PRINCIPALITY STADIUM, Cardiff — The first reaction was booing. Then came the cheers as Anthony Joshua came into focus on the big screen hanging above the ring, the hero of the hour having secured a 10th-round win over Carlos Takam. But it was not the knockout that the crowd and the majority of the watching public expected.
The general feeling in the Principality Stadium was admiration for the spectacle they had witnessed and respect for Takam’s ability to take an almighty amount of punishment while blood poured from his right eye, but equally an unsatisfied itch on what would have happened had the fight been allowed to conclude on its own terms.
Few expected the fight to last longer than Joshua’s ring walk, but under the closed roof of the Principality Stadium, 78,000 devotees eventually got what they wanted, a victory for the undefeated heavyweight champion of the world. But it was a night that seemed to carry such an air of inevitability that for it to go to the 10th and end in the way it did left a slightly bitter taste.
“It was a good fight until the ref stopped it,” Joshua said. “I have no interest in what’s going on with the officials. That’s not my job.
“I was watching him. I was trying to break him down round by round, but unfortunately the ref stopped it. I think people wanted to see Takam unconscious on the floor, I’m right?”
Cue huge cheers from those who remained to hear Joshua’s postfight thoughts.
“But I didn’t have control over the ref’s decision. I got the win and now we turn attention to 2018,” he said.
Joshua’s ring walk was to the cheers of the crowd, music absent — reportedly due to a power shortage — but, of course, he could create an atmosphere. The smile, the fist-bumps, the confidence of Joshua does that. It is a rare adulation, reserved for the Usain Bolts of the sporting lexicon. And that adoration remains. He will still be the talk of the streets of Cardiff and the boxing world, but Takam won a huge amount of respect here in the Principality Stadium. Twelve days’ notice, but wow, the man can take a punch.
It was only the second time Joshua had been pushed beyond the seventh round. This was a box ticked, something else to add to Joshua’s ever-growing reputation and status as one of Britain’s favourite individuals. Respect for their champion brought applause, cheering as he weighed up how the fight went.
There had been some eye-catching performances on the undercard. Katie Taylor became the new WBA lightweight champion of the world in front of a large support. Arms aloft, she soaked it in — a quiet star, but one who has an army of supporters proud of what she’s doing for the sport. And for those with Welsh roots, Joe Cordina’s fight against Lesther Cantillano caused folks to rise from their seats to offer support to the man born in this very city.
All the while, those sporadic glimpses of Joshua’s preparations caused the stadium to erupt. Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s cameo drew eager cheers, but all Joshua had to do was smile — even though probably unaware he was suddenly broadcast to the 78,000-odd crowd waiting to see him dispatch Takam — and a huge roar rumbled around the ever-filling stadium.
A fight indoors is a strange experience. It is intoxicating. While rugby is commonly played here under the closed roof, the 30 players on the pitch mean your eyes are ever-moving, trying to follow the ball or seeing the movement of a player positioning himself to catch it. With boxing, the claustrophobia is greater; the eyes are all trained on that small lit-up square. The heads are dotted around ringside like the dots on a Roy Lichtenstein painting, while the eye can barely pick out those at the top of the upper tier of the stadium. They are shrouded in the shadows, only noticeable by the flash of mobile phones.
You could hear the thud of glove on torso when the undercard started nearly six hours before Joshua took to the ring; the stadium was eerily quiet. When the first fight started at 5 p.m., the doors had only just opened, the place was lying in wait to be filled. But come Joshua, the main event, every seat was taken, the queues for beers suddenly dispersed and attention switched to the ring.
As the crowd cheered and moved with Joshua’s every punch, everyone stood transfixed. Those cheers continued afterward when promoter Eddie Hearn suggested Joshua’s next fight would be in the UK, rather than abroad.
Joshua stood prodding his broken nose, sustained in a clash of heads early in the fight, but that hero appeal, the natural charisma and stardom that grows fight on fight will only be enrichened by this Cardiff experience. A soldout stadium, 78,000 fans who got their money’s worth will go away into the Cardiff night talking about the time they saw the new darling of British sport.
He’s a hero in this part of the world — nothing will change that — not even a slightly underwhelming finish to a fight that deserved a natural end.