A note before starting: Much of this was written before the Saturday, Sept. 22nd heavyweight title fight between Anthony Joshua and Alexander Povetkin held at Wembley Stadium in London, hence the two parts to the piece—before Wembley, and then upon arrival and afterwards. There is a lot of speculation in the piece about what might happen in the fight, about the atmosphere at Wembley, and, up until the last minute, about whether or not I’d actually get in. Some of what I wrote turned out to be accurate; some didn’t. To borrow a quote from Wladimir Klitschko (before a fight he lost to Anthony Joshua), “I’m not Nostradamus.”
I’ve been thinking about fame—about who has it, who gets it and how they do, ways that it can be amplified, diminished, and usurped—and about how under certain circumstances even regional fame can be extreme fame in terms of generated revenue and fanatical obsession.
I’ve also been thinking about what in life is fantasy and what is real, and the ways real and fantasy lives can overlap.
Because these thoughts were prompted by covering a heavyweight title fight, I’ve been thinking about how the trajectories of three heavyweight prizefighters—and, maybe significantly, a fourth—can co-depend and complement, but also potentially upend one another’s.
Assuming that Anthony Joshua does as expected, and retains his versions of the heavyweight crown at Wembley, the riches that he and the winner of Tyson Fury vs. Deontay Wilder could earn would dwarf any seen before in heavyweight prizefighting. But this isn’t a one-size-fits-all arrangement. There is a definite order of both importance and revenue that follows from what takes place when Fury fights Wilder on Dec. 1. That order may be counterintuitive.
One might conclude that the optimal matchup would be a Joshua vs. Wilder shootout, possibly as early as the April 13, 2019 date that’s already being held open for Joshua at Wembley, but with Las Vegas, New York City, or Brooklyn venues also attractive choices. It’s a fight with international interest, with a built-in theme of U.K. vs. US heavyweight supremacy.
That fight would be the most lucrative in heavyweight history. But it would pale by comparison to an all-British showdown at Wembley between Joshua and Fury. The fact that it would illustrates how dramatically the power shift in boxing has moved from the United States to England.
If they wanted to, both men could spend the next few years fighting without hosting their heavyweight title bouts anywhere but the U.K. With Joshua, Fury, Dillian Whyte, Dereck Chisora, and the up-and-coming Daniel Dubois able to be matched in various ways, along with an abundance of second-tier high-profile opponents they could all beat while waiting for the true big-ticket matches, these promoters don’t even need to seek out new fans in the US. That’s not the way these guys think, though. Hearn has recently hooked up with DAZN and Warren with ESPN+, both deals guaranteeing that viewers in the States will have plenty of access to stars across the Atlantic.
There is a longshot alternative to this, by the way—one that shifts the balance of power back to the States to a significant degree. If Deontay Wilder can somehow get past both Tyson Fury and Anthony Joshua—and he’ll be royally paid for both attempts—he will be able to continue earning monster paydays just by making his way down the ranks of U.K.-based heavyweights for as long as possible. Until the Fury fight, Wilder was a complete bust at the U.S. box office. A (relatively) unified title would represent a vast shift in his fortunes, and the division’s.
Now that a lot of dust has settled, Fury, the former unified and still undefeated heavyweight champion, now two fights removed from the involuntary relinquishment of his titles, has formally signed to take on current WBC champ Deontay Wilder on Dec. 1, 2018. Neither fighter compares favorably to Joshua or, for that matter, to Alexander Povetkin, and their fight won’t draw anywhere close to the live attendance of Joshua vs. Povetkin. But due to the nature of Fury’s notoriety, the uncertainty of the result, and the manufactured combustibility of its promotion, there is far more buzz surrounding this event than the Wembley fight’s—a bout where the conclusion was largely seen as forgone.
On June 9, 2018, in the Gypsy King’s first outing since his exile, Tyson Fury—still undefeated and thus seen by many as the “legitimate” heavyweight champion through his lineal title win over Wladimir Klitschko— took on Sefer Seferi, a small man who agreed to be paid to show up in Manchester. In exchange for this courtesy, Seferi was gifted by his opponent with a kiss on the lips and four rounds of light exercise, at the conclusion of which he decided to go home. An actual fight did briefly break out during the proceedings, but it took place in the audience, and for its duration received Tyson’s full attention—Fury being a man who enjoys his entertainments.
Tyson Fury is often the instigator of these entertainments; with a genius level IQ for promotion, he is the funniest, most creative and eye-catching figure in the sport right up until the moment the bell rings. Unfortunately, at that point he becomes a bore.
Which is exactly what he was on August 18th in Belfast over 10 tightly controlled, largely pacific rounds against the clueless Francesco Pianeta. Pianeta wasn’t trying to lose exactly, but it didn’t seem to cross his mind that the fight would be more enjoyable for the 20,000 fans stuck without cover in a downpour if he halfway tried to win.
It takes an act of collective faith for Fury’s supporters to translate—maybe “transpose” is a better word—the slapping and pawing, the impulsive shifts between orthodox and southpaw stances, and the sudden ennui that overtakes him for moments at a time into clever boxing. It’s true that, with his size and reach, Tyson is what premiere boxing analyst Frank Lotierzo calls “just a pain in the ass to fight.”
Be this as it may, after his shutout decision over Pianeta was announced, Fury was stuck with the Sisyphean chore of trying once again to make himself seem like a dangerous heavyweight. He started by calling a slightly stage-frightened Deontay Wilder up to the ring to be used as a foil and a prop. The above-ground face-to-face part of the buildup for Fury vs. Wilder had begun the day before at the Fury-Pianeta weigh-in.
For all of his out-of-control talk about wanting to kill someone in the ring and to cripple an opponent whose son has to look him in the eye beforehand, Deontay Wilder has been, and continues to be, led from Point A to Point B during every staged confrontation with Tyson Fury. We repeatedly find him glancing furtively at Shelly Finkel—the glabrous, bespectacled 74-year-old advisor whose placid, buttoned-down avuncularity belies the fact that he’s a hard-nosed veteran of the boxing game. The nakedness of Wilder’s glance, the lack of agency it projects, and the lousy-poker-player fear it advertises, looks bad. Really bad. Simply put, Wilder’s intermittent and ill-fitting adoption of a dangerous street persona perches uneasily beside having a kindly looking old white man alongside him as his crew’s wheelman. By all means have Finkel do what you hired him to do—he’s an ace at his job—but don’t put him in the seat next to you where everyone can see him whispering in your ear and pointing you up toward the ring.
At the Fury-Pianeta weigh-in the day before the fight, Deontay Wilder and John Fury, Tyson’s father, had engaged in a kayfabe altercation that would have embarrassed the greenest pro wrestler cutting a promo. It started with Wilder somewhat deferentially shaking hands with Fury, with both men giggling at each other in a “this is gonna be good” way. Wilder then visibly geared himself up, stepped back and blurted “Bomb Squad” as all parties put on their game faces.
Like a tin-eared amateur standup comic at a celebrity roast, Deontay Wilder is incapable of making the distinction between something like Mike Tyson’s ultra-violent but cartoonish “I want to eat his children” (directed toward someone who had no children) and this: “My mind is already made up on the Breazeale fight, and, when it do happen, imma make sure he brings his son on the stage to look the man in the eye that’s gonna cripple his daddy.”
“I want a body on my record,” Wilder once said. “I want one. I really do. ...That’s the Bronze Bomber. He want one. When I’m the Bronze Bomber I don’t care. I want that on my record.”
If the internet response was any indication, others didn’t want that on Wilder’s record. He wound up engaged in lengthy and embarrassing Twitter exchanges—arguing, explaining, and further complicating his wayward statements. The crux of his position seemed to be that he was two: Deontay Wilder/the Bronze Bomber, much like Clark Kent/Superman, millionaire Bruce Wayne/Batman, Terry Bollea/Hulk Hogan, or, in Wilder’s own case, Responsible Dad/Psychotic Would-Be Killer. The wish behind this zany bifurcation was that the public would come to love the modest, bible-toting good citizen while being terrified and fascinated by the homicidal lunatic. The campaign didn’t work. It was clear that, whatever those off the wall proclamations meant, they had failed to convince anyone that Deontay Wilder was dangerous; they were met with ridicule or hostility, but no one seemed impressed.
There’s an emotionally defective runt named Charlie Zelenoff who plagues YouTube, boasting about being an undefeated fighter. He harangues people, goads them into getting into the ring with him, then tries to sucker-punch them and is promptly beaten up. These two sentences have already given him too much print space, but they were needed in order to make a point about Deontay Wilder.
Zelenoff said some unconscionable things about Wilder’s daughter Naieya, who was born with spina bifida. Because of this, the heavyweight champion of the world arranged to box the 140-pound Zelenoff on camera and, like everyone else, promptly beat him up. Well over 6,000,000 people have watched this minor atrocity on YouTube, and I’ve asked that the clip not be included here since it is an exercise in mutual mental illness.
As a heavyweight champion of the world, Wilder’s beating up a civilian is wrong in more ways than you can count. But it also says some damning things about his lack of character. If Wilder believes that there’s nothing wrong with smacking around someone who has said something hateful and traumatizing about a child, you might conclude that, as a father who has felt the uniquely injurious sting of having one’s child brought into a public conversation in a way that could prove traumatic, he would be sensitive enough to not commit a similar transgression. You’d be wrong.
It makes me wonder about him. Does he think that Naieya should—rightfully—be spared this kind of treatment, but that other kids can go fuck themselves? Does the bullshit image of his son forced to witness at close range the brutalizing of his dad that he says Dominic Breazeale should be stuck with matter to him? Does Wilder really mean what he said or is he so misguided that he believes that such a statement enhances his reputation as a terrifying fighter?
The fact is, it would be hard to find a less terrifying fighter.
Showtime recently joined the pitch for the Fury-Wilder fight. The most telling thing about that was the way that pitchmen Brian Custer and Steve Farhood talked only about what an exciting, unpredictable, wild-west promotion the fighters were going to put on. There was not one mention of the possibility of their having a good fight. Maybe the strangest thing about this was the implication that a raucous promotion between two freewheeling weirdos was all that the public would really want anyway.
If two or three or four men can call themselves the heavyweight champion of the world, what, aside from possibly money, does being “heavyweight champion of the world” mean?
Even in a splintered marketplace, where sanctioning bodies manipulate titles, assign challengers to best suit their political purposes and pocketbooks, and protect or depose titleholders like pieces on a chessboard—all of these maneuverings being real things in the real world—there will always be an element of fantasy attached to anyone deemed a champion. Somewhere someone will see legitimacy in anyone with a belt, regardless of how paltry or shady the process that led to its being strapped on his waist.
Is it any wonder that some of these champions stumble back and forth between what is real and what is make-believe, bringing their followers along with them?
Much of this piece, the entirety of Part 1, is being written in advance of the Anthony Joshua vs. Alexander Povetkin fight, and is being written in the assumption that Joshua will win it, probably impressively, probably by knockout. Still, the champion is fighting a genuinely worthy contender who surely understands that this is his last chance to gain three widely recognized versions and one uniformly laughed-at version of the title belt; Povetkin will be at his best in that ring.
In saying that Joshua will win, I run the risk of guessing wrong. What if that’s the case?
One problem with an essay like this—where the focus is largely on time, place, and the real-life context in which a fight builds and unfurls as it leads up to actualization—is that you can write thousands of words but then find the fight itself doesn’t go according to script. Sometimes the challenger is not only coming to win; he may also be a very good fighter. If he wins, readers may decide to throw your entire setup into the discard pile. I would argue that getting the fight itself wrong, although significant, doesn’t automatically invalidate whatever may have been written beforehand about boxing culture and the boxing business.
In the one fight where he looked awful—an entirely under-gunned attempt at “unifying” heavyweight titles against Wladimir Klitschko—Alexander Povetkin was hamstrung by being much too small and short-limbed to come to terms with his opponent’s reach and power. A stylistic nightmare for him, Klitschko dropped him four times over the course of 12 rounds and Povetkin was fortunate to finish on his feet.
Anthony Joshua is closer to Wladimir Klitschko in size and fighting approach than anyone else Povetkin has fought. On paper this looks like an unwinnable fight for the 39-year-old Russian, and it may well be that.
One major difference between Joshua and Klitschko is that, because he was the less naturally gifted fighter of the two, Klitschko was the more focused and tactically single-minded. Fear of being knocked out made him so.
The late trainer Emanuel Steward formulated a strategic boxing model for Wladimir Klitschko and big-man predecessor Lennox Lewis that was based on a savvy reckoning of their shared virtues (physical strength, reach, and crunching one-punch power) and weaknesses (poor chins and lack of confidence that caused both to be occasionally overly cautious).
When Klitschko fought Povetkin, he allowed him no chances to execute any real offense, hurting him with sharp one-twos whenever he attempted to be aggressive. Joshua won’t be as monochromatic as Klitschko, which will increase his chances for kayoing Povetkin, but may also make for a more exciting fight because it will occasionally leave openings for the smaller man.
Povetkin can punch, but Joshua has fought successfully against opponents who hit much harder. The Russian’s got a good chin, but he has been dropped numerous times—including in his most recent fight against a shot David Price—and occasionally badly shaken. In order to be effective, Povetkin must somehow get under Joshua’s good jab, glue himself near, but not onto, the champ’s body, and go to work with his hook and right cross, punching steadily, then tying up when Joshua tries to push him back to give himself punching room. A good grappler and adequate dirty fighter in close, Povetkin needs to use those attributes in an attempt to throw Joshua off his game. He should come in low and use his head when he can, and add elbows and forearms to the repertoire. He can’t begin to win a shootout or a classic boxing match. In order to have any chance, it is essential that Povetkin make this an ugly fight, then hope doing that doesn’t start a riot.
During an earlier part of my life, I had some experience dealing with Russians who were involved in, among other things, boxing. They were hardcore gangsters, but they weren’t temperamentally like any of the other gangsters I knew. They were smarter and tougher, but they were also worldlier, more empathic, funnier, and more logical than the Mafia or Irish mob guys I’d encountered.
Aside from possibly the Boston IRA gun-runners, who were truly fearless, they were more dangerous too. There was no posturing with them, which meant that there was no telegraphing of what they might do. They were used to getting their way, and the penalties for anyone who failed to meet their obligations were uncompromising.
In the early and mid-1990s, I made out-of-town fights for some Russian mobsters operating out of Brighton Beach. We did productive and amicable business together for a couple of years. They had one particularly promising fighter among their stable of decent-to-good fighters training out of Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn.
But there was a problem with their promising fighter. A bad thing happened to him in Brighton Beach. I was not involved with that, although I had worked with the promising fighter before. He’d been a serious man and I had liked him, as I liked the whole crew.
Once, at an out-of-town fight I’d set up for the promising fighter, his manager had good-naturedly palmed the head of one of my victorious heavyweights as our two entourages were walking in opposite directions from the ring to the dressing room—my fighter had gotten a first-round knockout; theirs was on his way to getting his.
Talking about my fighter, he told me solemnly, “He is very lucky man. He has been touched by God.”
“You mean you?”
He laughed. “I don’t know. Could be.”
All this is prefatory to my saying that I take Russians who are involved with boxing very seriously. I’m not in any way suggesting that anyone from either Alexander Povetkin’s promotional or managerial team is involved in any shady enterprise, though.
Nevertheless, this isn’t a great time to be Russian if you’re in the British public eye. The March 2018 Salisbury poisoning of Russian double agent Sergei Skripal, and his daughter Yulia, also contaminating a local police officer who’d been sent to Sergei Skripal’s home to investigate, in what the British government concluded was the KGB using a nerve agent in an attempt to murder the Skripals, has exacerbated a lot of already fomenting Brexit-infused Cold War feelings of paranoia and anger. This bitterness may be much in evidence at Wembley on Saturday night, all of it beamed directly onto Alexander Povetkin, where it is likely to collide full force with the crowd’s fanatical devotion to Joshua, the local boy.
This kind of cumulative negative energy is a tough thing to go up against. The closest I’ve ever come in person to feeling the collective antipathy of a sizable crowd was when I brought a fighter to Belfast many years ago. The King’s Hall was full, but full meant just under 7,000 people (or less than 12 percent of the number of people who’ll fill Wembley), and the fans, although they didn’t like my fighter and sided with his opponent, didn’t actually care that much one way or the other. More significantly, I wasn’t the guy who had to do the fighting. Even with all that, the ring seemed a scarily inhospitable place and I couldn’t wait to duck through the ropes and walk back down those couple of steps. I wondered what kind of person could stand in the middle of all that hostility and still be able to perform at their best without being overcome by a feeling of deep trepidation. It would take one gutsy adult.
It’s not inconceivable that the best heavyweight in the world other than Anthony Joshua himself isn’t the person who can score the biggest bonanzas and draw the most public interest fighting him. It could be Alexander Povetkin, the guy who’ll be in the opposite corner on Sept. 23rd.
Povetkin has—or his management has on his behalf—found ways to hold various heavyweight titles, some less specious than others, for over seven years now. He’s been suspended for illegal use of banned substances, but this seems neither here nor there; if off the top of your head you can’t think of 10 fighters who’ve held versions of heavyweight titles over the last couple of decades while juicing, you don’t really follow boxing.
PED user or not, Povetkin is a good fighter, if not one whose skills translate easily to a mass audience. Through a 13-year professional career, he has looked subpar only twice—against Wladimir Klitschko in October of 2013, a stylistic matchup to which he was ill-suited, and a flat performance against Marco Huck in February of 2012 where he appeared to be given a gift decision.
Sandwiched in between the loss to Klitschko and his most recent fight—a March 2018 kayo win over David Price in Cardiff—Povetkin’s management was able to lure seven of the best of the best European-level heavyweights to Russia with good paydays, where he handled them with his customary professionalism.
His professionalism was again recently on display at a New York press conference hosted by Matchroom Boxing to announce the launch of their new subscription streaming service DAZN, which will largely concentrate on putting on regularly scheduled boxing programming, with Joshua vs. Povetkin as their inaugural big-ticket item.
In what has become common practice to jumpstart future promotions, two would-be opponents engage in a little antagonistic bullshit designed to whet the fans’ appetite for confrontation—the “These Guys Really Hate Each Other” central casting maneuver.
As with the Fury and Wilder setup, this tired melodrama was trotted out for Anthony Joshua and prospective US opponent Jarrell “Big Baby” Miller.
Both heavyweights wait for their cues. That’s all you really need to know about the amount of genuine heat they feel toward each other, at least until the point that, unlike the pro wrestlers they’re taking a page from, they forget that what they’re doing is scripted, and start to get carried away. Even then, all you’re hearing is the “little bitch,” “faggot,” and “I’ll fuck your girlfriend” (or wife or mother or whomever) standard repartee that serves as code for “a grudge match.” Here Miller is the heel, Joshua plays the outraged babyface. They seem like adolescents, making themselves look bad while helping to sell exactly zero tickets. Alexander Povetkin, standing off to the side with a bemused expression, appears to be the only adult in the room. There’s a solid, quiet dignity in his bearing that stands in sharp contrast to the silliness taking place around him.
Povetkin has been quoted as saying, “Miller wanted to get some attention and PR. It was a press conference for our fight and nothing to do with him. He got some attention, no problem, but he doesn’t have the fight. Miller tried to steal the show and make noise, which is what lesser fighters have to do to get these fights.”
Anthony Joshua has said, “Boxing is easy. Anyone can do it.”
As a statement of fact, it couldn’t be less true; boxing is nearly impossible to do at all, and only a handful of people in the world do it well. Seen as metaphor, though, it becomes an invitation—a declaration about self-worth and how one can live one’s life. It’s like saying, “I’m no better than you. If I’m the heavyweight champion of the world, then you’re the heavyweight champion of the world. We can all be the heavyweight champion of the world.”
The hearts lifted by Joshua’s statement may to date nearly all be British hearts, but his message serves to explain some of the love beamed to him by his followers there.
After losing to Joe Frazier—his first professional defeat in a career that was until that moment predicated on his being unbeatable, Muhammad Ali put his title and boxing as a whole into perspective by saying that, in the large scheme of things, neither titles nor being undefeated were very important. He told a dressing room full of weeping supporters, “Why is everyone crying? You don’t see me crying. Every day, people lose their jobs. Every day, people die in airplane crashes.” It was a magnificent statement.
Anthony Joshua has also said that he can lose; more, he has said that he will lose at some point. He believes it’s both inevitable and proper; things come, they have their moment, and they are replaced by something else. He is suggesting that boxing is merely one thing that is/was part of your life—something that will flow into history— forgettable history at that—but that your value as a person remains intact.
Both Ali’s and Joshua’s statements are ones that confer ownership of the heavyweight title to everyone, or perhaps they say that the heavyweight championship is a dream—another fantasy—but that, as we share it, we can also be together in the real world.
As humanizing at the things that Ali and Joshua said are, and as accessible as both fighters always were to their fans, each has the quality of being larger than life. Ali’s presence was probably unequalled in sports history—Babe Ruth may have rivaled him. Joshua, whether on his way to the ring or walking down a street in Golders Green, has a similarly regal bearing. He’s currently by far the most important fighter in the world. Barring a monumental misstep, he’ll become its richest, passing Floyd Mayweather in the not too distant future.
Kevin Mitchell’s excellent piece for The Guardian on fight day included this surprising fact: Joshua, whose last four fights have been in front of 300,000 fans in the nation’s two biggest football stadiums—numbers that were unimaginable for even the sport’s most decorated champions of the past—is the No 1 individual box-office draw in the history of British sport. Nobody comes close.
Outside of the U.K., however, Joshua is still barely a blip on the radar. On the morning of his title defense against Povetkin, there was no mention of their fight in the New York Times’ sports pages.
Anthony Joshua is the first prizefighter ever to not need U.S. support in order to succeed as a global economic force. Manny Pacquiao is bigger in the Philippines than Joshua is in the U.K. Roberto Duran was bigger in Panama. Julio Cesar Chavez may have been bigger in Mexico. But all of them needed the imprimatur of U.S. promotion in order to become economic powerhouses. And only Pacquiao ever reached a level of economic success that rivaled Joshua’s.
Americans are heavyweight-centric. Always have been. When there’s no high-profile American-born heavyweight champ, U.S. interest in boxing falls off dramatically. Until recently, this was a very big deal that affected the entire boxing business; no matter who you were promoting, without the backing of the U.S. market, you’d only get so far. Heavyweights as dominant as Lennox Lewis and the brothers Wladimir and Vitali Klitschko failed to generate mainstream attention.
Anthony Joshua, Tyson Fury, and a group of other U.K.-born or -based heavyweights, while still not drawing a lot of new American fans, have rendered them moot. Without one ticket being sold to an American or without one PPV being ordered, the revenue stream for British promoters is healthy.
Sure, promoter Eddie Hearn has big plans for Joshua in America. It’s just that Matchroom Boxing isn’t worried about his current lack of status there.
At one point, I had agreed to do a fight report on Joshua vs. Povetkin for The Ring, which is probably boxing’s most venerated magazine. I asked their senior editor, Douglass Fischer, if The Ring could set up a one-on-one interview with Joshua. He replied, “I don’t think I have that much juice”. When The Ring isn’t able to arrange an interview with one of the fighters in an upcoming bout, the fight’s promoter is either incredibly confident or incredibly inept. Eighty thousand people showing up at Wembley suggests this laissez faire approach was not ineptitude.
I recently turned 67, which makes me an old man. A month before I turned 12, I made a decision: “Fuck childhood. It’s time to get my real life started.” So that’s what I did. The irony is that my childhood now seems real, but almost everything after that has been like a dream.
This photo was taken from the porch of my coffee farm in Las Marias, Puerto Rico. The property extends to the edge of the outer tree line. It’s a real place where I lived for five years—the farmer I bought it from made his living harvesting coffee, avocados, oranges, orchids, pineapples and various other things; you can see the coffee plants in the photo—and yet it seems like a dream place to me now. I haven’t been back there in about four years, and may not return for many years to come. Hurricane Maria’s 175-mph winds and Donald Trump’s contempt for non-white people combined to wipe out the whole place; 3,000 people died of privation and an indifference that bordered on contempt during the seven months that electricity and water and ATMs were unavailable. Everyone living on the part of the island where my home used to be was knocked back into the 18th century.
The second photo is of Wembley Stadium, another real place that seems like a dream place, since its existence is solely for the purpose of bringing substance to the collective fantasies, varied as those are, of up to 90,000 people at a time. As I write this, before the fight, I haven’t ever been to Wembley, although I was scheduled to go in April of 2017 when Anthony Joshua defended his title against former champion Wladimir Klitschko. My arrangements fell through, which led to complications, one fallout of which was that the second part of a two-part article—focusing on a place of collective imagination being made concrete (it’s debatable whether or not it would have become more “real”)—never got published. “Now”, as my friend Al Braverman once told me about a much different proposition, “you’re gonna get the shot.”
But is “the shot” any more real than anything else? If all goes well with my flight (my hotel reservations have already gotten comically fucked up by Expedia, where an hour-long phone conversation failed to convince a customer service person—who repeated, “I understand, Mr. Charles” to everything I said—that I really didn’t want two separate rooms for one night. My attempt to convey that I wanted one room for two nights was rewarded with the interpretation that Mr. Charles wanted a two-room suite for one night), and with my press pass, and the trains are running between Central London and Wembley, I will be at ringside for Joshua-Povetkin.
Like a lot of people who are emotionally invested in the Joshua-Povetkin fight, I have spent too much time thinking about it. For me, this is at least somewhat justifiable because some of that thinking is about business, waiting to hear back from Matchroom before booking a flight to London and setting up accommodations for my stay. The fight loomed with no response from the promoter other than “We’re going through the application process now,” and as prices for plane fare and hotel skyrocketed from the reasonable costs of a couple of weeks ago, I experienced a shift in available ways I could think about the fight. One way isn’t necessarily better than the other; it’s like sand moving through an hourglass: the proportion of how to approach things shifts from one ironclad set of conditions on one end to a different set on the other.
Without an actual media credential, I started modifying the piece to conform to not seeing it live, moving it away from being about boxing culture. Removed from the pure single-minded chauvinism of 80,000 longing souls, Joshua vs. Povetkin would have been reduced to being just another fight. Cut off from what I expected would be a week’s cultural immersion with the fight crowd in London, with this immersion serving as the impetus to propel me as a cog in a scrum through a crush of rhapsodic pilgrims directly into the visceral cauldron that is Wembley to deposit me ringside, all I could have provided was a fight report. But I figured we’d all come this far; it would have been pusillanimous not to describe what happened in the ring.
Then, on September 15th, an email from Daniel Barnard, Matchroom’s U.K. head of media, confirmed that my press pass had been approved.
The following message/warning was included in the email, though: “Details of the position of your pass (Ringside/Press Box) will be sent to you next week, along with all of the information required to collect your pass, directions to your collection point, directions to your allocated area.”
I chose to take the risk, still minus the details from Matchroom for how to actually get into the fight, of hopping on a plane to London.
I’d gotten an aisle seat. The plane was nearly full, and I found myself seated next to a strikingly attractive young woman. Closest to the window was a clean-cut, pleasant looking young man who instantly struck up an easy conversation with her. The guy was studying “brain psychology”—whatever that is—and seemed at least as impressed by it as anyone else might have been. The woman had taught science to high school kids, but had grown bored with it. Their talk was easy and engaged, with some low-level stakes: the guy, while not boorish in any way, was clearly trying to get something going. Both ignored me, which is how life works.
Boston to London is a fairly long flight, so there was some ebb and flow to the conversation. Just after the announcement that we were starting our descent into Gatwick, the guy got up to use the rest room. As we stood to let him out of the row, the woman asked me the reason for my visit to London.
“I’m covering the Anthony Joshua fight.”
“Yeah, I’ll be at ringside.”
“Fuck off, that’s crazy. You’re gonna meet Amf-nie Josh-wuh? That’s so cool. You should bring me with you.”
“I should bring you with me?”
“Yeah, why not? I’ll dress up, do my hair, get glammed up. It’d be so cool to be in the limelight for my 15 minutes. My life is borin’. Imagine me mixin’ with all the celebrities.”
“You’re serious, aren’t you?”
“Shit yeah, I’m serious. It would be so excitin’ to be right up front for it, with the lights and the TV cameras and all.”
She paused for a moment, giving me a concerned look.
“You’re not like a psycho? If I go with you, you’re not gonna kill me later, are you?”
She was smart and edgy and funny, and she saw fame in an interesting way, willing to take a risk from her day to day life in order to gain proximity—even momentary proximity—to Anthony Joshua and whatever magic emanated from that experience. I wanted to write about our exchange, so she gave me her email address. Later, I asked if she’d send a photo that Deadspin could include in the piece. She wrote back: “I’m in a fuck it kinda mood and I’m trusting you’re not going to be a cunt with my picture!!”
So here’s at least a few seconds out of her 15 minutes.
Just after this brief interlude during the descent into London, Dorothy’s plunge from a Kansas devoid of color and magic into the vibrant phantasmagoria of Oz came to mind. Anything could happen there, but it was a place where it was hard to trust your own eyes. Deciding that “there’s no place like home,” Dorothy returned to Kansas to tell her tale. Indulgent as her family and friends were, nobody believed her, although she was certain that everything she’d described was real. Of course, she’d been hit on the head very hard.
The night had passed on the plane, Thursday night in Boston turning to Friday morning in London. I’d planned on traveling light—no computer, no email access; I don’t own a cell phone— but I broke down and brought my laptop. I was sweating a little about whether the information I’d need in order to actually get to my seat would reach me in time to be of any use. For the past two days I’d sent follow-up emails conveying the urgency of my need for further instruction. Checking my messages once I’d settled into my hotel room, I found no new information.
I got it that Barnard was a busy man. But 6,550 miles there and back was a long way to travel, and couple of thousand dollars was a lot of money to spend only to be turned back at the doors of Wembley. Nobody was going to buy me a ringside seat, and I wasn’t picking up the cost myself.
I was getting answers to my emails from Anthony Leaver of Matchroom, assuring me that everything was under control and for me not to worry. His last email was his most direct: “Don’t panic!!”
As a hedge against what would happen if a follow-up email didn’t arrive, I’d printed out the email I got on the 15th to take to Wembley. I wondered whether, standing at the area where press passes were distributed, if I could even find it, I would be just be a tired-looking guy clutching a useless email? I figured that it might be prudent to establish my boxing bona fides. I googled myself, hoping to find something that could be brought along as ammunition to make my case for being let in.
One of the first things that popped up was this:
What could fame possibly mean if I’m considered “famed”? Fame must have a remarkably low bar. Was anything at all about this real? Or was it just someone’s fantasy? It sure the fuck was not my fantasy.
Finally, late on Friday night, an emailed press release went out that contained an admirably detailed set of instructions for picking up my credential. Maybe all the psychic turmoil I’d put myself through was just so much cosmic bullshit.
The upside to everything happening so close to fight time is that I’d been able to miss every Matchroom press conference. And I intended to go directly to my seat at Wembley, foregoing an invitation to the media room, where the promise of “light snacks” and the company of my fight-writing brethren somehow held no allure.
I had too much time to kill before the doors would open for collection of press passes. I didn’t entirely believe Anthony Leaver’s advice to not panic, so had gone to the media center very early, anticipating complications with my getting into the stadium.
Looking for a place to sit for a few hours, I passed the SSE arena, the large indoor venue dwarfed by Wembley Stadium. There were thousands and thousands of young kids, almost all white, almost all boys, queued up for an event. I tried to guess what they were waiting for, and thought I had my answer when the video screen above the building started projecting WWE clips.
It turned out that I was wrong. I found that out while having coffee at the Starbucks across from the arena. The place was crowded, and a man sat down across from me. I asked him if he had any idea what the thousands of kids were lined up for. He did. Henri had brought his son from Finland to watch the two-day CS:GO finals. I’d never heard of esports, but got what turned out to be a fascinating lecture on the phenomenon. Henri had spent a couple of thousand dollars on planes flights, hotels, and event tickets so that he and his son could watch young people play video games. Henri felt that sharing this experience with his son would help them bond, and would keep him open to the ways that young people were thinking.
It was an admirable position. Nevertheless, I was incredulous. “You’re telling me that 20,000 people in the next two days will spend a fortune just to watch a few guys sitting at computer screens?”
As soon as the words were out of my mouth, it hit me. “I guess it’s no stranger than 80,000 people spending far more money to watch two guys hit each other in the head.”
Henri smiled. “I wasn’t going to say it.”
After Henri left, another guy took his place. Tim owned a construction company, and was bringing five of his best clients to the fight. Tim was a street-smart guy. We started talking about the fight, and I asked him how big Anthony Joshua was in Britain.
“A huge figure. He’s a household name. Everyone here knows Anthony Joshua. My wife doesn’t follow boxing, but she knows him. Watches all his fights.”
“He’s the most popular boxer in British history?”
“Oh, no. That would be Frank Bruno. The hearts of the British people always go out to the gallant loser.”
I was surprised; Bruno wasn’t much of a fighter. He was physically impressive and had some punching power, but was slow and cumbersome, had stamina issues, was discouraged easily, and had a chin that couldn’t withstand a really good punch.
“That’s all true,” Tim agreed. “He come up short a couple of times, but he finally won the title. That meant a lot. And, even after he became rich and famous, he was the same modest bloke he’d always been, didn’t pretend to be something he wasn’t. He was the same talking to the Queen or some fellow on the street. He came clean on his mental health issues. He’s a real inspiration to us here.”
I didn’t have it in me to tell Tim that Bruno had won the title because Oliver McCall handed it over to him on orders.
In time, the doors opened for those picking up their media credentials. It was an odd process. We were allowed in only two at a time. Two guys manned the desk, and they couldn’t find my media affiliation. Going through the envelopes, they finally turned up my name.
“This is odd. There’s no media affiliation. You’re not listed as writing for anyone. There’s no wrist band in your media envelope. You need that to get in. And you’re not seated in the press row.”
A Matchroom representative came over. “This is Charles Farrell. He doesn’t need a wrist band. And he doesn’t need an affiliation; he’s an independent. We’ve got him at ringside.”
It made no sense. I am by no means a high-powered boxing writer. I mostly write for Deadspin, which has an extensive readership but doesn’t focus on boxing. I have no influence on what people watch or think. Why the weird preferential treatment? I should have been happy, but something didn’t feel right.
In the media room—I was let in despite not technically being media—I ran into Michael Woods, the host of Talk Box, and the guy who had referred to me as “famed.”
I mentioned that he was going to briefly show up in a piece I was working on—since the article is largely about fame—and that I was possibly the least famous person in existence.
“Well, maybe not the least famous,” he replied.
The Matchroom representative materialized again, telling one of the ushers to walk me to my seat.
It turned out to really not be located in the press row. It was the first row of the general seating—seemingly a commercial ticket. I watched as Michael Woods found his seat three or four rows ahead of me in a different seating section. Steve Bunce, popular TV and radio show host, and a good boxing writer, was shown his seat a few rows ahead of me.
I figured the placement was an indication of where Matchroom had decided I stood: Although I wasn’t writing for anyone but myself, I wasn’t to be shut out altogether. But nobody was giving me the red-carpet treatment either.
“It is nature that is the ruin of Wembley,” Virginia Woolf once wrote, and if nothing was ruined that Saturday night, nature at least made sitting through the undercard fights an ordeal. Wembley wasn’t nearly full until just before the start of the main event, and the weather combined with one particularly awful prelim—Lawrence Okolie vs. Marty Askin was a lugubrious, foul-filled affair that seemed to go on forever, made worse by how evident it was from the start that it would drag through its full 12 rounds—to reduce the crowd noise to a deep subterranean E♭ that would slightly intensify or diminish according to what was taking place in the ring, but held steady for the most part. Even the booing that greeted the final bell of the Okolie vs. Askin fight was subdued; it seemed like a kind of grudging necessity, a reverse courtesy demanded of the fans toward the fighters. The E♭ hummed steadily through the booing.
I’m not well-suited to the cold, and I hate being rained on, so I willed myself to fall asleep during Okolie vs. Askin, blanketed from knees to head by the plastic poncho that William Hill, the leading sportsbook in the U.K., had shrewdly provided for those stuck under the pitch. I was awakened by a rawboned Britisher who poked me and said something I didn’t quite catch.
I stood up to let him and the woman he was with pass, apologizing for blocking the aisle.
I repeated my apology.
The guy looked vaguely truculent, but said, “I’m just takin’ the piss, mate. Asked you if you were a fuckin’ statue.”
I sensed that caution might be required with my response. I’d given him nothing to work with, however, so he passed to his seat without incident, his friend smiling apologetically as she moved by me. They plunked themselves down, but were up and off almost immediately, surely heading to adventure. I figured they were trying out good available seats, and this would be the last time I’d see them. I was wrong about that.
As soon as the couple left, two young guys took their places. They seemed to the manor born in their seats, so I assumed they were the ones they’d bought.
A short time later there was a small commotion beside me. The rawboned man and his escort had returned; apparently the seats next to me were actually theirs. An exchange took place, one that appeared to have racial overtones.
“I said why don’t you sit over there?”
“Because I bought these seats, you fuckin’ monkey.”
The two uprooted guys had been in the process of moving past me to sit on my right, but they stopped.
“What did you just call me?”
“I was just takin’ the piss, mate. It was a joke. Now get the fuck over.”
All three men were standing now. The rawboned man reached across me, his elbow level with my nose, and gripped the other guy’s hand. There was nothing friendly in the gesture, but its meaning was hard to read.
The black guy quietly said, “Fuck you.”
“Don’t fuckin’ take me for a mug, mate. Don’t you do it. I will fuckin’ bust you up. I was just takin’ the piss. Now shake my fuckin’ hand and sit the fuck down.”
Their fists were locked a couple of inches from my face. I thought that my nose was about to be accidentally broken just from sitting in the wrong spot.
The black kid, even though he had a friend with him, backed down. It was the right move. There was something not quite right about the rawboned man. Some impulse to violence was haphazardly draped in faux merriment. Its tipping point was way too tightly trip-wired; the merest nudge could send him in either direction.
I had seen situations like this before. They happened when a guy spent two months’ salary (ringside seats for the fight were going for $3650 on the secondary market) on one event—very often one where issues of masculinity came into play—and managed to use the cache of that event to lure a woman who was way out of his league into coming with him. The couple-for-a-night would each dress to signal things to fellow fight-goers, messages beyond simple stylishness, although style would be an element of the signals. The venue would be a minefield of meaning and misunderstanding. The guy would be on edge. Insecure about himself in relation to the other men present, yet wanting them to covet the woman he was with, he would be hellbent on having the time of his life—since he’d paid for it—but ready to explode in an instant at any perceived show of disrespect or territorial incursion.
After my row-mates’ standoff, I was treated to simultaneous narratives from either side, with both antagonists claiming victory. The rawboned man angrily told his companion that neither of “those fuckin’ chimps had the balls enough” to stand up to him, and that they’d have been sorry if they had tried, individually or together. The black guy, still somewhat stung from having backed down, developed his narrative a little more slowly: he’d been a gentleman because a woman was present, it wasn’t actually his seat, but if the rawboned man hadn’t shaken his hand, he would have “kicked the shit out of that geezer.”
Tensions dissipated, then passed. The parties on either side of me moved on to other activities. Coincidentally, they each chose to do the same thing: Using their cell phones to call friends in other parts of the stadium to ask if they could see them.
“No, I’m right near the ring. Just behind where it says Section D. No, D, D. I’ll stand up. I’m wavin’ my arms. Can you see me? Where are you? What are ya wearin’? The red corner is to my right. What side of the ring are you on?”
It went on and on from both sides. Then, after the black guys were seemingly offered even better seats with their friends, they left, never to return.
As the co-feature between Luke Campbell and Yvan Mendy was about to begin, a guy told me I was sitting in his seat. He was with a friend. “You can sit two seats over. There’s plenty of space.”
“I don’t mind moving over, but I’m in the right seat.”
“I don’t think so. See, here’s my ticket. Section V, row 1, seat 19.”
“This is Section D.”
“No, it’s Section V. D is the section ahead of us.”
The rawboned man jumped in.
“You’re in Section V, mate,” he told me. “Lemme see your ticket.”
I showed it to him.
“You’ve got a front row seat, mate! You’re right at bloody ringside!” He threw his hefty arm around my shoulders. “You won the fuckin’ lottery, mate. Wanna trade places?” Indicating his companion, he added, “She can stay with you. Have we got a deal?”
The woman laughed. She said, “I’m sure he’ll take the ringside seat. How’d you get that seat?”
“I’m writing about the fight.”
“Without notes? You’ve got the whole thing in your head?”
“Well, I’m not writing a fight report. It’s more about the atmosphere here at Wembley.”
She pointed down toward were my actual seat was.
“Okay then, darling. Remember to put in your article that a beautiful lady showed you where your seat was.”
I moved down to my correct seat. I moved ahead of Michael Woods. I moved ahead of Steve Bunce. The on-air TV personalities were seated in front of me, but no one else was. The writers were all behind me. I was being given some kind of special treatment after all. There was no logic behind it; I was incapable of earning Matchroom a dime. I didn’t understand it then, and I don’t understand it now. I covered my rain-soaked new seat with one William Hill poncho, covered myself in another, and settled in to watch a heavyweight championship fight.
The crowd woke up. The place was suddenly packed. There was a shortish time gap between Campbell being announced as the too-generously scored unanimous decision winner over Mendy and the beginning of the pyrotechnic display that accompanied Alexander Povetkin to the ring. Ordinarily I am not an aficionado of fireworks at the fights, but this display actually generated warmth, and so I was deeply thankful for it. The crowd booed Povetkin, but it was not a frightening, vengeful booing. It seemed somehow contained and nearly generic, and it left me unprepared for the response to Anthony Joshua’s entrance.
The duration and extravagance of the pyrotechnical display tripled. Not part of the targeted demographic for these kinds of shows, I am generally bored and annoyed by them. Tonight, I gratefully received the heat-providing fire; each explosion momentarily took the edge off the cold.
Joshua emerged from entryway opposite where I was seated, so I was watching him come to the ring from my left. His image was projected on various monitors throughout the stadium. The previously subdued spectators let out an extraordinary roar which the champion acknowledged with a relaxed, regal grace.
I have no doubt that Anthony Joshua is the most charismatic heavyweight since Muhammad Ali. Simply put, he is at home wherever he finds himself, which allows for him to be simultaneously larger than life and entirely in the center of life.. There is a sense of majesty about him, but not of menace. As good a fighter as he his, opponents will not be intimidated by him; he won’t be able to play that Mike Tyson card.
Joshua cleared the ring ropes, the introductions moved forward briskly, and the fight began.
Called to center ring by referee Steve Gray, Joshua and Povetkin look each other directly in the eye during pre-fight instructions. Each appears confident, but neither is trying to intimidate the other. They touch gloves briefly twice in a sportsmanlike manner and head back to their corners.
Round 1: Both fighters come out cautiously, each trying to establish distance. Their mutual respect is immediately apparent, and it ripples outward to the spectators, causing a palpable sense of anticipation in the stadium. Unlike most contemporary heavyweights, these guys know to move their heads. Joshua uses his jab, which Povetkin attempts to get under. Joshua gets in a good left hook that registers with Povetkin. At round’s end, Povetkin jars Joshua with a beautiful right uppercut-left hook combination to the head, buckling his knees and briefly sending him reeling backward in an attempt to stay upright. It earns Povetkin the round. The uppercut appears to have broken Joshua’s nose.
Round 2: Joshua works hard to establish his jab early, and follows some of them with classic right crosses. Povetkin looks for the spaces left by the champion’s swings, trying to work his way inside. The mutual wariness continues; both guys clearly know that the other can punch. Povetkin is attempting to loop his left hook outside of Joshua’s thrown jab. Joshua is starting to forget to follow the jab with a straight right, giving Povetkin opportunities he wouldn’t have otherwise. It’s a very close round, possibly just shading toward Povetkin for his harder punches. Between rounds, trainer Ivan Kirpa seems to be animatedly gesturing for Povetkin to dig left hooks to the body, and to keep his right glove up by his face.
Round 3: Joshua starts the round by throwing lots of jabs, occasionally adding the cross behind them. It’s an effective tactic, but Povetkin is hyper-alert to openings. Both fighters are extremely focused, still showing great mutual respect. As a result, the rounds, although intense and compelling, are not explosive. A minute into the round, Joshua inexplicably begins fighting with his left held low, down at his thigh. Povetkin catches him with a good right lead followed by a strong left hook, both of which the champion takes well. I notice a nice little trick that Povetkin has mastered: Once he’s on the inside, after the fighters tie up but before the ref breaks them, he’ll snap off a quick hard hook to the head. For the first time in the fight, Povetkin starts to gamble a little bit, leaping in with his hook. With 30 seconds to go, Joshua starts backing up, hoping to capitalize on timing Povetkin’s rushes. He lands a series of decent punches—enough to get him the round, which is another close one.
It’s clear at this point that Povetkin is the fighter who is sticking nearer to his game plan, and that Joshua, while fighting with applied purpose, is the more willing to change tactics and improvise as the fight unfolds.
Round 4: Povetkin lands a hard left hook, only to be answered by a harder right lead by Joshua. Povetkin seems to have an understanding that, in order to win, he needs to continue taking chances; he is leaping in more and more, letting his hands go freely. Joshua has gone back to keeping his left by his side, potshotting with different types of jabs, without following them with his right, in an attempt to steer Povetkin into something. Why he’s not consistently throwing 1-2s baffles me; every time the right follows the jab, it stops the challenger in his tracks. Joshua manages to cut Povetkin above his left eye with a pinpoint right semi-uppercut in answer to a combination by the challenger. Some back and forth posturing begins at the halfway point in the round, with each guy waiting for the other to initiate—a clear suggestion that they have felt each other’s power. This has been the quietest round of the fight, and again there is little to choose from when picking its winner. Aside from the first, a competent judge could argue the case for either man in any of the rounds.
Round 5: Joshua continues to wait for Povetkin to make the action, although he also keeps his jab in play. He still isn’t using the right behind the jab, so Povetkin is getting the better of things as they exchange over the first two minutes. A lot of mutual feinting takes place. Povetkin throws an impressive left hook–left uppercut combination, then lands an overhand right. Joshua is moving beautifully, and very alert to possibilities for a big counter shot, but there’s no question that Povetkin, landing a couple of punches at the bell, has taken the round.
At this stage of the fight—business being what it is—things are still close enough so that, if they were to continue similarly, Joshua could get a decision that wouldn’t be a robbery of giant proportion. But, seen from a level field by a competent judge, he is losing this fight.
Round 6: The sixth starts without much action, although the intensity level remains high. The fighters take turns landing good jabs. Joshua scores with a solid hook, then misses with a few quick combinations. He fights moving backward again, and the guys engage in one of the fight’s few clinches. Steve Gray has had very little to do. Few clinches, very little rule-bending. At the mid-point of the round, Povetkin ups the ante somewhat, landing three combinations in quick succession. Joshua isn’t bothered by the shots, but it’s another 20 seconds before he scores with anything of his own—a solid right lead. He spends the rest of the round using his left overtime, barely throwing the cross, and scoring fairly consistently. During the closing half-minute, Povetkin’s only success is with one powerful right-hand lead. The fighters again bang their gloves together at the bell. Once more, it’s close; Joshua’s final minute tips the favor to him.
Round 7: Both fighters come out fresh, tapping gloves briefly to open. Joshua might be planting his feet more, although he’s still willing to move back. Once again there’s a lot of mutual feinting. Povetkin catches Joshua with a hard left hook to the cheek. It looks as if Joshua is now carefully measuring the challenger, moving clockwise, then counter-clockwise to confuse him while allowing Povetkin to pursue, subtly waving him in with his right glove, throwing out a jab, another jab, and then a third jab that blinds the Russian to the sudden right that slams home powerfully behind it. Povetkin’s legs buckle instantly and he freezes. Joshua is all over him, throwing combinations intended to end things. Povetkin tries to retreat, but Joshua drills him with a left hook followed by a right cross, both thunderous, both right on the button. Povetkin falls, attempts to rise, then stumbles back between the bottom ropes, his face pointing downward out of the ring.
Somehow, he beats the count. He indicates that he is ready to continue. The noise in the stadium is so loud that it seems to be made up of weight as well as volume. I feel the noise as a kind of pressure. Joshua half-lands, half-misses with four or five punches, then gets in the one punch—a solid right—that he’s looking for. Steve Gray instantly steps in as Povetkin’s legs go out from under him, then has to shift his attention away from Joshua in order to try to catch Povetkin before he falls. He is unable to get to him in time, but cradles the challenger in his arms just as he hits the canvas.
The time of the knockout: 1:59 of the seventh round.
Anthony Joshua is not yet—and may well never be—a great fighter, but it would take very little for him to become one. One necessary step—a step that will not be popularly received—is that he must replace or augment Rob McCracken as his trainer. The champion’s strategic arsenal is dangerously limited because he has a trainer whose knowledge of tactics is pedestrian. No fighter becomes great without having more sophisticated in-ring choices than someone like McCracken can impart. Despite his own confidence in his “instincts’—and Joshua indeed has good instincts—it would be more effective for him to have someone in the corner who could tell him exactly what to do when he finds himself in a tough situation, as he did against Povetkin.
Because Joshua is a money machine, people will spin the fight this way and that, but the truth is that his most recent title defense was life and death. Part of the reason it was life and death was because Povetkin is very good. But it was also life and death because Joshua wasn’t emphatically told to follow his jab with his right cross. The moment he did that, he ended the fight.
It had been an entertaining, intense, and wonderful fight that fell short of being a great fight. Both fighters said all the right things afterward because they spoke honestly and from the heart. Alexander Povetkin was no longer seen as even a borderline villain by the crowd. He’d fought exceedingly well, thrown everyone a few scares, and then had, thankfully, lost. He was everyone’s friend. Anthony Joshua had further elevated himself in the national consciousness, taken another step toward being regarded in legendary terms. He’ll get there.
Freezing my ass off, I stuck around just long enough to catch each fighter’s post-fight interview, grateful they kept things short.
There are reasons to report on fights as pure chronicles of what took place in the ring. But that alone is seldom enough. It tells only the partial story, and often not even the most important part. Unless a fight is staged between two boxers who are nearly anonymous club fighters, boxing is never simply about the process of giving and taking punches.
“Boxing is easy. Anyone can do it.” I can’t shake these two sentences. The only way boxing can even begin to become easy—and for most people it never can—is if you commit fully to it, sacrifice a tremendous amount, and understand that your life will be in many respects different from most people’s.
Are the two sentences about living a special life? Are they saying that a special life is within the range of possibility for everyone? Anthony Joshua said that boxing is easy, but he never said that boxing was free.
I could never have been a boxer. But I was always willing—often foolishly willing—to pay whatever the cost was to live an unreal life. An unreal life doesn’t necessarily mean a good life, but it may mean a life of self-determination. In a life like that, Fantasyland and The Real World may be interchangeable.
Divorced from the mesmerism that elevates its mechanics to the level of magic, isn’t boxing just two men hitting each other in the head? And wouldn’t only a moron want to watch two men hitting each other in the head if all it meant was two men hitting each other in the head?
My answer to that is: If music is only about notes, then music is only about math. And nobody ever filled a stadium by letting people watch them do math.
Most of the 80,000 people who attended the fight at Wembley arrived by train via the salubriously monikered Jubilee Line. They arrived at their leisure, meandering in early or skipping the card’s preliminaries to take in only the main event. They all went home at the same time, though. And there’s only one way to get from Wembley Stadium itself to Wembley Park Station. Essentially, you must walk down a long concrete chute. Which, en masse, we did, forming a solid wall of soggy people.
At roughly the halfway point along the chute, the guy next to me said, “The trains stop running in five minutes.”
If that turned out to be the case, tens of thousands of cold, drunk, exhilarated, exhausted, comradely and/or combative, demonstrative, and cowed people would have been corralled into a suddenly unmoving trough with literally nowhere to go.
It was the general consensus of those around me that the trains would be kept running in order to accommodate the massive crowd. The consensus turned out to be right; everyone continued to shuffle forward past the strangely antiquated green “Go” signs being manned by railroad employees, signaling that you had made it to the point of being accepted up to the next checkpoint. Get past two checkpoints, and you’re guaranteed a seat on a train that will actually go back to London.
I saw the second checkpoint up ahead, dreading a red “Stop” sign, not encountering one, and successfully stepping past the final obstacle of what had been a very long weekend full of worrying about nothing.
The chute eventually funneled the crowd into a couple of lines where individuals then used their touchless cards to get through the station turnstiles. I can’t imagine what it would be like for anyone without a touchless card.
I finally stepped onto the train, which was, as expected, packed. Frottage was an involuntary activity, enjoyed, resented, or treated with forbearance, depending on one’s personal circumstances. Within moments of embarkation, I was treated to my first taste—luckily, not an extreme one—of British hooliganism. Five or six largish louts, each substandard in his own hard-to-pin-down way, began voluminous versions of the unbearable “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” each lout presenting an individual take on what an authentic regional American accent might sound like, every take more outlandishly off the mark than its predecessor. Their only point of agreement seemed to be that “West Virginia” was brayingly pronounced “Whisky Vagina.” Apparently, nothing in the world was funnier than that. Although I’d be lying if I said their collective volume was greater than of the roar of the crowd at Wembley, it seemed close, and was somehow much harder to take.
The hooligans were hoping that their singing and their crude observations of others in the car—many of the latter praising the possible sexual characteristics of some of the women who were on the train with their husbands or dates—would provoke a confrontation. The Brits were one step ahead of them. They knew not to provoke, enjoin, join in, or in any way engage with the hooligans. It wasn’t that they were afraid of them, either; there were many on the train who could have kicked the shit of them. Experience had taught the passengers that it was easier to simply let the time pass. And indifference allowed the troublemakers no satisfaction. I followed everyone’s lead, and so wound up without incident at Victoria Station, where I caught a late-night cab back to the Park Lane Mews Hotel.
Cold, wet, and exhausted, I finally made it back to my room just before 2:00 a.m. My room key wouldn’t work. I took the elevator back down to the lobby, and told the receptionist at the desk. He asked, “Who are you again?”
I said, “I don’t know, boss. You tell me.”