SHEFFIELD, England — It is never ideal when an opponent is switched in the final days of preparation for a fight and it is a particular concern when the substitute boxer has a very different style.
Late on Monday night it was confirmed that Anthony Joshua would be defending his IBF and WBA heavyweight titles against Carlos Takam at the Principality Stadium in Cardiff on Saturday Oct. 28 and not Kubrat Pulev. Joshua and his team undoubtedly knew there would be a switch for several days, perhaps a week, but certainly no more.
The extra few days are crucial to the story because they allowed Robert McCracken, Joshua’s devoted coach, to drastically alter the size and type of sparring partners and start changing tactics. Pulev, you see, is about four inches taller than Takam and a very different type of boxer; Takam is not only considerably shorter than Joshua, perhaps as much as six inches, but he excels as the short man in a division of giants. The squat Frenchman has had plenty of practice during his career in fights against a lot of men six, seven or even eight inches taller.
“Everybody Takam fights is taller than him,” Joshua told me on Tuesday night at his training camp in Sheffield. “I have been in with a lot of tall guys but I can adjust, I have fought every type of boxer and that includes shorter guys like Takam.”
This week Joshua will complete his sparring regime with another two or three days of as many as 12 rounds, probably closer to 10, and every single one of the sparring partners will be, in theory, replicas of the swinging Takam. However, it is not easy to pluck out of thin air 6-foot heavyweights who like to be aggressive and have a good defence, and even if McCracken has known for seven days it is still unlikely that Joshua has had and will have more than about 50 hastily arranged rounds of sparring.
Trust me, this is not ideal and all the bold talk by people about Joshua having nearly two weeks to adjust fails to take into consideration the week or ten days before the fight when he will not be sparring. I think that when he stops sparring he will have had no more than 40 rounds with somebody resembling Takam and that is a worry. It is far too convenient to dismiss Takam as some type of sideshow bum, a fighter hired to fall over, and it is worth pointing out that had he been the original opponent there would still be 80,000 seats sold for the night.
The cynics will imagine that Joshua simply has to arrive on the night, hide his wide smile behind a gumshield and biff and bash Takam a couple of times to make him quit. Takam is not that type of available heavyweight, he is not for sale in some type of last-chance boutique; he has never folded, quit or left the ring with a single doubt over his desire in the three defeats he has suffered in 39 fights.
Takam has also been waiting for this fight for over six weeks having been tipped off that if anything happened to Pulev, he would get the call. However, this should not be literally translated into him having been in a serious camp, where four or five heavyweights were paid to prepare him for a fight that would probably never happen; Takam will be in shape when he arrives in Cardiff next week and will not look like he has walked in from the street.
There is a wonderful old tale about Tommy Morrison, the distant relation of Westerns legend John Wayne, defending his WBO heavyweight title against a man who was only in the arena to watch Morrison fight. It’s not strictly true, but there are, as with all crazy boxing tales, elements of truth in the story. Morrison stopped Tim Tomashek, who like Takam had been warned he might have to fight, that night but four months later he was shocked and stopped by another replacement, Michael Bentt. Poor Tommy had his eyes on a fight with Lennox Lewis and about $20 million the night Bentt ruined his career. Joshua is looking at Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder; I’m just saying.
“Takam has had a long, long time to prepare for Joshua,” insisted Eddie Hearn, Joshua’s promoter. “I warned his people and I told them to get him ready and if the fight never happened I would put him on our show in Monte Carlo (Nov. 4). If you think about it, Takam has prepared for Joshua but Joshua has only just found out about Takam.”
In Sheffield, Joshua was his usual calm, relaxed and precise self, comparing his lunatic struggle with Wladimir Klitschko at Wembley Stadium in April with some of the epic heavyweight slugfests from the Seventies and early Eighties. He is right, by the way.
“Those guys, men like [Ron] Lyle and [Earnie] Shavers were in great fights, I love those fights,” Joshua told me. “Don’t tell Rob, but I love being in fights like that — I can make this fight like that. I know Takam will fight, I think this will be a better fight than the Pulev fight [would have been].”
Joshua can also win with patience and behind his careful jab – but he would not have beaten Klitschko without taking risks and having an old-fashioned brawl.
The plan for Pulev was all about mobility, speed and feet, quality punches and never letting the tough Bulgarian settle. “The preparation was very, very different,” McCracken told me on Tuesday as Joshua loosened up. “Takam is a handful, but he [Joshua] is an exceptional learner and he loves this — he was made for this.”
Next week the tension inside the Joshua camp will gently increase, Takam might try to upset the champion and in secret the final plans will be put in place. “I will take a look when he gets here but don’t expect any silly stuff,” added Joshua. “Rob always tells me I’m a bad actor.”
Rob McCracken is right, Joshua is a bad actor with no desire for empty hype, and the smiling and confidence are genuine. So is his desire to ignore tactics and have a fight — Takam is ideal for a blast and Joshua will want to fight.