LONDON — The young lion roared in a great fight.
Anthony Joshua, now the face of the heavyweight division, persevered through some very difficult moments but retained his world title — and won a vacant belt to boot — in dramatic fashion.
He did so by getting off the mat and knocking out former longtime world champion Wladimir Klitschko, who was bidding to become a three-time world champion, in the 11th round of an epic slugfest on Saturday night before a British-boxing-record crowd of 90,000 at sold-out Wembley Stadium.
The fight, after a buildup that captivated the British public and the boxing world, more than lived up to the massive hype that made it the biggest heavyweight fight since Lennox Lewis knocked out Mike Tyson to retain the world title in 2002.
Joshua, who retained his belt for the third time, answered the questions so many had asked of him before the fight: Was he too inexperienced for Klitschko, one of the greatest heavyweights in history? Was it too soon for Joshua to be matched with the legend? Would he be able to go deep into a fight for the first time? Would Joshua’s chin hold up?
Joshua, the 2012 Olympic super heavyweight gold medalist, answered them all against Klitschko, the 1996 Olympic super heavyweight gold medalist, after having won the title against the little-regarded Charles Martin and defending against fringe contenders Dominic Breazeale and Eric Molina. Murderer’s Row they were not, but Klitschko was a different story.
“I’m not perfect, but I’m trying,” said Joshua, 27, of England. “I got a bit emotional because I know I have doubters. I’m only going to improve. Sometimes you can be a phenomenal boxer, but boxing is about character. When you go into the trenches, that’s when you find out who you really are. I came out, and I won — that’s how far I had to dig. I came back, and I fought my heart out.”
Klitschko, 41, was by far Joshua’s best opponent but was coming off a terrible performance 17 months ago in which he lost his belts to England’s Tyson Fury by unanimous decision in a gargantuan upset — and then had Fury twice call off the rematch. Klitschko was valiant in defeat, though he failed in his quest to join older brother Vitali Klitschko as a three-time heavyweight champion.
“The best man won tonight, and it’s an amazing moment for boxing,” Klitschko said. “Anthony was better today than I. It’s really sad that I didn’t make it tonight. I was planning to do it. It didn’t work. But all the respect to Anthony.”
Klitschko, who before losing to Fury held the title for 9½ years (second-longest in division history) and made 18 consecutive defenses (third-most in division history), had not been knocked down since 2005. But he was floored three times by Joshua and kept getting up as he fought the most crowd-pleasing fight of his career, which certainly has had its share of stinkers.
Joshua had to get off the floor in the sixth round, when he was in major trouble and on the verge of being stopped by the man for whom he once served as a sparring partner.
The fifth round was wild. Joshua hurt Klitschko and he pounced, landing several shots, including a hard left hook, as he knocked him down. Klitschko, his face showing bruises and cut over his left eye, got up quickly and took more incoming shots before turning things around.
By the end of the round, Klitschko, of Ukraine, had Joshua in trouble after landing a powerful left hook that rocked him. Klitschko was going for the knockout and had Joshua backing into the ropes and taking deep breaths as they swung away, with Klitschko landing another left hook.
The 6-foot-6, 240-pound Klitschko, who extended his heavyweight division record by participating in his 29th world title fight, picked up in the sixth round where he left off in the fifth, as he landed an overhand right that deposited Joshua on the canvas for the first time he had been knocked down in his career. Klitschko had the 6-foot-6, 250-pound Joshua in tremendous trouble as he sagged along the ropes with each incoming punch and looked to hold on. Another right hand bent Joshua over, and he appeared exhausted as the round ended.
The pace slowed a bit, as both had poured out tons of energy in the previous rounds, with Joshua going past the seventh for the first time. Joshua (19-0, 19 KOs) landed a good hook to Klitschko’s head and had him looking to hold on early in the 11th round, but Klitschko (64-5, 54 KOs) quickly recovered.
It was short-lived. Joshua blasted Klitschko with a right uppercut, and he went down hard.
Joshua continued to rain punches on Klitschko before landing a huge left hook that knocked him down again. Klitschko showed heart to make it to his feet, but as Joshua hammered away at him along the ropes, referee David Fields stepped in and waved it off at 2 minutes, 25 seconds. The crowd sent a jolt of human electricity through the packed stadium.
“As boxing states, you leave your ego at the door and you respect your opponent,” Joshua said. “A massive shout-out to Wladimir Klitschko for taking the fight. I don’t want to say too much because I don’t know if he wants to come back and fight me [again]. He’s a role model in the ring.”
According to CompuBox punch statistics, Joshua landed 107 of 355 punches (30 percent), and Klitschko landed 94 of 256 (37 percent), a far better showing than he had against Fury, against whom he landed just 52 punches.
Joshua held a slim lead at the time of the stoppage, leading 96-93 and 95-93 on two scorecards, with Klitschko ahead 95-93 on the third scorecard. The fighters have a two-fight deal, so there is a distinct possibility of a rematch, considering what a commercial success the fight was and how exciting it turned out.
“Of course we have a rematch in the contract,” Klitschko said. “I need to analyze and see what the heck happened. I wish I could have raised my hands, but congrats to him. He got up, he fought back, and he won the titles.”
Although Joshua would be bound to the rematch if Klitschko elects to pursue it, he wants Fury (25-0, 18 KOs). That would be a massive fight in the United Kingdom and probably could also fill Wembley Stadium.
“Tyson Fury, where you at, baby?” Joshua said. “Come on — that’s what they want to see. I just want to fight everyone. I’m really enjoying this right now.”
Joshua enjoyed it, and boxing fans surely did, as they finally got a big fight that delivered even more than expected.