Anthony Joshua lingered in the ring at Wembley Stadium as midnight struck on Sunday morning, bathing in the afterglow of the famous night that saw him write his name indelibly into his country’s rich fistic lore. It had been more than an hour since the 27-year-old from Watford had come off the canvas to violently dispense of Wladimir Klitschko in the most gripping heavyweight title contest since the first bout between Evander Holyfield and Mike Tyson more than a generation ago, yet the former Olympic champion was content to delay his retreat to the post‑fight news conference, instead holding court with the throngs of well‑wishers who refused to disperse, to the chagrin of the harried stadium stewards. It was as if he did not want the night to end. Who could blame him?
None of the 90,000 fans who stuffed Wembley to capacity will soon forget what they saw on Saturday night, when the sport’s biggest rising star graduated from untested paper champion to the division’s alpha dog amid a spine‑tingling atmosphere unlike any boxing has seen in years. The night traced an emotional crescendo replete with sights and sounds that will endure, not least the formidable roar of a well‑lubricated stadium crowd bellowing Gala’s Freed from Desire and the traditional Sweet Caroline in full throat, many of whom paid in the hundreds for upper-deck seats where the fight itself was a rumour.
And then, somehow, the main event managed to exceed the ample hype that preceded it. By the time Joshua detonated that right uppercut from hell’s heart on Klitschko’s chin in the 11th round, the largest post-war crowd for a boxing match in Britain had been whipped into a white-hot wall of sound.
This was an event that only the United Kingdom could engender, and never more so than today in the thick of a golden age for British boxing underwritten by the nation’s 11 current world champions. It was a masterstroke of promotion and event production helmed by Eddie Hearn, the 37‑year‑old architect behind Joshua’s meteoric rise. And if the early returns on the record-breaking pay-per-view numbers claimed by the Matchroom Sport group managing director are accurate, it begs the question: why ever would Joshua fight anywhere else?
For decades Las Vegas has represented boxing’s most aspirational and coveted platform – where the world’s best fighters contest for the richest purses against a glitzy backdrop of plunging necklines and immaculately tailored suits. But as the sport has fallen on hard times in the United States from the amateur to the professional ranks, there is evidence that Vegas is no longer the economic necessity it once was. That is doubly true for a handsome, charismatic and highly marketable fighter like Joshua, who has sponsorship deals in place with 13 brands and brought home a career-high minimum purse of £10m for the win on Saturday – a figure likely to swell based on pay-per-view receipts.
Perhaps the most lucrative near-term fight for Joshua is a unification bout with Deontay Wilder, the undefeated American knockout machine who holds the WBC title (and who observed from ringside on Saturday as a member of Sky’s commentary team). But the Alabaman’s domestic profile hardly scratches the surface of Joshua’s in England. Why risk that fight underperforming before a Vegas crowd when Saturday’s event offers a proof of concept strong enough to persuade even Wilder’s famously cautious handlers to bring him abroad?
Joshua’s promoter believes his fighter is at the outset of a decade-long reign atop the division and made it clear that Las Vegas is only one part of a broader strategy. “We’re only going to box twice a year,” Hearn said at Wembley. “I think the plan, rather than just keep going in the UK, is to explore new markets, break new markets and boundaries, which include America but more importantly China, the Middle East and Africa. They’re markets we want to move into and dominate as well over that period. All of a sudden if we boxed [Kubrat] Pulev, who’s our mandatory, the British public would be disappointed. So therefore that could be a fight you could take on the road.”
Joshua had already owned the IBF’s version of the fractured heavyweight title by virtue of last year’s knockout of someone named Charles Martin, a well-meaning Californian who himself had claimed it when his opponent was injured on a slip early in their match for the vacant belt. But Saturday’s gut-check moment was the night when Joshua truly became a world champion.
The sport’s flagship division has long served as a bellwether for the popularity of prize-fighting at large. As the heavyweights go, they say, so does boxing. Joshua’s emergence may signal the dawn of an exciting new era in the weight class – with a bevy of tantalizing matchups to be made involving Wilder, Luis Ortiz, Joseph Parker, Andy Ruiz and, lest we forget, the lineal champion in Fury. But even more notably, it could be remembered as the night a sport’s centre of gravity crossed the pond.