Some of the people I write about are still alive and have done things that can’t be protected by the statute of limitations. For that reason, I won’t provide some names or talk about some things that happened. There are also people who are still alive who did me favors. I’d hardly be repaying them by telling people who they were.
I asked Deadspin to give me $10,000 to bet directly at 18-1 on Anthony Joshua to knock out Wladimir Klitschko before half a million people in the second round of their April 29th fight at Wembley Stadium.
Deadspin declined, suggesting a more modest figure that I, in turn, declined.
Why turn down free betting money? It was turned down for the sake of anyone who happens to be reading this. Because, stripped of the gut-churning jazz of pain of anticipated loss teetering against the exhilaration of a potential bonanza, the bet would have provided no visceral currency.
A one or two thousand dollar bet is a “So what?” bet. A non-involved reader will feel absolutely nothing if I lose a one or two thousand dollar bet. They won’t feel much if I win $18,000 or even $36,000. But they’ll stay with this thing if the bet is $10,000, and they’ll actually feel a little charge if the payoff is $180,000.
If I throw away $10,000 on a long shot bet, I look like an opportunist—stealing Deadspin’s money—as well as a fool who took a sucker play. If the bet comes through, Deadspin looks like a bush-league outfit that didn’t have the good sense to trust their resident expert, depriving him of a massive payoff that he knew would come in. Either scenario works.
You may or may not follow this two-part essay through to its conclusion. I hope you do. Deadspin hopes you do. Had the bet been made, you absolutely would have followed from this pre-fight article through to the post-fight one, where Joshua would or would not have done what was stated on a betting slip that would have been available for inspection. I’m disappointed. It makes for a good story. And I could have used the money.
But, to repeat and to be clear, just so you know: I was going to bet $10,000 at 18-1 on Anthony Joshua to knock out Wladimir Klitschko in the second round on Saturday at Wembley Stadium. That’s the bet.
The significance of the fight between Anthony Joshua and Wladimir Klitschko may be lost on American fight fans, long conditioned to regard with suspicion any foreign-born boxer who doesn’t come from a poor Latin or Central American country and to view with nearly complete disinterest any heavyweight from outside the United States. But this bout could—and I strongly believe will—mark the true emergence of boxing’s richest-ever champion and one of its all-time biggest stars.
Anthony Joshua, the right-looking man for his place and time, with an unfailing ear for saying the right things, is perched on the edge of eternity. No one in boxing history—not Muhammad Ali, Joe Louis, or Mike Tyson—has gotten as far as fast as Joshua. And none have gotten to the top with anywhere near the ready-made opportunities he has directly in front of him.
Talk about a billion-dollar fighter first surfaced with Mike Tyson and was picked up again with (and by) Floyd Mayweather. Neither got close to actually making that kind of money. Tyson topped out at about $300,000,000 and Mayweather somewhere just over twice that, if you believe what you read.
With Anthony Joshua, a billion-dollar career could actually be reachable. He’ll be earning somewhere over eight million fighting Klitschko, and while that is nowhere near the money that a handful of other fighters have pulled in for single performances, it is likely the most anyone has made in his 19th pro fight or in a fight with little U.S. interest. More importantly, it’s just his entry-level pay scale. There are already available fights for him that would double, triple, and conceivably quadruple that amount. And those numbers would be for can’t-lose fights as well. One odd truism about boxing is that once a fighter starts making unheard-of sums, he can easily build exponentially on those numbers. It seems to be what people want to see happen.
Floyd Mayweather’s greatest gift wasn’t his boxing ability. It was his genius for getting people to shell out a fortune to watch his dull fights and hear his dull thoughts. He was able to do that primarily by insisting that he was able to do it.
So picture a good looking man eight inches taller and nearly a hundred pounds heavier than Floyd. For mainstream fans who are into muscles, he’s got them. He can legitimately punch; everyone he fights gets taken out quickly and dramatically. When interviewed, he turns out to be modest, but not obsequious. He’s funny. He smiles naturally. He’s a young black fighter who effortlessly communicates with people of all colors, backgrounds, and ages. Everything seems to come easily to him. If Anthony Joshua were from the U.S., I wouldn’t be writing this now. It would already have been done.
British boxing fans have been unsuccessfully looking for a dominant heavyweight champion they could love for 50 years now. Lennox Lewis was dominant, but the Brits never quite loved him. Frank Bruno was that beloved figure, but it was understood that, in order to accept him as a champion, you’d have to squint a little; no one really believed he was the best heavyweight in the world. What fight fans in the U.K. really want is a heavyweight whom the rest of the world will acknowledge is the true champion, with no asterisks complicating the matter.
Anthony Joshua is more at home with the heavyweight title than anyone I’ve seen since Muhammad Ali, who took having it as his birthright. There’s a sense of noblesse oblige about Joshua that contrasts sharply with Lewis’s perceived condescension and Bruno’s obsequiousness. Joshua is at ease with being the champion; more importantly, he treats the title as if it’s not an entity splintered by factions, the sanctioning bodies whose economic function it is to divide titles in order to maximize the fees they can demand.
In recent decades the heavyweight championship has gone from being a relatively valueless prize mostly held by black Americans to a relatively valueless prize mostly held by fighters from former Warsaw Pact nations. Current American title holder Deontay Wilder can’t come close to selling out a modest arena in his home state of Alabama; Russian maybe-he-is-maybe-he-isn’t champion Alexander Povetkin continues to try unsuccessfully to lure anyone who’ll take him on in Moscow in order to defend a belt that nobody past the nation’s borders gives a fuck about; and Joseph Parker, nurtured at home in New Zealand but a colorless presence inside the ring and out, isn’t a blip on the radar anywhere else.
The point is that there’s a void that Anthony Joshua can fill without having to run the gauntlet. Aside from Luis Ortiz, the biggest threat to him is the man he’ll be facing at Wembley. Tony Bellew, David Haye, and Tyson Fury represent two years of star-building free rides ahead of him. Make a side trip out to Vegas to bump off Deontay Wilder, then a jaunt to the Antipodes to take away Joseph Parker’s belt, and by the start of 2020, Joshua will be the only one left standing. Promoters will be scrambling to invent opponents who’ll be seen as threats.
The half a million people I’ve referred to as being present at the Anthony Joshua vs. Wladimir Klitschko heavyweight title fight at Wembley Stadium on Saturday, April 29th will be, in fact, only 90,000. That’s still a staggering number for a contemporary boxing match, and its magnitude places it in the ranks of fights that have entered the cultural consciousnesses for those in attendance and others who, through broadcasts and folkloric retellings, have let them filter into the imaginations.
Crowds of 90,000 only show up when an event is tribal—a thing sufficient to require witness. The nature of this witness is steeped in violence. The collective wish is to witness violence, and to become, by osmosis, a part of the instrument of violence.
Julio César Chávez’s vengeful and prolonged beating of Greg Haugen, executed not just for his own artistic edification,but for the visceral enjoyment of 132,247 of his countrymen at the Estadio Azteca in Mexico City; Jack Dempsey’s demolition of Georges Carpentier in front of a announced attendance of 80,183 (and an actual one of over 91,000) at the specially constructed stadium at Boyle’s Thirty Acres in Jersey City—an extraordinarily complex soap opera focused on issues of patriotic obligation; 80,000 people filling Yankee Stadium to watch Joe Louis take Max Schmeling’s head off (no one felt they didn’t get their money’s worth when the fight went only two minutes); and 104,943 hopefuls filing into Soldier Field in Chicago praying that Jack Dempsey would reverse his earlier loss to Gene Tunney are all examples of the investment people place in certain types of fights.
None of these bouts were boxing matches, per se. They were rituals, loaded with nationalist, cultural, race, and class currents that demanded results more emphatic than simple wins or losses. Surprisingly, three of the four fights gave the fans the results and the manner of finishes that they wanted. The one that didn’t—Dempsey versus Tunney, with its legendary long count—turned out to be as iconic and controversial as any fight in boxing history.
The half a million people at Wembley will be the half a million at the first Ali-Frazier at Madison Square Garden or the half a million screaming faithful who watched Louis decimate Schmeling or the half a million who cried watching John L. Sullivan go down to James J. Corbett. Everywhere and always, the old standard is replaced with the new.
This need among fight fans to connect—to identify and have been present—is one way that a legend starts. Anthony Joshua can join these legendary ranks easily, and he can make more money doing it than any other fighter has ever dreamed possible.
He doesn’t have to be nearly the fighter that Ali or Louis or Dempsey was. He doesn’t have to beat fighters nearly as good as those they had to beat. History requires far less of Anthony Joshua than it did of anyone else making it. He just has to quickly and definitively end the career of Wladimir Klitschko, an uninvolved middle aged man who may, but probably doesn’t, have one last trick up his sleeve.
The eminent boxing journalist Eddie Goldman writes to me about Wladimir Klitschko’s promotional company, K2. “They think their boy is not done yet.”
Eddie is talking about the company’s insistence on playing hardball with both HBO and Showtime, leaving this enormous event without a definite broadcaster until April 17th—less than two weeks from fight night—when both networks made desperate jumps aboard, with Showtime getting the plum live event and HBO following later in the evening.
It appears that, as slow as both networks were to do what was necessary to obtain broadcast rights to the fight, the penny has dropped that something gigantic might be going on here. There hasn’t been an HBO-Showtime presentation of heavyweight boxing since May 2002, when both networks shared the Lennox Lewis vs. Mike Tyson contest when Lewis’s WBC and IBF championship belts were on the line. The only other time the networks thought it important enough to work together was for Floyd Mayweather vs. Manny Pacquiao. That event turned out to be boxing’s biggest moneymaker ever.
This delay in lining up U.S. TV seems a promotional gaffe of serious proportion by everyone involved. There are places where playing hardball makes sense, but this isn’t one of them. This is a case where U.S. audiences were hidebound—far behind the European market—so it was critical to start establishing just how must-see this fight is, and then to not keep it hidden. The fight doesn’t need to be a blockbuster in the States—it’s going to make up for it elsewhere—but it could and should so easily have been one.
Irrespective of how important or unimportant it is to Wladimir Klitschko to, at this late stage, again try to pick up a fanbase in the US, Anthony Joshua would benefit greatly by having the major overseas venues open up to him. He may not need them right now, with Tyson Fury, David Haye, and Tony Bellew giving him a couple of years of action at home, but it’s still very much in his interest to have them for his future. In his 18 fights, Joshua has not once gone outside of Great Britain. There may be reasons why he ultimately needs to defend his titles in the U.S. It could turn out that you can’t make the final leg of the journey—the million dollar to billion dollar jump—without having America on your side.
Someday that may change if boxing people come up with the key to establishing interest in China. But once Joshua mows down his neatly arranged opponents in Great Britain, my guess is that he’s going to have to pay Uncle Sam a visit now and then.
The thing that points most strongly to Joshua being the real heavyweight champion is how, in the division, all roads lead to him. He doesn’t have to go on an expedition to defend his title. The money for the others is in holding their titles up for ransom and then coming to Great Britain to surrender them to Joshua.
Because by far the four most bankable heavyweights in the world—Joshua, Fury, Bellew, and Haye—are British, there is no financial need for any of them to look for work elsewhere. Nearly any configuration between them brings along a bonanza. There are round-robin scenarios that could take all of them through 2019, depending on who beat whom and how.
In early March, Bellew, too small to be a genuine heavyweight, disrupted what appeared to be no more than a cynical money grab, lasting past the first few rounds of his masterfully promoted bout with power punching David Haye. He then got the break of a lifetime when Haye demolished his Achilles heel in the 5th round, almost literally leaving him without a leg to stand on and reducing his power to nearly nothing. Haye bravely soldiered on until the 11th round, when he was punched lightly through the ropes, pulled himself upright, beating the count, and was ready to resume when his corner sailed a white towel into the ring.
As soon as the match was over, both fighters had their stories in place for setting up a rematch—a natural choice.
Bellew might have had even bigger things in mind, though. Looking into the crowd, Tony Bellew addressed his remarks to the smiling champion.
“I’m the most valuable heavyweight in the world, outside of the champions. I admire Anthony Joshua so much. I ain’t callin’ no names. That brother’s takin’ this game to a new level.”
I can’t shake the feeling that, for the boxing public of England, this fight will be it—the transformative event that’s the culmination of a near decade ascension of the nation’s boxing standing worldwide. As the fans’ confidence in homegrown talent builds, talk about British or European titles has been replaced by the first cautious assertions that their fighters are the best in the world.
Tyson Fury’s surprise defeat of Wladimir Klitschko moved those rumblings up to the heavyweight ranks, almost always the highest end of the food chain. But there was so much uncertainty surrounding Fury that it made it hard to bet the nation’s fistic identity on him.
Fury is a troubled free spirit, given to substance abuse problems, wild mood swings, massive weight gains, and a distaste for training. That he’s an Irish Traveler—the peripatetic itinerants are eyed with mistrust in some social circles—furthers complicates the matter.
So, even as Fury has his staunch defenders, he is a polarizing and problematic figure in British prizefighting, likely to remain so until his boxing days are genuinely over.
Any reservations that exist about Anthony Joshua will be thrown over the moment Klitschko is disposed of. For viewers outside of Great Britain, it’s hard to understand what a grandly folkloric event this is. A mountain of love is already being built for the new champion; Wembley’s fight will be fought at the top of it. Later, a half a million people will claim to have been seated below. The setting and mythology have been put in place. All that’s needed is for the ring announcer to proclaim “… and still.”
Meanwhile, the one man who can legitimately question Joshua’s claim to the heavyweight throne wallows in ennui and fat. Fury, now 18 months and one hundred pounds beyond a boxing career, could at any time step back into center ring to remind the world in his oddly high-pitched voice that he is The Man who beat The Man, the preferred method for boxing’s time honored bottom line of establishing monarchy.
And now he says that step into the ring he will.
Fury never could fight much, and he almost surely never will again unless it’s to put in three final minutes in exchange for in excess of 15 million pounds. He should make the fight soon, though; ballooning in size is on the way to becoming his lifelong pursuit.
With Fury claiming to be making a return to the ring, Klitschko’s incentive to go out gracefully on the tide of history as a courtesy to Joshua evaporates. A rematch with Fury would bring him redemption he may not want, but will be obliged to take if he beats Joshua. He’ll have to stay in boxing for at least one more fight, if not for his legacy, at least for the fortune that the very easy knockout will bring him.
Once Anthony Joshua has the Big Title— which is more about a worldwide state of recognition than his simply holding the ersatz crowns he has now—he’s nearly home free for years to come. There’s only one guy who can beat him. For a short time it looked like Eddie Hearn was smart enough to get that guy. Luis Ortiz, the ancient and unsellable Cuban monster known as King Kong, was lured in by Matchroom’s promises of lucrative high profile fights. He was placed in the role of paladin for Joshua, a move that effectively kept them from having to fight each other. The symbiotic arrangement could be kept in place in perpetuity if need be.
Ortiz, with his lumpy oldster’s body, cryptic boxing style, and Sonny Liston-like representation of age, was no one other than a few hardcore aficionados wanted to see in the title picture. You’d have thought it was the last thing that Hearn would have wanted too. But he must have decided that Ortiz was not worth having as a bargaining chip, convinced that no sanctioning body had a title valuable enough for Joshua to not renounce.
After Matchroom let Ortiz go, he landed with Al Haymon’s PBC. It seemed like a good chess move, a no-brainer where Haymon could put Ortiz high up on every major PBC card, let him knock out the valueless Wilder for the WBC title, promote him as a malevolent force of nature, and then—once the Cuban’s presence could no longer be overlooked—ramp up the war cry for a unification bout with Joshua.
It’s not going happen. Ortiz was pulled off Showtime’s PBC’s April 22nd Sean Porter vs. Andre Berto card from Barclays Center in Brooklyn, likely taking him out of the title picture for good.
Adios, King Kong. Usted podría haber sido un campeón.
The idea of Deadspin bankroll a long-shot bet on the Joshua vs. Klitschko fight might seem like it was a gimmick proposition, put together as an eye-baiting stunt.
I can’t say that I don’t want to reach readers. And Deadspin’s willingness to put up money would have been in part based on helping along a story that will do good numbers. There’s no need to pretend otherwise.
This was not a lottery bet, though—and not roulette either, despite the odds. Would I have made it using my own money? Honestly, I don’t know. I can say that the prediction—that Joshua will win a 2nd round knockout—is how I truly believe the fight will end.
I have a long history of betting. I’ve bet on horses and cards, but nearly all of my serious betting has been on boxing. There was a time when this was the major source of my income—either through my own bets or from a percentage of the winning bets placed for others. I won more often than I lost, and was able to support myself reasonably well.
Still, the biggest bet I ever made was one I lost—10 times more than I’d won before or have won since. It was big enough to have fucked up my life in the short run; big enough so that winning would have reconfigured the terms of that life irrevocably.
Twenty-five years after being separated from more money than I’ll ever see again, I still can’t make up my mind whether I picked wrong about the fight’s outcome or was one of a few select marks roped in by an audacious and well executed scam.
If no one got to a judge or two, I can rationalize that my wrong pick was the miscalculation of an informed insider who carefully evaluated the pros and cons of the bet, weighed the risk/reward factor, and took an unfortunately big chance.
Otherwise I was just another patsy who fell for the kind of high end flim-flam that I’d have laughed at if it had happened to someone else.
This is what happened.
For a while in the 1990s, I spent a lot of time in the Dominican Republic capital of Santo Domingo. I nearly bought a place on the beach in Samana to the north, but ended up heading to Puerto Rico instead so I wouldn’t need to show a passport coming back from the States, which I did every few weeks. But I loved the Dominican Republic and managed a couple of very good local fighters.
If good things happen to you in a place, you eventually associate that place with luck. You start to believe that, in any disputation that happens there, you’ve got the hometown advantage. As much as this might be true when you’re pulled over in a speed trap just outside of La Romana, where a five dollar bill presented smilingly in a handshake will bail you out, math remains math: a bet on a fight that takes place in East Rutherford, New Jersey, presided over by judges you haven’t had a chance to talk to, doesn’t buy you a thing.
In 1992, during a period back in the States, I got a call from my friend Al Braverman, Don King’s Director of Boxing. Braverman was one of a kind—entirely trusted by King, by various wiseguys of repute, and by me, but largely feared and vilified by people in the boxing industry unequipped to get the better of any deal with him.
Braverman asked who I picked to win the upcoming Steve Collins vs. Reggie Johnson WBA middleweight title bout.
I liked Collins. Although the two fighters were virtually equal in terms of overall skills and shared both virtues and liabilities, there were political reasons why Collins, an Irishman who’d have a plethora of lucrative title defenses available to him throughout the UK, would be given the nod when the fight went to a decision.
And it would go to a decision. Both men possessed inalterably reliable chins; through longish professional careers neither was knocked out despite facing the toughest men available competition. Neither was much of a puncher either. The fight itself might be legitimately too close to call, but every business sign pointed strongly to Steve Collins. And boxing is usually governed more by business than by the simple event that takes place in the ring.
I presented my choice and the reasoning behind it to Braverman.
“I thought that’s what you’d say, Charles,” he said, as I recall. “I think the same. Something’s just come over the transom. Might be a little bit interesting.”
Braverman explained that someone was looking to place a large bet on Reggie Johnson. In what should have been an even money fight, he’d give 2 1/2-to-1 odds.
“That doesn’t sound right, Al. You know this guy?”
“I know a guy who knows this guy. And the guy I know is good enough for me.”
“Are you hearing anything about the fight that I should know about?”
“Not a word. Who gives a shit about Collins or Johnson?”
“If anybody did, it’d be about Collins.”
“Right. It would be about Collins.”
Here things get a little tricky. Maybe the thing to do here is tell you to assume none of this really happened, to wink, and to trust that I’m dealing with readers who are, as Vin Vecchione used to say, halfway wiseguys.
Some of what took place, I can talk about; some, I can’t.
I can’t tell you who I made the bet with. I can’t tell you the names of the local officials who helped find a pilot who had a rickety twin engine that could swoop my bodyguard and me under the radar onto a burned-off cane field.
There was some concern about the size of my bodyguard, who weighed as much as two average men. The pilot wasn’t sure his plane could handle his being aboard. But we successfully bumped down onto the scorched field, where there were two Dominican men waiting for us in a car. They’d been waiting for hours, which amounted to nothing for anyone living on Caribbean time. I knew them from the gyms of Santo Domingo— tough guys with good heads on their shoulders, who could be trusted. They laughed when they saw who I’d brought along to carry the suitcase.
The main roads in the Dominican Republic aren’t bad, especially if you’re heading into Santo Domingo. The countryside along the way is beautiful and it generally absorbed me when I drove through it, but it hit me that, this time, I’d brought on something that was too big for me. It might work out, and I might come out of it okay, but I was in way, way over my head.
Experience had taught me to show nothing, to present a placid, vaguely good natured façade—to never suggest that I was a tough guy, but to not back down unless it could be done with a kind of “this isn’t worth arguing about; have it your way” dismissal.
Still, heading toward Santo Domingo with $420,000 in a suitcase, I was scared to death. I knew what to do if I lost. But it suddenly hit me that I might not know what to do if I won and there was a problem.
I was told that “you’ll know” the two guys who’d be carrying the money for the other party, and I did. They were unmistakable. They appeared to be Samoan or Fijian, and somehow looked a lot bigger than my bodyguard, despite each being nearly a foot shorter. They seemed to make up in girth, bone density, and head sizes what they lacked in height. Not that they were short; neither was under six feet tall. They wore mirrored sunglasses, sports jackets over white shirts, and long pants despite the heat—not uniforms, but signifiers. Whoever hired them wanted them to look serious and presentable. The men were polite, just short of friendly, but projected an implacability—a stoicism that contrasted favorably with my guy’s less effective, jocular street thuggishness. My bodyguard was a tough character, a veteran fighter with a winning record made up entirely of knockouts, but he wasn’t a pro at what he’d been hired to do here.
Where to watch the fight and have one side pay the other was slightly problematic. Too much money was involved to risk having it visible in a really public place. So was having it in an entirely private one, where either party could decide to simply try to take the other’s cash. Braverman had vouched indirectly for the person betting against me, and for me indirectly to him—both through the word of his friend—but you never knew; people had done crazy things for less money.
The most sensible choice we could come up with was in a private outdoor patio in the back of a restaurant/bar. I knew the owner and, as it turned out, so did the other side. That wasn’t surprising. In Santo Domingo, if you did a certain type of work, the owner would be a guy you’d know; his restaurant would be a place where you’d done business before. For all I knew, the man betting against me was in the vicinity. I was never going to find that out.
The fight, as expected, was very evenly contested, and surprisingly rough. I couldn’t make up my mind whether, for appearance’s sake, it would look better to watch it as if I were an impartial but engaged boxing fan or to keep an entirely blank face. I opted for the latter. The bag men were impassive, seemingly genuinely so. They kept their eyes on the fight, but were indifferent to anything that took place. My bodyguard, being a fighter himself, watched with a lot of body-language response, excited comments, and an alarming indifference to the money he was holding. It wasn’t his money, after all.
Johnson and Collins fought 12 uncharacteristically active rounds. As expected, neither was close to going down, and it was a close fight. I was biased, but I thought that Collins had just edged it. But he’d faded toward the end, and although the rounds are scored individually, so you can’t lose the ones you’ve banked, judges have been known to adjust their scorecards to reflect who seemed to be the winner—this nearly always based on who had done better during the last half of the fight.
I found myself freezing. It was an odd sensation. Alone, I would have been shaking, but I managed to not to that. I had trained myself to appear unflappable, but that was all bullshit. I might not have admitted it even to myself at the time, but I was scared to death.
How scared? I’m scared now, writing about it almost 25 years to the day later.
Ed Darian, a man I’d liked until that moment, read off the scorecards. He wasn’t an asshole about it the way Michael Buffer would have been. He put me out of my misery fast. There was virtually no dramatic pause between the last score and “the brand new middleweight champion of the world, ‘Sweet’ Reggie Johnson!”
I believe I showed nothing. I also know that, for the first time in my life, my heart actually stopped beating for a moment.
My bodyguard handed one suitcase to each of the Samoans or Fijians. The larger of the two put down his briefly. He gripped my shoulder. “Sorry. That’s a tough loss.” He picked up the suitcase again.
Some fighters told me things no one was supposed to know. Occasionally, those things would be ironclad: who was set to win a fight, or which round it would end. When that would happen, I’d gather up every penny I could lay my hands on, including money from people eager to go in with me, and place a bet.
One of the fighters who told me things was a friend who’d briefly been heavyweight champion, now a few years past his prime. He had reached a stage in life—and in his career—where he was more interested in the bottom line than in whether he won or lost. Like a lot of former heavyweight champs, he’d make visits to Germany, Australia, or Denmark to put in a couple of rounds against national heroes who couldn’t have won without his cooperation.
He was savvy enough to follow any loss with three or four knockout wins over easy opposition. I often provided that opposition.
My friend didn’t like boxing. He was a raw-boned, easygoing man from a sleepy and nurturing Southern town; the last thing he wanted was to get hurt or to hurt anyone else. Although he mostly fought to win, there was always a point—a predetermined one—beyond which he was unwilling to travel.
We’d usually talk on the phone a day or two before any of his scheduled fights, and he’d let me know in which round he planned on pulling out in the corner with an injured shoulder or broken hand if things didn’t go his way in the first couple of rounds.
If I knew he’d be going for broke early, I’d hedge a modest protection bet on whatever the under was, then put down the bulk of the money on the round when he planned on calling it quits. If he was fighting someone who wasn’t easy to knock out, I’d cut to the chase and let everything ride on the round I knew he’d fold.
In the years I knew him, my friend never failed me in providing good information. Every bet I ever placed against him was a winner.
Sometimes I’d be lucky enough to know a fighter who’d sparred with both opponents for a major fight. I was leaning heavily in favor of betting Roy Jones, Jr. over James Toney in their 1994 super-middleweight showdown. The old school guys, though awed by Jones, couldn’t bring themselves to accept that he might handle the toughest, wiliest, most technically sound guy in the business.
Pat Petronelli and I, working with Freddie Norwood at the Petronelli brothers’ gym, were debating who’d win the showdown, finally deciding to both put our money where our mouths were. Pat was one of my favorite people and a trusted business partner, but not a great judge of fistic talent. He’d been lucky enough to have Marvin Hagler walk into his gym, and was lucky that I’d brought in Norwood, who I believed could easily be marketed as another “Marvelous” Marvin. But I had Adolph Pruitt training Norwood. And I nearly always got the better of Pat when wagering on fights.
The gym on Green Street in Brockton was at the top of a long flight of stairs—a big, open factory with floor-to-ceiling windows and a couple of offices off the main room with the ring. No air conditioning, of course; the place got a good breeze, and it was easy to become drowsy in the late afternoon. Although it was one of the harder-working gyms I’d been in, it was also a place where its marquee fighters had already made their money—in Hagler’s case around $50 million—and had either retired or were coming to the ends of their careers.
Norwood was out in the big room doing his pad work with Pruitt. We were waiting for light heavyweight contender John “Ice Man” Scully to arrive from Holyoke with a sparring partner for Freddie. When they came into the office a few minutes later, Ice joined our conversation. I knew he’d gone to Pensacola to work with Jones, and remembered that he’d sparred with Toney a lot too.
“John, who wins between Jones and Toney?”
Scully didn’t even think about it. “Jones, easily.”
“James won’t catch him,” he said, as I recall. “Roy’s too fast. And he hits harder.”
If sparring partners have recently worked with both fighters in an upcoming fight, and don’t have any personal issues with either, nobody is better equipped to tell you who beats whom.
I would have bet Pat without hearing what John Scully had to say. But the certainty with which he said it, his own boxing IQ—John has transitioned into one of the best trainers in the sport—and how recently he’d shared the ring with both Jones and Toney made the bet ironclad.
If you bet boxing, you need to know your business. You have to do your own homework, and must have an aptitude for the sport. But these insider voices can make or break you.
As is true for all of the current heavyweight champions except Alexander Povetkin, Anthony Joshua is a fledgling professional, and like fellow freshmen classmates Deontay Wilder and Joseph Parker, he was stewarded to his title through the path of least risk. That’s standard operating procedure in contemporary boxing, although it applies more to heavyweights than to fighters in other divisions. If a young fighter gets to the championship without undergoing what might be considered a test, he is criticized for it. In light of having had no real challenges, each of his fights undergoes microscopic scrutiny from a rightfully cynical viewership. Any blip on the radar comes under fire.
Both Deontay Wilder and Joseph Parker already have slips of varying degrees of severity to be picked apart by any Doubting Thomas.
Anthony Joshua has only Dillian Whyte.
Dillian Whyte is a big, strong, slope-shouldered guy of limited ability and stamina, who can at times be a puncher of some power. He fought Joshua in December of 2015 when he was 16-0, only three of his fights going the distance. He’d had two more fights than his opponent but, because of his Olympic pedigree, Joshua was considered by far the more experienced. Despite their lack of professional exposure, Joshua and Whyte headlined a Matchroom PPV card. The promotion was excoriated for headlining a high-priced card with such unproven main eventers, but there was no lack of interest.
When Joshua’s detractors need to provide evidence of his liabilities, exhibit A is always the two hard left hooks, followed by an overhand right, with which Whyte wobbled him in the second round of their fight. Overlooked is the fact that Whyte had been in trouble at the time he threw the first of the punches, that Joshua—possibly over eager to end things—had walked right into it without seeing it, and that his distress had lasted all of 10 seconds.
Dillian Whyte showed a good chin in the fight, but it’s worth noting that nearly every punch Joshua hit him with had him reeling. Wladimir Klitschko is a far better fighter than Dillian Whyte, but his chin isn’t close to being as good.
Still, there can be no denying that Joshua has been exposed to few risks in his 18 fights. It’s worth asking who those risky fighters might have been, though. Luis Ortiz would be too much for him, but nobody would ask anyone to fight the most high risk/no reward boxer in the business. Alexander Povetkin would be seen as a legitimate challenge, but he’d never be coaxed out of Russia to fight Joshua in England, and only a fool would take on him on in his homeland when there were lucrative choices elsewhere.
Looking at Joshua’s resume, it’s instructive to note that all but two of his opponents have had vastly winning records (the two who didn’t were his second and third opponents), and are much better fighters than the victims dotting the records of either Deontay Wilder or Joseph Parker. And, unlike with Wilder, none of Joshua’s opponents have fallen down for the count before being punched.
Events not only exist in their playing out—the simple time that it takes for them to happen—but in their various forms of historic resonance. Things occasionally happen because it’s their time to happen. This isn’t primitive voodoo; there are practical additives that help determine when something’s time is right.
In boxing, when it’s someone’s time, there is a lot of heavy machinery in play to make sure nothing gums up the works. There are currents of money and business afoot, manipulated by well-placed characters who have much to gain or much to lose from a fight’s result.
In a non-fixed fight—and Joshua vs Klitschko will surely not be fixed—strategies are laid out, contingency plans concocted that take into account any aleatory landmine. The ramifications of the fight are projected five or six steps ahead, and two or three years down the line. This is in itself a strong indicator that Wladimir Klitschko won’t win it, although a strong indicator is not a guarantee.
You can’t always get what you want. In a perfect universe, history would demand—and get—a first-round knockout for Anthony Joshua. In the absence of the lineal heavyweight titlist Tyson Fury, the proverbial Man who beat the Man, it would be hard to find a more fitting inaugural result and victim than the instant and total annihilation of Wladimir Klitschko, the previous Man who ruled the division for a decade.
The problem is that Anthony Joshua isn’t that kind of damn-the-torpedoes fighter. Nor is Klitschko a launch-the-torpedoes one who’d force Joshua to engage in a scorched-earth showdown from the sound of the opening bell.
Since neither has felt the other’s power before (disregard the light sparring they did back when Joshua was still a novice), there’s unlikely to be anything seismic during what should be a preternaturally quiet first round. I wonder if the screaming of the crowd will grow progressively stilted as everyone waits for the first bomb to drop.
The warhead everyone is waiting for and banking on will land sometime during the second minute of the second round, and take the form of an overhand right to the jaw over Wladimir Klitschko’s missed jab, its inevitability in no way detracting from its shock value.
There will be two nearly simultaneous explosions. The first will come from the half a million people inside the Wembley Stadium, the roar radiating out in concentric circles through the whole of Great Britain and spreading across the Atlantic while pulsing southeast past Germany on to Ukraine.
The second, no less visceral, will be a kind of silent scream, the psychic discombobulation, occurring entirely within the ropes, of a system fallen into sudden chaos. Wladimir Klitschko, psychologically ill-suited to adapting to calamity, will have to for the first time in nearly a dozen years try to make offensive sense out of his own disarray and near-unconsciousness. There will no Emanuel Steward voice to home in on. Klitschko will only hear the universe coming to its end.
A lot will then happen very fast. Klitschko, gone and on the verge of falling, will make a last ditch effort to remain upright. He might try to grab and hold on. He might—less likely, going by his past history—decide to go down firing with both barrels.
This is the moment where Anthony Joshua makes the first solid step into legend.
Overstated? I doubt it. If all goes right, we’re now looking at boxing’s first billion-dollar fighter.
Let’s back up momentarily, though.
What happens if Wladimir Klitschko plays Max Schmeling to Joshua’s Joe Louis, upsetting what appears to be a carefully laid out plan decorated to mirror the cosmic order of things? What if it turns out that the wily ex-champion “sees something” in the not yet fully developed tyro poised on the precipice of legend?
Yes, there are different times, different countries of origin, and different marketing strategies at play here. And these things matter. Ultimately, however, there are just two fighters in the ring, and Wladimir Klitschko has knocked a lot of people out. He hasn’t knocked them out because it’s his instinct to do so. He’s done it because he has great physical advantages over nearly everyone he’s ever faced, and because he punches really hard. This time around he holds no appreciable physical advantages, but don’t overlook his tremendous one-punch power. And don’t overlook that sometimes a scared fighter—and Emanuel Steward taught Klitschko to be one of the best scared fighters ever—is a very dangerous fighter.
On Saturday, Klitschko may have less to be scared of than at any previous time in his career. He’s already seen as an afterthought in this fight, essentially no more than the vehicle that validates Joshua. His job is to lose, and there are arguments to be made that his winning would not only complicate matters for boxing, but for Klitschko, a wealthy, middle-aged businessman with many outside the ring options waiting for him. Regaining a version of the title puts pressure on him to continue a career in which he’s long since lost interest. It’s hard to imagine him projecting himself two years ahead (he’s said this much himself), getting himself together to do both the physical and mental work required to take on Fury and Joshua in rematches. With one foot already outside of boxing, wouldn’t it take only a small final shove to send him on his way?
It would be so easy. One of ways that fighters—even good fighters—lose is by sensing that they’re playing against the house, facing a stacked deck. This may be especially true for older and smarter fighters. Their experience and business savvy allow them to see the handwriting on the wall in a way that someone at an earlier career point wouldn’t.
At Wembley, Klitschko will step into a stadium where the overwhelming sound directed his way will be a violent cacophony emitted from a half a million furious, joyous, jeering, hate-filled, love-drunk, fearful, jubilant, besotted, xenophobic, vengeful, optimistic Brits. Used to arena-rock-level cheering in Germany, he’ll walk face first into 10 times those decibels of pure True Believer vitriol.
Marvin Hagler, in the same position, would have dug in his heels, charged out at the bell, and brutally kicked the shit out of the poor beloved native son motherfucker in the opposite corner. Archie Moore would have done the same thing, if you substitute “sauntered” for “charged” and “clinically” for “brutally.”
Wladimir Klitschko isn’t made from the same material. He is neither physically nor constitutionally built to endure any kind of real warfare. He’s not going to allow himself to get beaten up. He didn’t have the heart for that as a younger man, and he’s not going to develop the heart for it now.
Non-boxing people can easily fall into the misconception that a boxing match is an exchange between two fighters, beginning precisely at the sound of the bell, and contained in pristine isolation between the ropes.
It’s not so. If success in boxing—the actual exchange of punches—is primarily a function of conditioning, followed by being the more talented and better-trained fighter, a close third place is measured in the sending of signals. These signals may reach their final stages inside the ring between the two combatants, but they would have begun far earlier, would have involved many other players, and would continue—through the actions of the referee and judges—during and even briefly after (if a decision is rendered) the fight itself.
One way to defuse a really dangerous, smart fighter is to make evident to him in the buildup that the signals clearly point to his taking an early exit. To subtly emphasize how preferable that is to absorbing a protracted beating helps him make some important decisions.
Knowing all this is part of the voodoo of betting. It’s the stuff that statistics-obsessed people never understand. The starting place may put statistics only behind the eye test, but, unless you’re someone who can look at Boxrec.com and read subtext into what you find there, your wagers will never take you very far.
Charles Farrell has spent most of his professional life moving between music and boxing (with a few detours along the way). He has managed five world champion boxers and has 30 CDs listed under his name. His essay “Why I Fixed Fights” is included in the boxing anthology The Bittersweet Science: Fifteen Writers in the Gym, in the Corner, and at Ringside, edited by Carlo Rotella and Michael Ezra, and published by the University of Chicago Press. He is featured in the 2016 film Dirty Games, directed by Benjamin Best.
He will be on WBUR’s Only A Game this Saturday, airing at 4:00 and 7:00 ET.