AN­THONY JOSHUA vs ALEXAN­DER POVETKIN

The heavy­weight king must de­fend his throne

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‘YOU WOULDN’T CHOOSE POVETKIN. HE’S FROM THE TOP TIER OF BOX­ING AND VERY DAN­GER­OUS’

THOUGH it’s been nearly six months in the mak­ing, Rus­sia’s Alexan­der Povetkin ar­rived in Lon­don this week, ahead of a Septem­ber 22 fight with An­thony Joshua, know­ing he’s the op­po­nent no­body wants.

Do-gooder purists don’t want Povetkin be­cause he’s a two-time drug cheat, ca­sual fans don’t want him be­cause he’s not Deon­tay Wilder, Tyson Fury or Dil­lian Whyte, and the team be­hind An­thony Joshua would rather not have to deal with him be­cause Povetkin, de­spite his lack of mar­ketabil­ity, is a very, very ca­pa­ble heavy­weight con­tender.

But none of this mat­ters. As WBA manda­tory chal­lenger, Povetkin is here, he has – ac­cord­ing to rank­ings at least – earned his shot, and a March 31 knock­out of David Price, when strate­gi­cally placed on an An­thony Joshua un­der­card, was our four-minute warn­ing that ‘Sasha’ was next.

So, pre­pare your­self. Deal with it. If it’s not a sexy enough heavy­weight ti­tle fight for you, or if it suf­fers when com­pared to Joshua vs. Wilder or even Joshua vs. Whyte, find con­so­la­tion in this truth: Povetkin, at his best, is prob­a­bly bet­ter than any­one Joshua has faced not named Wladimir Kl­itschko.

“Without a doubt,” said Joshua’s coach Rob Mccracken. “It’s not even close. He’s the manda­tory. You wouldn’t choose him, would you? He’s a good fighter, he knows what he’s do­ing, he’s an Olympic champ, a world champ, and only lost his world ti­tle to Kl­itschko. He’s from the top tier of box­ing and is very dan­ger­ous and well-schooled.”

That’s the sell in its sim­plest form and, with a fight like this, it’s best to keep things

sim­ple. Here goes: Povetkin [in­set] is a 39-year-old from Kursk, Rus­sia, and boasts a 34-1 (24) pro­fes­sional box­ing record. Be­fore turn­ing pro, he won a gold medal at the 2003 World Cham­pi­onships and a gold medal at the 2004 Olympic Games and was quite the com­mod­ity when de­cid­ing to ditch vest and head­guard in 2005. (Frank War­ren, in fact, was the first pro­moter with whom Povetkin was linked.)

On his 35-fight pro record, you’ll find note­wor­thy stop­page wins against the likes of Carlos Takam, Mar­iusz Wach, Manuel Charr, a faded Hasim Rah­man, and, of course, David

Price. When go­ing the dis­tance, he has bested Rus­lan Cha­gaev, against whom he won the WBA world heavy­weight ti­tle in 2011, Marco Huck, and Chris­tian Ham­mer.

Sim­ply put, Povetkin has power in both hands, suf­fi­cient enough to stop some de­cent heavy­weight con­tenders, but also pos­sesses an en­gine un­matched by many of the op­po­nents he has come up against in a 13-year pro ca­reer.

More­over, while phys­i­cally dis­ad­van­taged at six-foot-two, Povetkin, un­like most small heavy­weights, knows how to ef­fec­tively use his stature and is as adept as any­one at bob­bing and weav­ing, us­ing quick feet to close the dis­tance, and throw­ing clus­ters of shots once on the in­side. Nicely bal­anced, he chops away at op­po­nents with body punches and hooks to the head, and his right hand, thrown in an arc­ing man­ner from un­con­ven­tional an­gles, has led to the demise of many heavy­weights pre­vi­ously deemed sturdy.

“Povetkin has a sneaky over­hand right that he catches a lot of taller guys with,” warned Cedric Boswell, an Amer­i­can heavy­weight Povetkin stopped in 2011. “I don’t think Joshua has the best chin. He doesn’t have a ter­ri­ble chin, but you can see he’s vul­ner­a­ble some­times when he gets hit. If Povetkin can land that over­hand right hook, this crazy shot he throws re­ally well, Joshua needs to be care­ful.

“He has a great chance of beat­ing Joshua. Peo­ple are sleep­ing on him. He’s very dan­ger­ous.”

The only man so far good enough to dis­ci­pline Povetkin is the great Wladimir Kl­itschko. He tamed the Rus­sian in a 2013 de­fence of his var­i­ous world heavy­weight ti­tles but had to go the full 12 rounds to do so. Look­ing back, there was no quit in Povetkin that night, de­spite the fact he was knocked down once in round two and three times in round seven, and his stock re­mained high ir­re­spec­tive of the re­sult. “He’s as tough as a box of nails,” added Boswell. “You’re not go­ing to break his will. You’re go­ing to have to prop­erly beat him to win the fight. He showed that when he fought Kl­itschko. Kl­itschko was a much bet­ter fighter when Povetkin fought him than he was when Joshua fought him. He hit him with ev­ery­thing and Povetkin didn’t quit.” With an im­pres­sive record, a wealth of am­a­teur pedi­gree, and a sin­gle de­feat against Wladimir Kl­itschko, it would seem Povetkin is a re­spectable chal­lenger for any reign­ing world heavy­weight cham­pion. Never stopped, ³

typ­i­cally ex­cit­ing, he’s a heavy­weight against whom a point can be made, fun can be had, and a legacy can be en­hanced.

Surely, then, for those rea­sons, he should be wel­comed in Lon­don with open arms, not de­ri­sion. He should be con­sid­ered a stern test of An­thony Joshua’s cre­den­tials. He should be talked about the way Joseph Parker, Joshua’s last op­po­nent, was talked about, or given the at­ten­tion Dil­lian Whyte, per­haps Joshua’s next op­po­nent, gets.

But, no, this isn’t the case. And the rea­son this isn’t the case is be­cause the Povetkin story is about more than just an im­pres­sive pro record, some gold medals and a brave show­ing against a leg­end. He is also, lest we for­get, a man who failed two per­for­manceen­hanc­ing drug tests (for mel­do­nium and os­tarine) in 2016, and some­one who, fol­low­ing the sec­ond of these, al­most de­cap­i­tated a des­per­ate Jo­hann Duhau­pas, a late-no­tice re­place­ment for Ber­mane Stiverne.

Each of these in­ci­dents black­ened an oth­er­wise com­mend­able set of ac­com­plish­ments and left Povetkin shunned and avoided for rea­sons above and be­yond the fact he pos­sesses power in ei­ther fist. A cheat two times over, he be­came an easy man to ig­nore; some­one whose pre­vi­ous achieve­ments were now hard to judge.

Su­per­fi­cially speak­ing, the big wins still look good on pa­per, and they still form the record of a qual­ity heavy­weight con­tender. Yet, know­ing what we now know, to what ex­tent do they rep­re­sent the real Alexan­der Povetkin? Fur­ther­more, will we see the old Alexan­der Povetkin on Septem­ber 22 or a new Alexan­der Povetkin?

It’s here it gets messy, con­fus­ing. It’s here you look for Mccracken to do what he does best. “You kind of sim­plify it in box­ing gyms – you sim­plify ev­ery­thing,” he said. “Ba­si­cally, he’s an Olympic champ, he’s a world champ, he’s very dan­ger­ous, and he’s a top-end fighter. That’s how we’ve ap­proached it.”

It’s not so much a swerv­ing of the ques­tion as a call, again, for sim­plic­ity. Be­cause, frankly, if you think too hard about this fight, and go too deep, you’ll prob­a­bly come to the con­clu­sion it shouldn’t re­ally be hap­pen­ing at all; that a man with two PED con­vic­tions shouldn’t be in a po­si­tion to force the hand of a WBA, IBF and WBO world heavy­weight cham­pion.

Still, if noth­ing else, the con­tro­versy sur­round­ing Povetkin adds a layer of in­trigue, or a layer of dirt, to a matchup that is oth­er­wise quite sani­tised and lacks the wow fac­tor of some of the al­ter­na­tive heavy­weight fights cur­rently be­ing floated. Spec­u­la­tion, too, for who re­ally knows what ver­sion of Povetkin will show up at Wem­b­ley Sta­dium this week­end? How will he look? How will he per­form?

Cer­tainly, against Price in March, the for­mer cham­pion ap­peared a mixed bag. On a pos­i­tive note, he used his bob and weave style, his body shots, and those loop­ing over­hands to even­tu­ally cut down a man six inches taller than him, do­ing so in dra­matic, bru­tal fash­ion in round five. Yet, if talk­ing neg­a­tives, Povetkin, 39, was badly hurt on more than one oc­ca­sion, close to be­ing stopped be­fore the bell saved him in round three, and seemed em­i­nently beat­able when­ever Price, ad­mit­tedly a mammoth puncher, so much as grazed him.

In many ways it was the ideal test run for those weigh­ing up Povetkin as Joshua’s next op­po­nent. He looked vul­ner­a­ble, old and faded at times, but still had enough about him to se­cure a high­light-reel knock­out be­fore the halfway mark – with a shot that will no doubt be re­played to within an inch of its life dur­ing Joshua vs Povetkin fight week in an ef­fort to make peo­ple care.

“Be­cause he’s from East­ern Europe, maybe that’s an is­sue,” said Mccracken, when asked why Povetkin is a tough sell to Bri­tish fans. “There’s a bit of mys­tique around the East but we’re in box­ing and in box­ing ev­ery­body knows Povetkin’s cre­den­tials. Ev­ery­one saw what he did against David Price. I’m sure he’ll be mo­ti­vated and I’m sure he’ll be in tip-top shape. It’s a real chal­lenge, but one An­thony is up for.”

He’ll need to be. For al­though it might not be the fash­ion­able fight in the divi­sion, and Alexan­der Povetkin might not be the Alexan­der Povetkin of old, Joshua’s rise, which has so far been me­te­oric, can end with a sin­gle shot and Povetkin, no mat­ter the ver­sion, is good enough to still end fights with a sin­gle shot.

‘PEO­PLE ARE SLEEP­ING ON HIM. HE’S VERY DAN­GER­OUS. HE HAS A GREAT CHANCE’ ‘YOU’RE NOT GO­ING TO BREAK HIS WILL. YOU’RE GO­ING TO HAVE TO PROP­ERLY BEAT HIM TO WIN THE FIGHT’

What’s more, there’s an em­pha­sis this time around on Joshua, 21-0 (20), not only get­ting the win and de­fend­ing his belts but also en­ter­tain­ing in the process. Harsh though it may seem, his March vic­tory over Parker didn’t get bums off seats, nor did a first de­fence against Carlos Takam in Oc­to­ber, and there’s a feel­ing he needs to pro­duce some­thing de­ci­sive on Satur­day night. With stan­dards high, and the Kl­itschko clas­sic still at the fore­fronts of our minds, Joshua has to de­liver and re­mind peo­ple that sta­dium fights are about more than just long ring walks, over­sized robes, re­tain­ing belts, and Michael Buf­fer mim­ing along to ‘Sweet Caro­line’.

In Povetkin, he has the ideal op­po­nent to help him do this. Not only that, Joshua’s im­prove­ments, thanks to the work with Mccracken, are there for all to see, and while per­for­mances against the likes of Parker and Takam were ef­fi­cient rather than daz­zling, he showed new di­men­sions to a skillset many have crit­i­cised for be­ing A-B-C. There was, for in­stance, vari­a­tion and pa­tience to his work; he seemed con­tent to op­er­ate be­hind his jab, sti­fling the nat­u­ral de­sire to scrap it out that led to trou­ble against the likes of Kl­itsckho and Whyte. His stamina, also, seems to have im­proved, a by-prod­uct of in­creas­ing com­po­sure, and he went the 12-round dis­tance in March – for the first time – with very lit­tle dif­fi­culty.

All these ad­di­tional wrin­kles to his game, while not con­ducive to fire­works, will stand Joshua in good stead against a shorter but dan­ger­ous op­po­nent like Povetkin. They will help him nul­lify his ad­vances. They will help to break him down grad­u­ally, first by soft­en­ing him up with his jab, and then by mak­ing him feel the weight of the cham­pion’s bulk in close.

Of course, it’s in these ar­eas Joshua, 28, will also have to be care­ful. Povetkin, though un­der­sized, re­mains a sneaky, short-range puncher with a knack for find­ing holes most larger heavy­weights don’t know ex­ist. If he main­tains his sharp­ness and snap, he can get to Joshua in close, per­haps when the big­ger man loses con­cen­tra­tion or feels winded, and will un­ques­tion­ably take con­fi­dence from see­ing the cham­pion dropped and rocked in pre­vi­ous fights. This, for Povetkin, should pro­vide hope even if Satur­day be­comes dark and gru­elling and painful for the im­port. It will en­sure he never stops try­ing. It will keep him swing­ing.

In the end, though, while an up­set vic­tory might be the only thing that makes Alexan­der Povetkin less pop­u­lar than he al­ready is, it’s hard, even in a sport that does its best to al­low cheats to pros­per, to make a case for it.

Pho­tos: AC­TION IMAGES

UL­TI­MATE TEST: Joshua [left] beats Kl­itschko at Wem­b­ley Sta­dium

CUT DOWN: Povetkin lev­els Price on the Joshua­parker un­der­card

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