Anthony Joshua, for six rounds of his sixth defence, looked as if he might have chosen the wrong old guy to help towards retirement but a right cross on the unattended chin of Alexander Povetkin sparked a savage finish that left the 39-year-old Russian in a heap, stopped for the first time in an illustrious career.
Nearly 18 months after retiring 42-year-old Wladimir Klitschko in the same ring – in front of many of the same adoring fans – the smiling gift to the heavyweight division resumed his knockout run and now awaits his seventh challenger in his 23rd fight. If there is any logic in boxing, it will be the WBC champion, Deontay Wilder, and a near unanimous response to that effect came from the 75,000 fans who had ignored the light rain when their champion asked from ringside: “Who do we want to fight here on 13 April?” “Wilder!” they screamed back.
Tyson Fury is said to be nailed on as challenger for the American’s WBC belt in either Los Angeles or Las Vegas on 1 December but the April engagement would be the real blockbuster.
Joshua, unusually subdued as Povetkin slung quality hooks from both wings at him for the first 20 minutes or so, switched from head to body to slow him down and, in a dramatic finish, threaded a long right on to his chin, followed by a left, to deck him in the seventh. He followed up ruthlessly, the same combination destroying what was left of the challenger’s resolve.
“Alexander is a very tough challenger,” Joshua said. “He proved that tonight with clever counter-punching. I switched from the head to the body. Every jab takes a second of breath out of you. I had a good fight, got my knockout streak back. There’s a lot of pressure. The whole country’s rooting for boxing. I’m a heavyweight, a world champion [owning the four other belts]. So they’re behind me. But it’s not just about me. I’m in it to learn.”
As for Wilder and Fury, he said, “Good luck to both of them. I wish them well.”
“Everything is riding on this,” Joshua’s promoter, Eddie Hearn, told him beforehand. And on they ride. But this fight had its moments of anxiety.
Povetkin had won eight on the spin after losing to Klitschko nearly five years ago, when he went down four times but got to the end. There is no quit in the Russian and he came to give his best.
Joshua, 11 years younger, out-reached Povetkin by seven inches, stood four inches taller and was nearly two stone heavier. He was fighting in front of his own fans at the home of English football, he owned a good slice of the promotion, with Matchroom, and Michael Buffer was on the microphone. No fighter could have felt more at home. The Russian did his best to make him uncomfortable.
He staggered Joshua with an uppercut and a short left hook near the bell to edge an otherwise quiet first round and continued to pressure the champion with bull-like charges.
Joshua’s nose leaked blood in the second and his quick-fisted opponent continued to probe for openings, up and down with his educated right hand. Joshua needed to make a statement and success at the end of the third round eased the mild concern building in his corner.
Slick and determined as Povetkin was, the Russian was stuck in a pattern of headlong rushes, left hooks following chopping rights, and, after 10 minutes, Joshua slowly began to work him out, jabbing to the body to blunt his attacks.
They shared a quiet fifth but Povetkin re-emerged from his shell to edge the sixth and led by a round at the halfway point, on the Observer’s card. Then Joshua did what champions do: he found a way.
He had knocked Povetkin out of his straight with his jabs to the solar plexus and now he sought the finish. Just as he looked to be struggling for control, he captured his prey on the ropes and found his range with a salvo of huge head shots to deck him twice, the second time prompting the mercy of the referee.
The crowd, strangely silent in the early rounds, broke into rolling choruses of “Oh, Anthony Joshua!” and the fighter no doubt shared their relief. This had been a tougher engagement than some had predicted.
The last time Luke Campbell tangled with Yvan Mendy, he took a brief trip to the floor and lost a split decision that briefly derailed the Olympic gold medalist’s professional career. Three years and one world failed title challenge later – against Jorge Linares last year – Campbell earned revenge, outpointing the seasoned Frenchman 119-109, 118-111 and 226-112 with a superb exhibition of boxing on the retreat to earn another shot at the WBC title. He deserves it – although Mendy looked less than impressed.
Earlier, there was more disappointment for his fellow Briton David Price, forced to retire after four interesting rounds against Sergey Kuzmin with a torn right biceps.
Price, a decorated amateur heavyweight who once had the world at his feet, is a fighter who five times as an unfulfilled professional has had his feet pointing at the lights in painful stoppages, most recently when Povetkin stopped him in five rounds on the undercard of Joshua’s defence of his title against Joe Parker in Cardiff six months ago. He avoided that fate here, with a strategic retirement. A more formal one might not be that far away for one of the nicest fighters in the business.