An American Prince in Europe or the next British Invasion at heavyweight?
On Saturday, we will witness a rare boxing occurrence, as two young, ambitious, undefeated, hard-punching heavyweight gunslingers in their athletic primes clash for the IBF title. Add to those facts that both men are still comparatively untested, considering this is for an alphabet title, and you have an intriguing match-up which asks more questions beforehand than may be answered by the final bell. The victor of the Charles Martin, 23-0-1 (21) – Anthony Joshua, 15-0 (15), showdown becomes the logical challenger to current heavyweight king Tyson Fury and American counterpart Deontay Wilder (or Alexander Povetkin, should he beat Wilder in May). It will also be a nostalgic occasion for veteran American boxing fans, as the event is aired this afternoon (5 p.m. ET/2 p.m. PT) by Showtime, which used to be the appointed time for boxing stars to shine in the 1970s and 1980s.
It seems like – and, in all reality, the fact is – Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder just broke through as the heir apparent to Wladimir Klitschko. Now, whoever emerges from the Martin-Joshua showdown represents a third entrant making waves in the deep end of the heavyweight talent pool. With Martin and Joshua, this has happened in short order, as neither has even defeated a former champion to justify a leap to the top of the heavyweight food chain. Combined, they have only put in 106 total rounds as pros, though some of that is attributable to Joshua sporting a 100% kayo ratio and Martin clocking in at a respectable 88%. While some will focus on the pair’s lack of ring maturity, maybe we should be crediting them with putting their careers into overdrive to reach this part of their journey so quickly.
Even Anthony Joshua does not believe Martin represents his biggest challenge to date, despite Martin holding a title belt. Joshua told international reporters at the last press conference, “(Martin’s) not my toughest opponent yet; Dillian Whyte was. Looking at Charles, he’s a counter-puncher. He’s laid back. He doesn’t work the full rounds. It should be a nice controlled fight.” Though not entirely dismissive, Joshua addressed career plans beyond Martin, making it seem like Joshua sees this bout as a steppingstone, “For me, winning this fight and this title is only a beginning, a start towards bigger unification fights ahead against Fury and Wilder. I am looking at this as the next step in my development, the experience of a world title fight, which will stand me in good stead later.”
Charles Martin is not entering the fight as a mental underdog, as the English betting shops seem to view him; in fact, Martin seems bemused by Joshua’s hype in England. “Everybody thinks that he’s a superstar,” said Martin. “I know that he’s green. I know he’s not ready. I’m gonna get him right now while he’s green. He’s gonna get tired like he always does, thinking he’s only gonna go five rounds. He’s gonna get tired and that’s when I’m gonna jump on his head. Period. I know I’m gonna knock him out!” Martin points out boxing is about more than knockouts, “The only thing he’s relying on is his power and I’ve got more tools than that. I’m more than just a powerful puncher. I can do it all.”
Showtime boxing boss Stephen Espinoza envisions this match-up as the beginning of a new era for a network seeking fresh models in the wake of Floyd Mayweather Jr.’s retirement, “It is highlighting a division that has suddenly become very, very interesting. A new era of heavyweight boxing has really emerged. The landscape is changing fight-to-fight, sometimes punch-to-punch.” Espinoza wants to evolve with every punch, to stimulate a rebirth of heavyweight boxing, “There is a certain mystique about the heavyweight division, particularly for the casual fan. No matter what is going on in any of the other divisions, heavyweight boxing holds just a special attraction. There’s a magnetism and excitement about the division and it’s been a relatively dormant division for much of the last decade. What we’ve seen in the last eight months is essentially an entire reinvigoration and renewal of the heavyweight division.”
Promoter Eddie Hearn, a fresh face with vitality and business guile, says this is one of the most exciting events he has staged, “The UK is absolutely thriving at the moment but this event is on another level. Anthony Joshua has broken box office records, viewing figure records consistently, since his debut a couple of years ago. He looks to become the first British heavyweight Olympic gold medalist to go on and win a world title. It’s a wonderful fight between two very talented, young, big-punching heavyweights.” Boxing fans aren’t just looking forward to the event. “It’s the fastest selling event ever at the O2 Arena (in London, England), selling 17,000 tickets in just 90 seconds. The anticipation here is on another level. You can’t walk down the street without someone asking if AJ’s going to do it. Expect fireworks; expect anticipation, drama, absolutely everything.”
Steven Espinoza and Eddie Hearn have seen the revitalization of heavyweight boxing and the potential of Joshua coming and now plan to ride the new wave. “Hearn and I have been talking about Anthony for several fights now and we’re thrilled that we were able to get a deal done and host this TV debut. And we’d like to be his TV home for the remainder of his career. That’s for two reasons: One, because he’s obviously a very skilled and entertaining fighter but, two, there is a wealth of good fights that can be made. That’s really the recipe for a TV programmer’s dream and not just to have charismatic, skilled fighters but actually have a wealth of opponents. There’s really fertile ground in the heavyweight division right now.”
England may have found its perfect heavyweight in Anthony Joshua, a boxer who may just combine the boxing ability of Lennox Lewis with the affability of beloved Frank Bruno. This does not sound like the most exciting product from an American standpoint but, until we can produce a fighter capable of beating that type of boxer, there is little to complain about on this side of the Atlantic. While that may not be the most concise or enticing picture of this 6-foot-6, 244-pound contender, Joshua is developing into a major force and can become the face of the division, given his innate talents. My sincere hope is, regardless of nationality, the winner of the Martin-Joshua fight becomes an exciting heavyweight, since that is what the division has lacked most during the Klitschko Brothers’ reign.
Charles Martin is one of the few promising manifestations in the current crop of American heavyweights, with Deontay Wilder the other legitimate challenger to the European dominance of the last two decades. Martin only turned pro almost three-and-a-half years ago and did not ascend to status of champion in glorious fashion as opponent Vyacheslav Glazkov ignominiously bowed out of their uneventful meeting in the third round with a torn ACL tendon. As an amateur, Martin won the National PAL title and, at 6-foot-5 and 245 pounds, sports the classic size of a fighter who can box or brawl in a division lacking multifaceted talent. Martin may need to prove he has that ring complexity in this fight, since no opponent to date has tested him in any real sense.
Anthony Joshua has only been boxing for eight years, starting late at age 18 after a cousin talked him into going to a gym because of Joshua’s fantastic athletic frame and agility. Like others, the youngster found maturity through boxing, overcoming a rough upbringing as the child of Nigerian immigrants, that included a scrape with the law (possession of enough marijuana to merit distribution charges). In hindsight, Joshua accepts the episode as a learning experience, “The arrest changed a lot. It forced me to grow up and to respect my responsibilities. I’m not happy that I did what I did and there’s no way that kind of thing will ever happen again. It woke me up.” Joshua re-prioritized his life, “I go running on Saturday nights now, not clubbing. I understand that if I’m to fulfill my potential, then it’s all about hard work.”
Perhaps because of Joshua’s candidness and the way he turned his life around, the British public (America is not the only nation specializing in second chances) opened its heart to Joshua on a tough road that saw him win the Olympic gold medal at super heavyweight. In the opening fight, Joshua overcame one of the pre-tourney favorites, outpointing Cuban Erislandy Savon by a point. His mission was completed by the slimmest victory margin possible, winning on a punch-count tally after he and the last Olympic champion southpaw, Roberto Cammarelle of Italy, drew at 18 points each. With that, Joshua had paid his civic dues, delivering England a gold medal and is now on his way to professional glory, posting a perfect 15-0 (all via stoppage) record.
An Olympic medal does not assure a shot at the heavyweight championship as the career of England’s last gold medal winner, 16 years ago in Sydney, Audley Harrison, is vivid proof. Joshua is more grounded than Harrison, not engaging in pre-fight trash talk or rhapsodizing outlandish quotes in his many interviews. That is in direct contrast to fellow British heavyweight attraction and RING/WBA/WBO heavyweight champion Tyson Fury, who has been fined by the British Boxing Board for outbursts. Joshua articulates that he does not need “an act” to build himself up and his actions inside the ring will attract fans. Instead of concentrating on mastering four-letter words or Twitter outbursts, Joshua says, “I read to try and increase my vocabulary and learn new things. I’m conscious of trying to represent myself as best I can.”
Of course, American heavyweights are no longer bred in the classic fashion and Charles Martin did not matriculate through the Olympics or even attract any widespread national attention before this year. Martin creates a relaxed and humble impression at press conferences, flashing a knowing smile while doing the Muhammad Ali act of building himself up, using false bravado that he knows is far from perfected. In interviews, you sense an undercurrent of mischief in Martin, who has emerged intact from harsh conditions that saw him serve three jail sentences for a range of narcotic violations to sustain his young family. Unlike most, Charles, like Bernard Hopkins, fought his way out of a revolving door penal system (aided by earning a high school degree, as well as accepting the Mormon faith in prison) and is driven to excel for his wife and child. Now, age 29, Martin is at his athletic peak and the team that built this potential heavyweight force is no longer holding Martin’s ambitions back. When it comes to boxing, it is hard to find fault in Martin’s attitude; he yearns to fight Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder but does so without showing a lack of respect that seems to be the case with many of today’s contenders. In interviews, Martin states he is scared that Wladimir Klitschko will retire before he gets a shot at him, or that Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder avoid his challenge to feast on lesser opponents to build their potential clash. To avoid that fate, Martin seeks knockouts, or to at least beat his foes in impressive fashion, which makes Martin’s big-time TV debut victory over Glazkov even more frustrating. In that sense, Martin talks a lot like the boxing fans he wants to please with knockouts and, to date, he has achieved those desires, registering 21 stoppages in 23 wins.
The attainment of a world heavyweight title belt is the kind of performance the late TV mogul Michael King, who spent a considerable sum of his vast fortune to foster a love of boxing, envisioned when he signed Martin. King knows about talent; he was the producer who launched “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and “Wheel of Fortune” into national syndication and wanted to elevate boxing, while returning the world heavyweight title to American hands. King once told the Los Angeles Times, “I never expected to break even. If I was selling ‘Oprah’ the way they’re selling boxing, you wouldn’t know who she was. We’re going to change that. It’s not about making money. It’s about showing the people how it (boxing) can be.”
Martin is eager to honor King’s memory and learn at the feet of the best boxers, no matter what weight class in which they compete. He traveled to the Big Bear training camp of IBF/WBA middleweight kingpin Gennady Golovkin to soak in the dedication and intensity it takes to become a world champion, noting the body work Golovkin put in and using it in his stoppage of Raphael Zumbano Love. Martin cites Larry Holmes and Manny Pacquiao as two other boxers he tries to emulate and watches films of any southpaw boxers he can find to exploit his most natural advantage. Hard work is not a problem for Martin; he toiled at two construction jobs while training before the opportunity to join King’s elite All-American Heavyweights training program came about.
Most people envision Tyson Fury at the end of the finish line, no matter which man emerges a titleholder between Anthony Joshua and Charles Martin. Joshua preferred to cite Wladimir Klitschko instead of Fury, even though he sparred both men in their training camps, meriting praise from both men. He spent 10 days and many rounds inside the ring with Klitschko but, more importantly, saw what it took to become and stay champion, “I want to achieve everything he has achieved – even the failures. Those failures show someone’s true colors. When everything’s going well, everyone loves a winner. I’d love to see what happens when I hit a hurdle.” I have never heard that last comment before in boxing, for a fighter to dream of overcoming instead of just achieving is a rare character trait that may push Anthony Joshua to a win over Charles Martin and unprecedented greatness.