Manchester, England (AP) — Anthony Joshua was making his way through the heavyweight ranks, establishing a reputation as a potential world champion of the future, when he fought unheralded Matt Legg at Wembley Stadium in the summer of 2014.
It was the first fight on the undercard of Carl Froch-George Groves II. Shortly after 5.30 p.m. local time, in broad daylight and with fans drifting into a mostly empty stadium, Joshua won in 83 seconds for his sixth straight win since turning pro.
There were much bigger fights to come that night but it didn’t stop Joshua’s promoter, Eddie Hearn, sending a reminder to the sparse Wembley crowd: “In two or three years’ time, Anthony could be headlining here himself.”
Turns out Hearn was spot on.
On April 29 next year, Joshua will be at the other end of a card at England’s national stadium, fighting Wladimir Klitschko for three world titles in front of an anticipated 90,000 spectators.
“I was a bit raw then,” Joshua says, looking back at the Legg fight with a smile. “I took a few, covered up a few. The reason I was happy to be out first was that I wanted to watch Froch and Groves. That was the first time I could sit back and watch a fight, because nowadays I’m on last.
“Fighting in front of about 3,000 at about 5.30 p.m. It doesn’t matter. It’s a fight, we’ll come together, and boom. 90,000 or nine people. It’s the same rules and regulations, and the same attitude to win.”
It’s that attitude that’s turned Joshua from an Olympic champion in 2012 to possibly the most feared heavyweight boxer around. He’s the IBF champion — a belt he retained by stopping Eric Molina inside three rounds in Manchester in the early hours of Sunday morning local time — and has won all of his 18 professional fights by knockout, without being extended beyond seven rounds.
The fight against Klitschko will be a defining one, though. Either confirmation of a changing of the guard in the heavyweight division, or a reminder by the 40-year-old Klitschko that the old champ is still alive and well.
“I don’t think he needs the dough, but there’s no cap on what you can make,” Joshua said in the bowels of Manchester Arena, two hours after dismantling Molina with the minimum of fuss. “But to own the division again? How long is he going to be around for? Maybe this is to stamp his mark, his last hurrah.”
The WBA had already sanctioned a “super” fight between Joshua and Klitschko for the spring of 2017 but the date and location was confirmed minutes after Joshua’s win over Molina. Hearn entered the ring, to be followed soon enough by Klitschko, and the April 29 fight was announced.
It will be the biggest payday of Joshua’s career, potentially earning the 27-year-old Briton more than 10 million pounds ($12.5 million).
Of what will be a 14-year age gap between him and Klitschko, Joshua said: “It’s mad, isn’t it? But I think it does play a big role, for sure. But I can’t let that be the reason I think I’m going to win.”
Joshua also said he won’t let his respect for Klitschko stop him attempting to end the Ukrainian’s career. They have been sparring partners in the past, and there appears to be a genuine bond between them.
“I love you, you are awesome,” Klitschko said after embracing Joshua in the ring after the Molina fight.
“I think there are different breeds of animal in this sport but at the end of the day, we’re all predators, all lions,” Joshua said. “I think we come together as one and represent the sport of boxing. That’s what’s important and we both have that mutual respect.
“It’s more about what he’s done. Vitali (Wladimir’s older brother and a former heavyweight champion), what’s he, the mayor of Kiev? I think they use that platform and that’s how I want to present myself. I think we get on in that sense and I think when we get in the ring, it’s competition and the best man will be victorious.”