Championship by beating Evander Holyfield on points in 1999, Lennox Lewis found himself in the enviable position of being able to pick and choose his opponents. And he discovered that plenty of fighters were calling out his name.
Upon being asked what he thought about being called out by an entire division, Lewis compared himself to a resting lion who simply swats away flies, i.e. unworthy contenders, with his tail.
Indeed, Lewis’s ring moniker was “The Lion”, and Lions are apex predators. The division has a new fighter sitting at the head of the food chain in Tyson Fury, but London’s Anthony Joshua hopes that he can take the first step towards full ring maturity by beating Charles Martin for the American’s IBF title at the O2 Arena on tonight.
Boxing fans openly acknowledge that the belt itself is not a legitimate world crown as it was stripped from Fury following his win over Wladimir Klitshko and announcement that his mandated rematch with the former Champion meant more to him than IBF mandatory obligations.
Still, Joshua’s fervent fans will see him as a legitimate world champion should he prevail. Talk has already turned to a fight against Fury—although Eddie Hearn’s claims it could come this summer flies in the face of Fury’s insistence that Klitschko II is next following Peter Fury's announcement that the fight is due to take place in Manchester on July 9.
Such is the hype surrounding Joshua many people have written Martin off before the first bell sounds, seeing this as a procession to, rather than fight for, a world title. That is some feat given that as of his last fight (W KO 7 over Dillian Whyte) he had had only full two years under his professional belt following his debut in October 2013.
Young lions are encouraged to hunt at the age of two. Contrary to popular belief, adult males do play a role in hunts, especially if the pack is after big game. Due to their relatively small hearts and lung capacity Lions can only run in short bursts and are not particularly fast—just like heavyweight boxers they tend to attack in boom-and-bust bursts.
The young males live a nomadic life at least once in their lives, heavyweights are quite similar as they can only fight one another so you rarely seeing close friendships between the big men. After spending his early days on the road, Joshua has found a home in the O2 Arena and will hope that Charles is the first of many championship scalps.
With Fury occupying the role of king of the savannah, Saturday night represents Joshua’s first major hunt—a test of the lessons learned along the way.
The 15-0 (15) boxer looked over his KOs for Sky Sports recently and was honest in his appraisal about the mistakes he has made in the past, particularly when leaving himself wide open to a left hook from Whyte last time out. This self-awareness is rare in heavyweight boxing, so it bodes well for his first major title bout.
Hearn certainly believes that his charge is going to become the division’s top dog, he opened Thursday's final press conference by declaring that: “This is an opportunity for Anthony Joshua to walk amongst the greats. Charles Martin stands in his way.”
However, Martin (23-0-1, 21 KOs) refuses to see himself as a lamb to slaughter. The 29-year-old southpaw believes that he will make the O2 Arena his personal hunting ground come Saturday to hand Joshua his first defeat.
“I'm all geared up and ready,” he said. “I don't say too much as I'm a boxer and fighter. The O2 is my arena. I'm comfortable wherever I go. It was the same at The Garden and Barclays Arena.”
The final say went to “AJ”, who believes he has all bases covered. “If he wants to box we can box, if he wants to go to deep waters, we can get it on,” declared the 26-year-old challenger.
“I'm going to go in there to take his head off, you know how I am. I want this. It won't be easy, this fight is a risk. Whoever wants it, comes out on top. Scrap all the 15/16 fights thing, this is just us two having a fight.”
Fight fans are hoping for a good fight, a test of Joshua’s stamina and resilience; Joshua fans expect it to be over quickly. One thing is for sure, and whatever you think about the belt, a win for the challenger will usher a new predator into the upper-echelons of the division, which is great for boxing in general and heavyweight boxing in particular.
Film fans may have noted that the title The Lion in Spring is a play on The Lion in Winter, a play about Henry II’s search for a successor that was turned into a film.
The heavyweight division could benefit from this type of forward planning as it was plunged into chaos following the retirement of Lewis in 2004. It took a while for the Klitschkos to emerge as clear successors, longer still for Wladimir to unite the major titles and underline his dominance.
Tyson Fury recently told me that he does not think he will be in the sport for many more years. When asked who will carry it forward he stated “Hughie [Fury]”, his cousin and gym mate.
Fury is clearly thinking about the future, and it could be a bright one when you consider that Hughie, Joshua, Deontay Wilder and others will be vying for that apex predator spot should Fury retire after a few more fights.
When Lewis watched Michael Grant against Andrew Golota (W TKO 10 in November 1999), he said “I want him next”. A writer wrote ‘It is good to be King’ in reference to Lewis’s ability to pick and choose who he fights after being crowned.
A lot is riding on Fury’s rematch with Klitschko as another win would provide him with a Lewis-Grant decision, who he fights after the next one will tell us a bit more about a division that is springing into life again.
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