Joshua v Pulev: KO king or box and move? Which AJ will we see post-Ruiz?
When he faces Kubrat Pulev at Wembley Arena on Saturday, Anthony Joshua will enter the ring as a two-time unified world heavyweight champion.
It will be a year and five days since he avenged his sole career loss to Andy Ruiz Jr with a landslide point victory in Diriyah, becoming the fourth man in heavyweight history to regain his titles in an immediate rematch.
The others are Floyd Patterson, Muhammad Ali and Lennox Lewis, which handily outlines the sort of company the 31-year-old will hope to remain alongside in posterity.
How Joshua attempts to disarm and dismantle the veteran Pulev, with an undisputed showdown against Tyson Fury purportedly on the agenda for 2021, could tell us much about how he will approach this final legacy-building act of his career.
Taste for a tear up
Joshua made his swift transition from 2012 Olympic golden boy to box-office superstar thanks to his thirst for knockouts, the most valuable currency in which a heavyweight can trade.
Each of his first 20 professional wins came inside the scheduled distance, with 16 of those fights ending within three rounds.
Standout victories over Dillian Whyte and Wladimir Klitschko made good on Joshua’s professed admiration for the fabled 1976 slugfest between George Foreman and Ron Lyle. In his first bout since a humiliating loss to Ali in the “Rumble in the Jungle”, Foreman climbed off the canvas twice to stop Lyle after five rounds of unfathomable brutality.
— Boxing Social (@boxing_social) March 15, 2018
“It was so violent that the first time I saw it on YouTube, it almost scared me off becoming a boxer,” Joshua said in 2016, in between those meetings with Whyte and Klitschko that conformed to the template.
Hurt by Whyte and hurt badly and dropped by Klitschko, Joshua blasted his way out of trouble on both occasions to secure thrilling stoppage wins.
He sensed blood having floored Ruiz at Madison Square Garden 18 months ago. But the Mexican’s deceptively fast hands clipped Joshua as he waded in to finish matters and the hulking Briton tumbled. And again. And again.
There would be no defiant rally as against Whyte and Klitschko. It was time for a rethink.
Fighting fire with fire left Joshua badly burned and those wounds needed to be soothed in quick time after a rematch clause was exercised.
Angel Fernandez and Joby Clayton were brought in to work under head trainer Rob McCracken, with an emphasis on sharper padwork and bringing their man’s superior athleticism to bear against Ruiz.
The gulf between the two men in that regard expanded much as a rotund Ruiz did for the return, with Joshua boxing, moving and jabbing his way to a near shutout triumph, having weighed his lightest for more than five years.
Turning a crushing defeat on its head was an accomplishment made all the more impressive by it coming courtesy of a radical chance in style, however beneficial Ruiz’s lack of discipline in the interim period might have been.
— Matchroom Boxing (@MatchroomBoxing) December 7, 2020
During the hellacious Klitschko classic, Joshua landed 69 of 186 power punches thrown, with 38 of 169 jabs finding a home.
In the Ruiz rematch, he also connected 107 times, but it is there the similarities end. The left lead was the solid foundation to everything Joshua accomplished amid the dunes, landing 65 of 270 thrown, averaging 23 jabs per round. His 35 thrown in the 11th were more jabs than Ruiz (23) landed during the entire contest.
The heavy artillery was deployed far more sparingly, as the IBF, WBA and WBO champion connected with 42 of 103 power punches, according to CompuBox.
Stick or twist for greatness?
Fernandez and Clayton have remained part of Joshua’s setup for the Pulev fight, suggesting the tactics last time out are something the fighters wishes to keep close at hand.
“I am going to go in there and perform with no pressure and showcase the styles I have merged together, which is sticking and moving, and aggression and knockout power,” he told the Daily Mail last weekend.
Were he to become more circumspect during his later years, Joshua would something in common with the two men who dominated the heavyweight division before him.
Lewis only needed recourse to the scorecards three times in 25 outings before a shock KO loss to Oliver McCall in 1994. It is hard to imagine the younger Lewis, who wrecked the dangerous Donovan ‘Razor’ Ruddock on the way to being crowned WBC champion picking his way through a methodical points win as he did against David Tua in 2000 – a performance that won plaudits from purists but drew boos from a bloodthirsty Las Vegas crowd.
The joy of Klitschko’s gallant last hurrah against Joshua was seeing the great Ukrainian involved in the sort of gunslinging contest he had long since eschewed, the late and esteemed Emanuel Steward having masterminded a similar reboot to the one he oversaw with Lewis.
A fighter once reduced to minced meat by the likes of Corrie Sanders and Lamon Brewster embarked upon a run of 18 world title defences spanning almost a decade, Klitschko’s ramrod jab and unerring straight right the cornerstones of a safety-first course.
An exception came in November 2014, when he repeatedly left-hooked a prime Pulev to the canvas to secure a fifth-round stoppage.
Herein lies the quandary for Joshua, this weekend and beyond. The pre-Ruiz version bludgeoning forward against Pulev would be very well placed to repeat Klitschko’s emphatic victory – the Bulgarian has not lost since.
What impact have his Ruiz experiences, the chastening and the triumphant, had on Joshua’s appetite for a tear-up? How does a seasoned fighter benefit from being aware of their vulnerabilities without being consumed them?
Pulev is not the only rival who would appear to be best tackled on the front foot. For all his amateur pedigree, it is more or less impossible to foresee Joshua jabbing his way to a win against the formidable Fury.
A year ago, Joshua went into his shell to get his career back on track. How much he emerges from it against Pulev and others will define his claims to greatness.