The heavyweight era dominated for a decade by the great Wladimir Klitschko is over.
He lost his three belts and status as division kingpin by decision to troubled Tyson Fury in November 2015, but the real passing of the heavyweight torch came in Klitschko’s next fight, when Anthony Joshua sent him into retirement by stopping him in the 11th round to retain his belt and win a vacant one 11 months ago in the 2017 fight of the year.
Meantime, Joseph Parker picked up one of the vacant belts in December 2016 as the division suddenly showed life without a singular dominant force. With the division boasting unbeaten Joshua and Parker, not to mention heavy-handed and undefeated titleholder Deontay Wilder, there were suddenly interesting and important fights to be made.
One of them is at hand as England’s Joshua (20-0, 20 KOs), making his fifth title defense, and New Zealand’s Parker (24-0, 18 KOs), making his third, will meet in a rare heavyweight unification fight between undefeated titleholders on Saturday (Showtime, 5 p.m. ET) at Principality Stadium in Cardiff, Wales, where an expected sellout crowd of 78,000 is expected for the fight between men with a combined record of 44-0 with 38 knockouts.
“Boxing is bigger than ever right now,” Joshua, boxing’s biggest global star, boasted this week. “This is the golden era, and I’m happy to be a part of it.”
Said Parker: “He’s at his best. I’m at my best. This is the perfect time for the fight. There are going to be no excuses. Whoever wins is the best on the day.”
This is your ESPN.com Ringside Seat for the fight:
ESPN’s Steve Bunce and unified heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua discuss the Brit’s amateur boxing career and what it meant to him to turn pro.
Officially, the fight represents only the second meeting between undefeated heavyweight world titleholders, according to CompuBox research.
In 1987, Mike Tyson, 30-0 at the time and owner of two major belts, won a lopsided decision against Tony Tucker, 34-0 at the time and owner of one belt, to unify the three major titles of the era.
“A match like this is a very big deal,” Parker said. “As a fan of boxing and as a fighter, we love to watch the big fights and be involved in the big fights. So we’re pretty happy to be involved in the fight. I think it’s the best time for us to be involved in a big fight like this. We’re both undefeated, we both have titles, we’re both world champions and we both want to unify the division, so it’s going to mean a lot and it’s a big occasion.”
Of course, there were also huge fights involving undefeated titleholders against fighters with claims to the lineal throne. In 1971, Muhammad Ali, then the lineal champion, met archrival Joe Frazier, who had the title belt, in their legendary first “Fight of the Century” showdown. And in 1988, Tyson, with the three major titles, squared off with lineal champion Michael Spinks in the biggest money fight in boxing history at the time.
Joshua-Parker may not be on the level of Ali-Frazier I or even Tyson-Spinks, but it’s still a big deal.
“It’s a great fight. Two undefeated young heavyweights. Fearless, fast, big punching, great footwork, 24-0 against 20-0,” said Matchroom Boxing promoter Eddie Hearn, who represents Joshua. “I think it’s the kind of fight that we need in the world of boxing, and it’s the first-ever unification fight in Britain between two reigning heavyweight world champions.”
Both fighters also know the significance of the fight.
“I feel it’s my time. I’m young, I’m fast, I’m strong and I’m determined to win,” Parker, 26, said. “I’m not here for a payday. I’m here to take those belts back with me. I’m here to be part of history. I’m not doing it just for myself. I’m doing it for my team, my family and my country.”
Joshua, 28, is also a student of the game.
“I know about the history of the sport,” he said. “I know how easy it is to be forgotten about. I just realize that this is my time, and I have to capitalize and maximize and do what’s right for me. This isn’t about being the fan favorite. I’m not here to be pat on the back. I’m here to handle my business in the best way possible, and when it’s all said and done, be content with the decisions I’ve made.”
They promise action
ESPN brings you the best moments from Anthony Joshua and Joseph Parker’s pre-fight press conference ahead of their title clash at the Principality stadium in Cardiff.
At this week’s public workout, Parker said he wanted a slugfest, and Joshua told him no problem. That might not be the best course of action for each man given the level of punching power the other possesses, but if they live up their promises, it should be good for the fans.
“I’ve got the speed, power, skills, technique, all of the above. See you soon, [Joshua],” Parker said. “Let’s go to war!”
That was music to AJ’s ears.
“It’s good news that he wants a war,” Joshua said. “In boxing, all you need is a good chin and a right hand, but I’ve been working on finesse, technique, counter punching. I hope Joseph Parker falls into my booby traps because I’m going to set him up with some power shots as well. Yeah, I’ll be up for a war. I’ll hopefully be up for some blood, sweat and cheers from my corner.
“Physically, I believe in my ability. I’m focused and I understand it’s a boxing match and the people are expecting the pinnacle of boxing. Hopefully, they’ll be able to see me through to victory.”
Joshua: Only current world titleholder with 100 percent knockout rate.
Joshua: Making fifth defense of the IBF title, second defense of the WBA title.
Joshua: Seeking to become only the third heavyweight from Great Britain to hold three world titles at the same time.
Joshua: Lands 30 percent of jabs, third-highest rate. Opponents land 6.6 punches per round, third-fewest among CompuBox-tracked fighters.
Parker: Third defense of WBO heavyweight title.
Parker: First boxer from New Zealand to hold a major world title.
Parker: Lands 9.8 punches per round, fewest among CompuBox-tracked fighters.
Parker the underdog
Joseph Parker compares his training style to Anthony Joshua, discusses potentially fighting Tyson Fury one day and how he’s inspired by Peaky Blinders.
While Joshua has scored one exciting knockout after another, especially his so-far career-defining stoppage of Klitschko, against whom he got off the deck from a sixth-round knockdown to storm back, Parker has gone the distance in his last three fights and not looked particularly good.
He barely eked out the decision against Andy Ruiz Jr. to claim the vacant belt and had some struggles in his two defenses against late substitute Razvan Cojanu and mandatory challenger Hughie Fury in a majority decision.
Parker, who has never been dropped, knows he’s the underdog against the more accomplished Joshua but said he shouldn’t be overlooked, especially after having surgery to clean up persistent issues in both of his elbows in November.
“I think we’ve had our best training camp, and I know trainers say that all the time, but over the last two years, we’ve had a really rough time with Joseph’s elbows,” said Kevin Barry, Parker’s trainer. “I think it’s shown in his performances. We’ve had a couple of surgeries just prior to Christmas last year. This camp, 11 weeks in Las Vegas, have been the most enjoyable time that Joe and I have spent together in the five years that we’ve had. Joseph has wanted this challenge for so long, an opportunity to prove that he is the best heavyweight in the world. Obviously, we believe that he beats Joshua or otherwise we wouldn’t be here.”
Parker believes in himself but knows he’s in easily the toughest fight of his career.
“I see Joshua as a great champion,” Parker said. “The reason why we wanted this fight is because we respect what he’s achieved in the boxing world. We respect his team and what they’ve been able to achieve on this side of the world, and we love challenges. We see him as a big challenge, and that’s the reason we want to fight him.
“I’m going to beat Joshua. I haven’t decided how I want to beat him yet. I don’t know if it’s a knockout or if it’s points. We’ll see how I feel on fight night, but I’m going to be undefeated going home with the belts.
“I’ve wanted this fight for a long time. They underestimate me as a fighter. I just feel it’s my time.” Joshua is not one to allow his status as a heavy favorite cloud his focus.
“You need to still keep that challenger’s mindset,” he said. “I’m still the challenger in my head, and sometimes I don’t want to be seen with the belts around me too much. Now that I’m the hunted, it’s no time to just put my feet up and relax. I’m out there defending my throne on Saturday night. … I win by knockout, 100 percent.”
Rafael’s prediction: Joshua by late knockout.