Joshua vs Povetkin: The Overlooked Russian Invasion That Isn't Being Overlooked
Oscar Wilde once told us "There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about and that's not being talked about".
Those wishing to test this sentiment could do worse than to consult Eddie Hearn and Anthony Joshua this week. For, although the wheels of the Sky Sports PPV machine are fully in motion and the AJ hype train is on track to pull into the station Saturday night packed full of passengers, the train is a little more muted than usual. A feeling of what might have been lingering. When Joshua once more steps through the ropes at Wembley Stadium on 22 September, standing opposite him he will find not one but two formidable opponents - Alexander Povetkin and the ghost of the super-fight that threatened to happen on this night. The ghost that has haunted this entire event and its build-up.
Throughout the summer we were kept updated on a potential mega clash between Joshua and the WBC champion Deontay Wilder via social media and numerous interviews from both the Joshua and Wilder camps. Blow-by-blow accounts of negotiations would vary from an agreement seemingly being the distance of a pen tip away, to the two sides not speaking to each other in a manner more akin to a very public family fallout on Jeremy Kyle than a formal business negotiation. Indeed, whether you listen to either Eddie Hearn's version of events or Wilder's representative Shelly Finkel's, it seems both sides have been about as willing to answer an email as Harry Redknapp when HMRC come knocking. One way or another, there was a feeling that one party had been led a merry dance and in the absence of a clear culprit to blame on either side, we were left to conclude as ever that it was boxing fans who were the injured party. One of the perils of building a super-fight that fails to materialise is that nothing else quite satisfies the appetite. In this instance and particularly in the shadow of Wilder's announcement that Tyson Fury will be his next foe; Joshua's next fight was bound to be the first casualty of this summer's longest-running saga.
Alexander Povetkin is in the highest echelons of the current Heavyweight scene. Hearn has been keen to emphasise that this is the world's number one Heavyweight taking on the world's third-best Heavyweight (and thus without being able to say as much, the best possible substitute for the real clash the world wanted to see). For those that may argue this is simply more promoter hyperbole, it is hard to argue with his point. Povetkin is vastly experienced, carries genuine knockout power, is a former Olympian and has never been stopped - his only loss coming via points against Wladimir Klitschko, (save yourself the eye-bleeding if you didn't catch that one). Hearn's harshest critic would be hard-pushed to place Povetkin anywhere outside of the top five heavyweights in the world, even if his assessment that Povetkin's place lies at third on the top table probably relies on Tyson Fury's inactivity. Povetkin has cleared out all but the best of the Heavyweight division and often in emphatic fashion, with David Price becoming the latest victim of the Russian's power in March this year. He is arguably the most vicious puncher Joshua could face whose surname isn't Wilder. And here we arrive at the crux of the issue - that name again. A live threat Povetkin is, Deontay Wilder he is not. Ultimately, for all of the above on Povetkin's CV, this event was destined to be tinged with an undercurrent of disappointment whomever the dance partner was. When a super-fight is promised and not delivered, all else is a disappointment, even perfectly legitimate world title defences like this one. There was nothing wrong with Mayweather fighting Mosley, or Pacquiao fighting Cotto, but above all else our cravings would only be fulfilled by them meeting each other, rendering anything else a distraction that would be treated accordingly. There is nothing wrong with MGK, but when you were promised Eminem, disgruntlement is inevitable.
It is with this knowledge in mind that we have found both Joshua and Hearn this week. Hearn is so keen to sell the fight he's attempted to convince us Joshua is facing not only Povetkin, but the Russian government and even Putin himself - although rumours he will be sitting ringside next to Max Branning look wide of the mark. Joshua, by his own admission, seems frustrated - both with the questioning of his real desire to meet Wilder and with the wider public perception that Povetkin is a stepping stone to the big boys next April. Both are aware of the column inches the Wilder-Fury clash is getting and have been keen to ensure talk of the winner of that contest meeting AJ does not overshadow this fight week - Hearn for promotional reasons, Joshua out of recognition of the serious business at hand Saturday night. A Povetkin right-hand could derail a career that has been navigated perfectly so far, collecting every possible belt, pay-cheque, and plaudit along the way. Everyone associated with Team Joshua has emphasised that while others may overlook Povetkin, they will not. AJ appears too intelligent a man and fighter to slip up here, but more experienced fighters than him have slipped on the banana skin of complacency. Carl Froch told anyone who would listen before the first George Groves fight that he was too professional to overlook any opponent and quickly came to realise that he perhaps hadn't given his foe the due respect. If a pound was received for every time AJ had ushered the words "I'm not overlooking this fight but..." when cornered for questioning, then we would be seeing a lot of rich journalists. Consider that your red flag.
Ultimately, AJ should prevail. At 39 years old Povetkin is no spring chicken and without wishing to draw on the cliched tale of the unbeaten record of Father Time, miles on the clock are the last thing an opponent needs when facing the younger, fresher Joshua. Two of his last three wins have been solid, rather than spectacular and even the emphatic knockout of Price came in a fight where questions had been asked of the Russian. He was once riding the crest of a wave, which included a remarkable body transformation in his mid-thirties, a string of knockout victories over world level contenders and series of failed PED tests (all completely coincidental, rather than a result of each other of course). The wave appears to now be slowly crashing. He is now VADA enrolled, with Hearn and Joshua's representatives presumably taking the proactive approach to drug testing in the build-up to this fight that all management should take when engaging in a contest with Povetkin. Though he is used to fighting bigger men, few of Povetkin's opponents have possessed the skillset and dynamism of Joshua and at this point in his career, that should represent more than he can handle.
For his part, Joshua seems focussed on the job at hand and dedicated to ensuring he doesn't become the latest victim of complacency. The fans can overlook opponents but the fighter cannot and if Povetkin has one last big performance in him, then we will quickly find out just how seriously Joshua has taken this fight. He has ridden out some hairy moments at various stages in his career and if not 100% on his game may need to again. It is a reflection of the astronomical success Joshua has been able to achieve both in the ring and in building a fanbase outside of the sport that we view a fight in which he is due to make approximately £20m and draw 90,000 spectators into Wembley Stadium as an appetiser before the main course in April 2019. Maybe the price you pay for cultivating the 'casual' audience is that many will overlook an opponent like Alexander Povetkin. AJ will fill out stadiums whenever and against whomever, he pleases. Once upon a time, a boxing match filling out a football stadium would have seemed fanciful, he is now due to do it for the fourth time in a row. We have become accustomed to taking these events for granted. We have become greedy for more and feel entitled to look past his opponents for the next big fight on the horizon. For his own sake, Joshua shouldn't do the same.