Anthony Joshua (24-1) shook off ring rust and occasional nervy moments after an explosive third-round to blast IBF mandatory challenger Kubrat Pulev (28-2) – retaining his heavyweight titles with a ninth-round KO win. Naturally, the attention turns towards WBC champion Tyson Fury: there’s clear determination from their promoters to make a unification bout in 2021.
Joshua takes his time, but eventually finishes durable Pulev
R9, 2:58 – Anthony Joshua beats Kubrat Pulev via KO to retains WBA, IBF, IBO, IBO HW titles
Less talk, more action. As if those four words weren’t clear enough to those watching, Joshua and Eddie Hearn both reinforced them after the former’s solid display – which raised questions.
After all, this was a mandatory challenger in Pulev.
He needed discipline in Saudi Arabia twelve months ago to reclaim his titles, but this display was a bit of everything: slow-starting, cagey then explosive and equally baffling to watch at times.
From the opening seconds, you could sense Pulev’s awkward movement would cause Joshua problems. There was plenty of feinting by both while a concerted effort to establish centre ring.
Pulev said last month that he’d expose Joshua, and his defiance was emphasised in R2 when he laughed off a sharp punch combination which looked intense but was also partially blocked.
They clinched a lot in close and Pulev tried making it an uncomfortable, gritty fight for Joshua but he seemed to be managing his distance well while leading with the jab. Key word: seemed.
An explosive third round
That tweet flashed across the screen at the end of R2 and right on cue, Joshua was in a finishing mood late in the third round.
There was a lot of psychological one-upmanship going on between them, which felt genuine after their heated weigh-in exchange but also got tedious quite quickly.
The previous combos which Pulev had to evade in the previous stanza proved too quick and heavy-handed for him to do this time around.
He dodged a lunging jab before landing a big right hand of his own, before connecting with a three-punch combo which had an evasive Pulev turning away from him, trying to recover.
The fight could’ve been stopped as he backed into a corner and the referee started the count, but the 39-year-old smirked: he wasn’t going to be finished like this. A second knockdown came as Joshua landed a furious flurry and uppercut to floor him – he needed to survive the round.
That he did with AJ expending energy aplenty to try earning an early night’s work, but the champion’s aggressive finishing style also had him missing wildly a few times.
Pulev responds defiantly, as expected
Pulev landed a cheap shot after the bell as if to say, is that all you’ve got? Suddenly, this fight was quickly resembling Ruiz 1 last year.
That night, Joshua had an early knockdown and tried to finish quickly but got excited and caught on the temple as they exchanged shots in the pocket.
This time, he’d learned his lesson but Pulev had recovered well after being in serious danger.
Rounds four through seven were interesting in the sense that many critics would’ve been frustrated that the pace slowed significantly, Joshua gave him a chance to stay competitive.
You could see Kubrat was holding his ground more assertively, as if he consciously knew that it was now or never – not necessarily winning rounds, but again, staying competitive in them.
He landed a few body shots, connected with a pair of combinations in the pocket and was regularly clinching.
AJ had a wry smile across his face but knew the job wasn’t over yet so avoiding complacency was of paramount importance, especially as Pulev had a second wind.
A big right hand wizzed past Joshua in R6, they brawled in the pocket and while Joshua tried to jab at distance, the Bulgarian wasn’t content letting him do that anymore. His footwork – supposedly slow and laboured – was forward-thinking, persistent and pushing the pace.
Nerves increase at wembley arena as Pulev stays persistent
By this point, it was clear that Pulev’s chin durability hadn’t decreased with age. AJ landed a furious flurry in R7 but he ate the punches and connected with more of his own, whenever they were engaged in the pocket. Why was he not staying at distance and being more clinical?
Pulev convinced him to fight like this. He made it a messy, gritty duel by slowing it down and speeding up whenever the opportunity arose, landing punches whenever they clinched.
As I mentioned before, he wasn’t winning rounds but instead did well to keep himself in with a chance – one punch can and has changed the complexion of fights before. As the minutes continued and rounds were ticking by, you sensed this was an increasingly nervous watch.
Joshua could be heard talking about a mark around his eye to his cornermen after R8 but started the ninth with a purposeful swagger that helepd him finally apply the exclamation mark.
The referee warned Pulev about his gamesmanship after punching the champion with his head down in the clinch. Joshua responded with a triple uppercut which floored Pulev a third time.
After another eight count, there was 15 seconds left for AJ to get what he desperately seeked six rounds earlier. This time it only took one punch: the ferocious right hand cross that has become synonymous with his fight-finishing sequences since he turned professional in 2013.
It was an emphatic end and one where Pulev, a stubborn fighter with nothing to lose in his second title fight, was able to bring the best out of AJ while still raising some questions.
The champion’s distance management was shaky at times, he absorbed too much punishment in the pocket and seemed to flicker between tactics – jabbing at range then brawling for periods.
These questions wouldn’t be asked had he, or the referee, stopped the fight in R3. Pulev remained competitive without winning any rounds and Joshua’s vulnerabilities are clear to see.
However, his fight IQ is much higher than critics give him credit for and that’s largely due to the eye test – he looks like he’s holding back at times when he’s being methodical and vice versa.
Although questions remain surrounding Deontay Wilder’s insistence on a trilogy fight against Tyson Fury, this will be seen as the biggest obstacle cleared towards an AJ-Fury 2021 showdown.
Joshua – as expected – stayed coy post-fight in a brief interview with Sky, saying that he’ll take one fight at a time but ultimately wants to be an undisputed champion.
Fury holds the only belt he’s missing, WBC, and although Tyson was expected to fight again this year, that fell through.
AJ can’t afford to look past opponents like Pulev, so purposely avoided that line of questioning during fight week and will remain liberal on the matter, even if that’s what he wants next.
He adopted a similar approach when talks about a Deontay Wilder bout rumbled on for two years.
Promoter Hearn, who confirmed a deal was agreed in principle six months ago, said they will be friendly and nice in negotiations – starting tomorrow – to strike a contractual unification bout.
Earlier in the week, Tyson confirmed he wouldn’t be part of the crowd but watched at home and was unimpressed with Joshua’s post-fight interview, posting this on social media afterwards:
Picture source: Getty