Every so often comes a moment that can set the history of sport on a different trajectory. I believe we will witness such a moment on Saturday when Anthony Joshua, of Golders Green no less, fights the veteran Wladimir Klitschko for the Heavy-weight Champ-ionship of the World. At Wembley Stadium, not a Las Vegas car park. This is a battle of the ages and for the ages, and it is right here in London.
For those of us who were glued to barely audible radios at 3am to hear epic US fights or flogged around seedy London cinemas for a live transmission, the romance, the magic and the brutal beauty seems to have gone out of the heavyweight game. The story of Muhammad Ali, and the brilliant film of his Rumble in the Jungle, When We Were Kings, now feels like a romantic confection. But it wasn’t.
Who can forget seeing the writers George Plimpton and Norman Mailer rising open-mouthed in awe, as we all did when we watched the film, when Ali dropped George Foreman in the eighth, having exhausted him in the heat of the Zaire night with his ‘rope-a-dope’ courage. It is the best sporting documentary ever made and justly won an Oscar in 1996: both Ali and Foreman went to the awards. They had long buried their differences and Foreman helped Ali on to the stage. It is a brutal sport, but a noble one.
Joshua and Klitschko, these two gentleman giants, literally, can bring it all back before 90,000 spectators and millions of viewers. Klitschko is a colossus, immensely dignified and a great ambassador for boxing. He has won 53 fights by knockout and spent an average of 15 minutes in the ring over all his fights. But he is 41: superbly fit of course, but that is one hell of an age. Joshua — AJ — is just 27, the 2012 Olympic champion, hugely courteous and respectful of Klitschko, as his opponent is to him. Joshua has fought 18 times as a pro and won 18, all by knockout, the majority in the first two rounds. His average time in the ring is just six minutes. Klitschko is the experienced one and, if he can drag the fight out, there might be doubts about the younger man’s stamina and fight-savvy. But I cannot see it getting that far.
Joshua is impossibly handsome, charismatic and charming. And polite with it, always learning about the fight game, reading about fighters, reading business books. He had a troubled youth: run-ins with the police, drugs, a bit of ABH, though anyone trying to mix with him needs certifying. Through it all has been his Nigerian mother Yeta, always overjoyed to see him at her home in north London as the line of awards on her mantelpiece grows ever longer. Joshua might just be the man to revive the romance and glamour, and the glory of biff and bash.
I think he will win on Saturday and win quickly. He will then be on course to be one of the world’s richest sportsmen, rated alongside the great British heavyweights — Frank Bruno, Henry Cooper, Lennox Lewis — and comparable to many of the world’s greatest. He impresses as a person and, as a fighter, he is getting classier and deadlier. Global greatness beckons.
More than 20 years ago Martin Amis wrote a brilliant New Yorker article bemoaning calls for more tennis ‘personalities’. For personalities, he said, read ‘assholes’. The perfect example then was Ilie Nastase, and here he is again at the Fed Cup shambles, vilely abusing Britain’s women players. Arthur Ashe recalled Nastase called him ‘negroni’ to his face and ‘nigger’ behind his back. The much-married Romanian is a ghastly man, who liked to pitch up in the royal box at Wimbledon in some insane Ruritanian general’s uniform, plus medals. Ho-ho, what a character.
Though he did have one good joke: when asked by police why he did not report the theft of his wife’s credit card, he said: ‘Because the thief is spending much less than she does.’