"I think it’s one thing selling a fight out,” says Eddie Hearn, the group managing director of Matchroom Sport and head of its resurgent boxing division, speaking in the early hours of a remarkable Sunday morning. “Selling the tickets. Breaking pay-per-view records. But if the product doesn’t deliver, then it doesn’t really matter.”
It is early afternoon in north-west London. A little over four months ago, in Manchester in north-west England, Hearn stepped into a ring at the end of Anthony Joshua’s routine IBF world heavyweight title defence against Eric Molina to send a giddy jolt through the sport of boxing. Hearn’s destructive but untested protégé would be taking on Wladimir Klitschko, the Ukrainian who spent years as the ruling force in the division.
The fight is scheduled for Wembley Stadium on the last Saturday in April, with Matchroom Sport joined in a co-promotion by Klitschko Management Group (KMG). Host broadcaster Sky Sports makes it a pay-per-view production in the UK and is joined by networks serving over 140 countries – including, eventually, US boxing giants Showtime and HBO, who split coverage of a major bout for only the third time, taking a live and on-delay package respectively.
There is much at stake for the three principal figures. Joshua has made rapid progress, last year becoming the only reigning Olympic champion other than Joe Frazier to win a version of the world heavyweight title, but he has yet to face an opponent of anything like world class. Klitschko matched that description for more than a decade before a listless 2015 defeat to the awkward, boorish Tyson Fury, whose subsequent mental health and substance abuse problems have indefinitely delayed a rematch, and left an oddly under-written career in dire need of a more upbeat postscript.
Hearn, meanwhile, has been here before. In 2014 he turned a world title rematch between two domestic super-middleweights into a national event, selling 80,000 tickets at the home of English soccer for Carl Froch’s second knockout win over George Groves. Few doubt the capacity of this polished 37-year-old – son of celebrated sports impresario Barry Hearn – to put on a show. But there are those who wonder whether this too much, too early for Joshua, or whether Klitschko, at 41, is being oversold. With 90,000 in attendance and millions more watching at home, Hearn has staked his reputation as never before.
The doors open at 5.30 but the build-up starts hours earlier. The promotion has colonised Wembley Park, officially and otherwise. A Joshua sponsor, deodorant brand Lynx, has bought up all available advertising inventory in the station concourse. At the nearby Premier Inn, whose windows gently reflect the stadium’s signature arch, they sell hot dogs and burgers and beer. A face-painting stand sits unused.
Fans stroll in both directions down Olympic Way, where official merchandise sales are in operation and bookmaker William Hill, a Matchroom sponsor, has flagged odds for various outcomes on lampposts flanking the pavement. Unofficial business is also conducted: hawks proffer T-shirts and half-and-half scarves, and touts take their regular posts along the route, carping incessantly for spare tickets. There might be buyers today; there will be few sellers.
A fan zone is in place outside neighbouring Wembley Arena. The indoor venue is a previous host of big-time boxing. Another British heavyweight, a young Lennox Lewis, surrendered his world title here in a shock 1994 knockout defeat to Oliver McCall. He returned a day before this contest for a weigh-in that attracted 4,000 fans. 3,000 turned out for public workouts by both fighters at the same building on Wednesday evening; a Thursday press conference at Sky Sports’ headquarters saw staff pack concourses and stairwells to watch.
It is that kind of occasion. Passers-by gather outside Wembley’s Hilton hotel, where entry is strictly controlled, for some glimpse of the main players, their presence teased by dark-windowed vans and Porsches running a VIP shuttle service.
Others venture up the steps to the giant concrete plinth on which most of stadium sits – itself almost the height at which the old venue topped out, twin towers and all, when Frank Bruno won his world title against the aforementioned McCall. Some swig from cans bought at nearby supermarkets, others promenade in their fight night regalia of suits and shades. The mood is chipper and convivial. A young couple pose for selfies by the giant glass walls, the man turning to check the right name is flashing on the screens behind him.
Inside, the TV team are running through rehearsals and sound checks. Joining them is a man whose presence, for over 35 years, has always denoted a boxing card of some significance. 72-year-old ring announcer Michael Buffer will earn a reported UK£4 million for a week’s work in London, stepping in for promotional appearances as well as the main event. His vocal chords are precious – a fact made only more poignant by his recovery from throat cancer in 2008 – and he travels with a soothing array of teas to protect them. At the weigh-in, he audibly throttles back when asked for renditions of signature calls by international media. On the night itself, there will be no such inhibition.
“After making my notes in the afternoon, I usually visit the fighters in their dressing rooms before they go out,” Buffer had said, speaking to the Daily Mail in fight week. “I check what colour trunks they’ll be wearing and sometimes the pronunciation of their names, particularly if they’re from eastern Europe or Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia. I’ll make sure I write those out phonetically.”
There are some names Buffer particularly enjoys. “One of my current favourites,” he said, “is ‘Anthonyyyyyyyyyyy’ – I drag that out forever then pause for the crowd – ‘Joshhhhhuaaaaaaaa!’”
A disembodied voice spills into the street, a fore echo of the evening to come.
The job of filling Wembley Stadium has gone to an eBay-owned organisation more typically associated with ticket resales than primary purchases.
“The structure of the agreement is that for this one fight, we’re the main ticketing channel,” explains Nick Harford, the international head of business development and partnerships at StubHub. “So we’re running the box office, the majority of the tickets were sold through us for the two on-sales and the two pre-sales. The pre-sales went to Matchroom’s Fight Pass base. Then outside that you had the coach packages with Kingsferry and National Express, then Club Wembley and other arrangements.”
StubHub, also a second-tier sponsor below William Hill and KMG partner McFit, has been working with Joshua’s team and with Matchroom for close to five years, but this is the biggest test yet of its “move to try and go more down a primary distribution path for ticketing, linked with sponsorship”. While the company has helped pioneer the secondary ticket market in the US in the past decade and a half, it has identified this change in strategy as “a fundamental piece of how the business evolves and grows” in the UK and elsewhere.
The lessons StubHub has learned with Matchroom have been incredibly helpful, and Harford hopes those experiences put the company in good stead as one-off boxing events become “a really important genre” for its business. This promotion has been a significant barrier to clear.
“The two promoters were keen that the event went on sale before Christmas and it was only really finalised shortly before Christmas,” says Harford. “That’s probably the biggest challenge, and given we’re new to being involved on a much larger primary scale versus a minority distribution scale, you want to get it right – because, as proven, the demand’s been significant, selling out in both of the pre-sales very quickly, so you want to have a good experience. It’s as simple as that.
“You’re making sure that Matchroom, KMG, and the respective partners are happy with it. The by-product of that is brand exposure but the priority is selling through the tickets.”
If the timescale for the ticket sellers has presented “a tight turnaround”, then the venue operators have been worked at an even sharper pace.
A week ago, Wembley Stadium was on the day job with a pair of FA Cup semi-finals featuring Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal and Manchester City – four teams who might yet fill the top four positions in English soccer’s Premier League this season. Today, it has been transformed. The boxing ring sits in the centre of the pitch – itself covered by a light membrane sheet – and is surrounded by rows of production units and somewhere over ten thousand seats. A stage has been built in one corner for Sky Sports’ on-air team; at the other end, another lies dormant ahead of an evening of spectacle.
According to Gary Hutchinson, the head of venue sales and commercial partnerships at Wembley Stadium, the planning began soon after the event was announced in December, when a deal was signed with Matchroom and KMG. “Then there’s a whole raft of personnel behind the scenes: our events teams, security, safety, facilities, commercial,” he says. “We’ve got the neck end of just under 10,000 corporate packages sold this evening so it’s huge in size in terms of the facility, and it’s about making sure that it’s done in a controlled way.
“And then, yes, there’s the police, there’s the safety advisory group, there’s the council, and there’s our partners around Wembley Park as you’ll see outside – we have fan zones, we have all the hotels around.”
The load began only on Monday, the pitch will be wrapped for just 72 hours. There are similarities between setting up for a boxing promotion and for a concert, though the latter typically requires a more heavy-duty covering. The Wembley Stadium team, of course, have worked with Matchroom before, but production levels have been ramped up from the Froch-Groves II card of 2014 – as has the attendance, from 80,000 to a post-war British record of 90,000.
There is “unprecedented” broadcast interest, too. “I think we had nearly 500 staff here rolling all the broadcast piece in yesterday,” Hutchinson says. Around 20 kilometres of cable has been laid.
At smaller boxing promotions, the undercard can be a mishmash of journeymen, has-beens, never-will-bes, the deluded and the financially desperate. On a world class card, however, there is a thoroughbred supporting cast, either being trialled for greater things or providing depth and value to ticket-holders and pay-per-view customers.
Welsh former Olympian Joe Cordina opens proceedings. A day earlier at the weigh-in, he noted that Joshua had filled the same slot at the same stadium three summers ago. Joshua won easily. Cordina does too, seeing off Sergej Vib of Russia inside two minutes.
On a night headlined by Olympic champions, Ireland’s all-action Katie Taylor and England’s Luke Campbell, both gold medallists in London, move closer to world title shots with convincing stoppage wins. The stadium fills as the sun falls. Some fans make their way out to the stands and to ringside, while others linger by the bars and stalls in the cavernous gangways inside.
“You know, a boxing demographic is very, very different for us to what you’d normally see at a football match or a concert, but a world class venue that hosts 30 to 50 events per year must be able to deal with that,” says Hutchinson. “Everyone’s really excited about tonight. We know that there will be different challenges with the crowd taking a drink into the ground – and it is a high-drinking type crowd this evening as well, so that brings its own challenges – and there’s a lot of people coming into the venue that haven’t been here before.”
By the time former WBA super-bantamweight titlist Scott Quigg makes his way into the ring for the lead supporting event, it is dark enough to see spotlights flit restlessly around the inside of the arena – even if there is still a hint of pale blue sky above. As night approaches, Quigg’s contest with Romanian Viorel Simion has become a breathless, engrossing scrap – 12 rounds of fast, solid exchanges in which the Englishman lands a few more combinations than he absorbs. His eventual points win is enthusiastically received by those thousands of spectators now in their seats.
But with so many still filing in, the noise rarely rises above a contented chatter. Such is the lot of the undercard act. By contrast, when the heavyweight champion’s face appears on screen there is an upward rush of excitement, cheers subsiding only to White Stripes-inflected chants of, “Oh, Anthony Joshua.”
It is clear enough who the crowd is here to see.
Sky Sports warms up the audience with a montage of Joshua’s 18 knockouts from his 18 bouts so far. It is documentary evidence of his visceral appeal – highly tuned, classically trained, the sweetest timer of sickening blows. For all of boxing’s craft and endless depth, concussive punchers are always its biggest draw. Yet Joshua’s popularity is down to more than his capacity for violence.
“You know, as a fighter, he’s still growing,” says Stephen Espinoza, the executive vice president and general manager of US broadcaster Showtime Sports. “He’s definitely one of the best in the heavyweight division but still with some upside.
“As a star, his potential is almost limitless. He’s got the pedigree. He’s got the boxing skill. He looks like a comic book hero – he looks like a superhero – and is articulate, and good-looking, and humble yet confident at the same time. He has all the tools that really, probably, the boxing market hasn’t seen since Oscar De La Hoya, in the sense of appealing to women, appealing to men, being credible inside the ring and likeable outside the ring. But there’s an added cachet. The heavyweight division still carries an additional cachet that you really can’t translate to anything else. There’s something special about it.”
It is special enough that brands are already flocking his way. Under Armour has made him an international poster boy. In the week before the fight, headphone brand Beats has anointed him with a viral campaign in which his breakfast is interrupted by a video call from founder Dr Dre.
Rounding out all of this, the Joshua story is also one that boxing loves to tell about itself.
"He’s got the pedigree. He’s got the boxing skill. He looks like a comic book hero."
Tonight, he has come far and yet not far at all. His teenage years were spent 11 miles away on the Meriden Estate – back up Olympic Way to the station, speeding north past the leafy, well-heeled suburbs to which Wembley is a gateway and on to the end of the Metropolitan Line.
Watford is an inoffensive London satellite but there is trouble to be found. By his late teens, Joshua had found it. Much was petty mischief but two incidents stand out: a spell on remand in Reading Prison in 2009, after which he was made to wear an electronic tracking tag, and a 2011 conviction for possessing cannabis with intent to supply. The latter offence earned him a suspension from Britain’s amateur boxing team but it could have cost him his freedom for as long as a decade.
The shock of that episode, he has recalled since, reached him in the manner in which it hurt family, friends, and those who had invested their time in a future he was about to waste. It was then that Joshua threw himself into boxing, enthralled by the discipline it demanded and the better version of him it released. He speaks now of the pride he has in the impact he could make on some other youngster’s life; the possibility that his example is one to be followed, and eclipsed.
In boxing, Joshua has his own role model: Wladimir Klitschko.
“In some ways, the US market really didn’t completely buy into the Klitschkos,” says Espinoza of Wladimir and his older brother Vitali. “Obviously they were great champions and very dominant – both brothers were – but they were lacking in little things. I think the US audience found their personalities a little flat, and the fights themselves… Wladimir in particular fights very conservatively, and that’s not something that really endears him to the US audience. He’s done tremendously well, and can sell out stadiums and arenas in Germany, but the US market never really bought in.”
The case of Wladimir Klitschko is a curious one. There is an argument to be made that this charming, articulate and intelligent man – nicknamed ‘Dr Steelhammer’ because of his PhD, as well as his pulverising straight right – can be ranked alongside Larry Holmes and Ezzard Charles among the most under-appreciated world heavyweight champions of all time. His nine-year spell in command of the division is cast in terms of stasis and stagnation, of Klitschko holding up a succession of underwhelming opponents.
That impression is ungenerous, and reinforced by factors he could do little about. One was the duopoly he built with Vitali, whom he had sworn not to fight on a promise to his mother. Another was his earlier attempt at a super-fight with a British world champion – a 2011 encounter with the usually explosive David Haye. On a sodden night in Hamburg, Haye fizzled; Klitschko won easily but his victory was dampened by the disappointment of the occasion. His defeat to Fury – who left him baffled and bedraggled, if rarely in physical peril – has hardly helped his legacy.
Klitschko has described himself as “obsessed” with his own redemption and yet, where his meetings with Haye and Klitschko were prefaced by cheap stunts and bad blood, his dealings with Joshua have been rich in mutual respect. According to Adam Smith, the head of boxing at Sky Sports, that has necessitated some creative programming choices to delve deeper into the stories of the two fighters, rather than depending on opprobrium to fuel sales. Still, the goodwill has hardly dulled excitement on either side of the Atlantic.
“The US market was a little bit slow to catch on,” Espinosa reveals, “but it’s really picked up momentum over the last ten days. The name Klitschko is recognisable, even to casual fans, but this event in many ways will be the first time much of the American audience sees Anthony Joshua. The boxing fans know him but outside of the core boxing audience, he’s largely an unknown quantity. So what is selling this event is the scale and the stature, the Klitschko name, the heavyweight title, and a sense of intrigue about who this young kid is and whether he can perform on this massive stage.”
“The event itself is obviously the promoter’s event and our job is to showcase it in the best way possible on television; to give the people who aren’t actually going to the event the best experience possible,” explains Sky Sports’ Sara Chenery. “And once we know it’s a Box Office event, we kind of have to think about giving it that little extra something.”
According to Smith, Joshua-Klitschko is “probably the biggest show that we’ve ever done in over 25 years of covering boxing on Sky Sports”. For events of such scope, Sky typically convenes a “hot-spot meeting” of key representatives of the whole business, which Smith compares to the UK government’s Cobra security committee. Marketing, programming and technical resources are shared. A Sky News helicopter hovers above Wembley throughout the night, albeit on standby in case of breaking stories elsewhere.
Sky Sports consults with Matchroom on how the promotion should look but once inside the venue, the broadcaster is in charge. At an early stage, Chennery begins brainstorming with special effects contractor BPM. “We’ll do some storyboards,” she says, “we’ll think about some pyrotechnics and things like that we can do that will enhance the event.”
Concepts are hashed out before Sky’s boxing production manager, Jennie Blackmore, talks to suppliers to work up a realistic cost.
Every ounce of opportunity is used to add something to the final broadcast. With Joshua’s availability limited, for example, Chennery calls upon the director of a promotional documentary for a favour. A brief clip of the champion roaring into the camera – welcoming his opponent to “the lion’s den” – is morphed by the effects team into an image of a lion, with that moment used to cap his introductory VT.
"We kind of have to think about giving it that little extra something."
Other stakeholders are engaged with enthusiasm. The “very supportive” Wembley Stadium team have allowed Sky the use of a digital ribbon between the tiers of seating to promote their coverage. They have also yielded access to the LED colourway in the stadium’s arch, which is lit up red, white and blue for Britain’s Joshua, and blue and yellow for his Ukrainian challenger.
As might be expected, the scale of the operation is considerable. Chennery compares a 100-person pre-event site visit to “a wedding reception”. She and Blackmore – whose responsibilities run down as far as working out where outside broadcast trucks can be parked – field upwards of 200 emails a day in the closing weeks.
For all that preparation, rehearsal time is meagre and nimble footwork essential. Chennery has plotted cameras throughout the arena – most for Sky but some for overseas broadcasters – but there is always one more angle to cover. The dramatic peak of Joshua’s ring walk will see him raised above his public on a hydraulic lift. “On Thursday night,” Chennery recalls, “I had a bit of an epiphany and thought, well, hold on a minute: when he goes up on this amazing stage and gets lifted up, the one shot we haven’t got is that point-of-view shot from his perspective looking out at the whole of Wembley.”
Between Chennery, Blackmore and camera supplier Telegenic, a solution is found and a small unit is installed. Even then, despite reassurances from Joshua’s team that the stunt will not break their man’s concentration, Chennery is unsettled. An email is put in to his manager, Freddie Cunningham, and Joshua arrives after Friday’s weigh-in for a quick dry run.
“So much of it is out of our control,” Chennery says, “but we’re responsible for it.”
On the night, with all 90,000 spectators in their seats, Klitschko and Joshua finally make their way into the ring. Each man will enter through the Wembley tunnel, then walk around one half of the pitch, past lights and fireworks, to approach the ropes from the other side.
Live TV both demands precision and can never depend on it. Showtime, HBO and German broadcaster RTL have all requested a time for the first bell. Klitschko’s team have locked in a time to leave the dressing room. That means the entrances must be programmed to fit a pre-determined slot.
“That’s very difficult,” Chennery notes, “because people walk at different paces.” Ring announcer Buffer, meanwhile, works off notes, rather than a script.
To compound matters, Klitschko ignores a cue. Rather than stopping to pose by preset fireworks, as arranged, “he just motors on past”. The on-air team must find another minute in the broadcast before Joshua appears.
“We were about 30 seconds late,” says Chennery. “I had a minute’s grace either way, but we were fine.
“And no one was going to complain after that fight anyway.”
The opening exchanges, inevitably, are cagey. Joshua blinks into the brightest lights of his career; Klitschko waits for some sense of the potency to come. Then as the younger man shows some aggression, the veteran’s ring-craft comes to the fore. Joshua steps forward but it is Klitschko who finds the early openings.
The former champion is bidding to become the second-oldest man to win a world heavyweight belt. It doesn’t show. In his early days – his first spell as a titlist – Klitschko was an enterprising but thoroughly hittable knockout artist. Back to back stoppage defeats prompted a rethink under defensive guru Emmanuel Steward, and a chess grand master of a boxer emerged.
Klitschko at his best is prudent, but not ponderous. He shifts on the balls of his feet like a middleweight. He makes quick adjustments with his hands – seeking one gap, closing another. Joshua will have to find a moving target.
“I thought he wouldn’t get up. He managed to get up. Respect.”
The character of the contest is still forming as the fifth round begins. Joshua emerges with intent and suddenly, immediately has Klitschko backpedalling. The great man is hurt. He falls. Joshua raises his arms aloft, perhaps expecting the rapid disintegration he has seen in so many of his opponents.
He does not expect it of himself.
Tens of thousands of supporters are still willing the home fighter to a knockout when they realise what has happened. Joshua is spent. He is hanging on, and it is a charging Klitschko who is on the brink. One minute a legend is being written, the next, a myth is near its end.
Somehow, Joshua hangs on to the bell. But in the sixth, the doctor brandishes the steelhammer. A straight right hand sends Joshua to the canvas like an anvil crashing through spaghetti.
“I thought he wouldn’t get up,” Klitschko says later. “He managed to get up. Respect.”
The challenger, like many watching, still senses the decisive blow is near. He could conclude matters, yet bides his time. It is a mistake.
Joshua reaches the unchartered territory of the later rounds with Klitschko in control. The older man keeps bouncing, watching, looking to set up another big right hand. But the young champion has been getting a second wind. The fight is close. Both men take heavy shots. Joshua asks his corner if he is winning. He gets no response.
The 11th begins, and Joshua strides straight towards his opponent. The oxygen returns to his blood, the power to his fists. Klitschko retreats through a frenetic opening minute. He is hurt again. He tries to lock Joshua up. Then comes the defining moment. Joshua finds Klitschko’s chin with a right uppercut worthy of the cover of Time. Klitschko is out on his feet. He goes down, and beats the count. He goes down again. Joshua is hunting now, in pursuit, the century’s greatest heavyweight just another ready victim.
Referee David Fields steps in to an ear-splitting crescendo – the sound of a new star bursting into life.
“I’m not perfect. But I’m trying.”
Just like that, with the crowd barely settled from its frenzy, the menace is a gentleman again. An interview with Sky Sports in the ring soon becomes a heartfelt, humble address. Joshua thanks his team, his fans and his beaten opponent – who has also won the crowd – and he finds time to call out the absent Fury but then heralds the virtues of his sport. To his many new admirers, it is quite the introduction.
“Can I go home now?” he asks.
Joshua stays in the ring for over an hour, drawing in the final breaths of a dispersing atmosphere. Family, friends and well-wishers linger, too, very slightly delaying the process of restoring the ground to soccer mode for the Women’s FA Cup final on 13th May. Gary Hutchinson’s colleagues must remove the membrane on the pitch as soon as the promotion ends to ensure the grass recovers.
“But we’ve got an advanced pitch mechanism,” he says, “we’ve got under-soil aeration, we’ve got huge fans at either side and then we’ve got the lights that come on the pitch. So we’ve got three different mechanisms to make sure that we can get it back quickly.”
The champion is joined behind the ropes by London mayor Sadiq Khan, a boxing nut whose crowd-pleasing intervention ensured the Wembley audience’s extension to 90,000.
Almost all those fans are gone when Joshua finally enters a smart press conference room back in the bowels of the stadium. By now his face is marked, his manner that of a man at the end of a very long night. But he is smiling, laughing, speaking freely.
Has he thought about what this extraordinary fight has done for the heavyweight division?
“Hmm. No. I’ll let you guys enjoy it, man. I just have fun with it. Things could be a lot worse. I’m just enjoying my fighting as it is.”
Everyone else is enjoying it, too. Reporters try to recall when they last saw a heavyweight title fight this intense, with some reaching as far back as Evander Holyfield’s 1992 defeat to Riddick Bowe. The German contingent, who have covered many of Klitschko’s 64 bouts and most of his 29 world title contests, are wondering aloud when and even if he has ever performed better. One asks Joshua whether Klitschko was waiting for an opponent like him to arrive to tap his true potential.
“I was waiting for an opponent like Wlad as well,” says Joshua. “But what’s good for my career is that there are so many other good heavyweights up and coming. There’s no one with the experience that Wladimir has but there’s heavyweights that are coming up in the game that are very talented as well that I can definitely mingle with.”
Joshua has a mandatory IBF defence due against Bulgaria’s Kubrat Pulev, which he may or may not fulfil. New Zealand’s Joseph Parker holds the WBO strap, though he too might have to wait his turn.
"I’ll let you guys enjoy it, man. I just have fun with it. Things could be a lot worse."
Wembley would fill again to see Joshua wear the white hat against Fury, if the 28-year-old can get mind and body into shape. Then there is Deontay Wilder, the WBC champion who has been shadowing this promotion, offering his services as a pundit for Sky Sports. The ‘Bronze Bomber’ is a likely gatekeeper to the biggest US audience for Joshua. For Showtime’s Espinoza, the prospect of a contest between Wilder and Joshua “seems inevitable”, not least as both men are the major title holders, and would be a “massive, massive fight” between “two great personalities, two big fanbases, two impressive athletes”.
The lesson from a night like this, though, is that if you set up the encounters people want to see, they are often worth watching.
“What you have to do is respect the fact that he’s taking these fights, because I’d love to tell you it was me being brave,” says Hearn, who must nonetheless have feared for his own good standing as Joshua floundered in the fifth and sixth. “It’s not. It’s him. He’s making the decisions. He’s calling the shots. He feels like he had the two defences – the voluntary defences – now it’s time to test himself. Rob [McCracken, Joshua’s trainer] felt he could beat Wladimir Klitschko. He was right. It was the ultimate gamble but with the ultimate reward.”
Hearn confirms that Matchroom and Joshua’s team are “certainly not going to be opening negotiations with any other fighter until we find out what Wladimir Klitschko wants to do”. The rematch is there, he suggests, “if people want to see” it.
“It’s very difficult because when you have a fight like tonight,” Hearn says, “which I would call a legacy fight or a defining fight but he’s still… I’ll use the word rookie, rather than novice, because I think novice is a bit disrespectful to him. But he’s still a rookie, and he’s had that fight. You know, I spoke to him in camp three weeks ago and he said, ‘I want ten more years of this.’”
Hearn’s eyes widen. “‘You’ll run out of opponents!’ You know, I think there’s so many different boxes to tick but phase three [of Joshua’s four-phase career plan] is all about the defining heavyweight defences. And phase four, I’m not sure. We’ll get phase three out of the way first. I’ll make that one up when we get through phase three.”
The promoter sees an end to Joshua’s days at the Manchester Arena or The O2, but other options are on the table. One would be heading to new territories – the Middle East, China, or the US, where Espinoza believes the champion would make a short-term loss but reap long-term gains.
Whatever follows, the size of the achievement for all concerned bears merit. “It was a huge success, obviously, as a broadcast, as a show, as a platform for our sport,” says Smith. “Five or six years ago we were in leisure centres up and down the country, week in, week out, in front of 800 people.” Tonight’s card has broken Sky’s domestic pay-per-view record, set by Floyd Mayweather’s win over Manny Pacquiao. There may have been over 1.5 million buys.
Some time after Joshua has taken his leave, Klitschko arrives, delayed by an extended spell in doping control. He apologises to a tired room of hacks and even after the fight he has endured, even as the clock ticks on past 2am, he answers questions politely, graciously, in German and in English – his second and third languages. He is proud and phlegmatic – beaten, but in a fight where he could never really lose.
“I also have to thank Eddie and also Sky here in the UK,” says Bernd Bönte, Klitschko’s manager and KMG co-founder. “We had a very, very smooth promotion. We never felt ‘away’. It was never a problem. I mean, the ring is square and we had, as I said before, a wonderful promotion; a good cooperation. Eddie just told me it’s a new pay-per-view record, which is fantastic and shows the interest in this fight. And both fighters showed that they more or less needed each other to come to another level.”
The hope now is that they take their sport up with them.