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Welcome back, Big Lad! Heavyweight boxing finally returns to life

In one bold night, Anthony Joshua’s brilliant win and Deontay Wilder’s stunning defeat helped boxing’s glamour division shine again after a year to forget

Steve Bunce
Sunday 24 December 2023 17:14 GMT
Anthony Joshua was punch-perfect in his victory over Otto Wallin
Anthony Joshua was punch-perfect in his victory over Otto Wallin (Getty)

Anthony Joshua looked like Anthony Joshua when he got in the ring two hours after midnight in Riyadh on Saturday.

Joshua was scheduled for 12 rounds in the main event as part of the Day of Reckoning, against Sweden’s Otto Wallin. There were seven other fights packed with blood, shocks and nine knockdowns. Ten of the world’s top 20 heavyweights were on the remarkable bill.

At the end of five rounds, Wallin was pulled out; he had been hurt, his nose was broken, and Joshua had chased him all over the ring. It was meant to be a hard fight, a 50-50 fight, but instead, a mobile, free, relaxed and nasty Joshua entered the ring and took care of business. And he also changed, in five fun rounds, the heavyweight landscape. Joshua is back in the heavyweight game and this version is smarter than the old version.

Joshua’s win was better than either of the wins by Tyson Fury and Oleksandr Usyk this year. It is a small fact, and it doesn’t necessarily make him the best heavyweight in the world, but he is back in that elite mix. Fury and Usyk fight in Riyadh in February for all four of the recognised belts; Joshua aims to be ringside. Usyk has twice outpointed Joshua, and Fury has been his bitter rival for six or seven years. A Fury and Joshua fight remains the sport’s biggest event.

“I’m searching for greatness,” said Joshua.

In the Riyadh ring, Wallin never stood a chance and that was an outcome that few predicted; most expected Joshua to come through, but the fight was meant to be competitive. Wallin never complained when he was pulled out and saved unnecessary punishment. “That’s enough, Otto,” said his trainer Joey Gamache at the end of the fifth. Gamache was right.

Joshua reasserted his status as a problem in the heavyweight division (Getty)

“Otto would have carried on,” added Joshua. “The corner is there to protect him.” Wallin tried everything that he knew, but Joshua just cut down the ring, showed him punches, shifted his feet to deliver different blows and generally played with him. It was a welcome return. It was also the first fight for Joshua with his new trainer, Ben Davison, and the pairing seemed to work.

It is always easy to forget a fight was meant to be difficult when it ends up being a massacre. Joshua was exceptional on a night of extremes and that is the storyline.

However, there was some bad news for Joshua when his signed and sealed deal to fight Deontay Wilder in March vanished at about 2am in Riyadh. Wilder lost every single round against Joseph Parker in what was a planned semi-final; the Joshua fight for Wilder is gone.

Wilder was poor from the first bell until the last bell and Parker never put a single foot wrong; Wilder has been inactive, and it showed, but he lost because Parker, and his devoted trainer, Andy Lee, had a plan and he stuck to it. Wilder was philosophical at the end, shrugged and said that at 38, it might be over. “It’s been a great journey.” Wilder had made 10 defences of his WBC heavyweight world title before losing to Tyson Fury in 2020.

Joseph Parker, with the help of a brilliant gameplan from trainer Andy Lee, stunned Deontay Wilder (Getty)

Parker celebrated like he had won the world title and that was fully understandable; Parker, who lost his own world title to Joshua in 2018, is now firmly back in the mix. It was not a world title, but he won a golden ticket to the heavyweight lottery and, more importantly, he showed that he is a genuine top-five contender. He is also one of the nicest men in the dirty old game.

Joshua against Parker is possible, Joshua against Wilder is dead for next year, but there is also the unbeaten Croatian, Filip Hrgovic, a first-round winner in Riyadh, who Eddie Hearn has now said will be AJ’s next opponent.

In one single and bold night, the heavyweight division came back to life with a vengeance at the end of a poor year; it needed a boost because 2023 was the first year since 1971 that only a solitary world heavyweight title fight had taken place. There is no chance of that happening next year; Parker is back, Hrgovic is not going away, and Joshua has returned, and he is looking for titles. Welcome back, Big Lad.

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