Gosh, Josh, England needs more like you
In the ring, nobody comes close to Anthony Joshua, but he is also articulate, intelligent and blessed with an uncommon empathy
Saturday night’s alright for fighting, and sure enough just after 10pm five young guns in hoodies and trainers cut across Bethnal Green Road.
Their reflections fleeted daggerishly in the pocks and puddles of what the Observer would call, the next morning, “a foul and fetid north London evening”.
Here in the east, where the Kray brothers once made offers no one dared refuse, people don’t flinch at wicked wind that brings the cold needling of autumn rain.
Through the promising door of Charrington’s Noted Ales and Stouts the five ducked, one after the other, a train looking for pain.
Seconds later they re-emerged into the night: no fight here.
The same sad thing was true at the Shakespeare – despite a sign on the wall outside advertising “Real Ales, Live Entertainment, Sky Sports, Free Wi-Fi” – and back across the street at the Sun, where hipsters hunched, some of them no doubt over a drink the blackboard heralded as, indeed, Paine – “Bourbon, Rock N Rye, Cassis, Lemon, Chocolate Peanut Butter Doughnut Syrup”.
There were two televisions at the Bethnal Green Tavern, neither of them turned on. A bloke billed as “DJ Monkey Stomp Blues”, but who looked too much like someone’s drunk uncle for that not to be true, was croaking and creaking through the worst version of Lady in Red this side of Chris de Burgh’s already awful original.
A barman looked up from drying pint glasses to offer: “Try the Salmon and Ball. They’re the only place around here showing it.”
But that meant a trudge of maybe 15 minutes through the foul fetidness. And they were probably into the third round by now.
At Wembley in north London, that is, where Anthony Joshua and Alexander Povetkin were dancing in the dazzle of their heavyweight world title bout.
The fast, furious five, the spell of their urgency snapped by too many dead ends, disappeared into the darkness, dejected.
I knew how they felt. For weeks I had been trying to be accredited to cover the fight, without success. Boxing isn’t a sport. It is slick, skilful, supervised suffering, and just as slick and skilful avoidance of that suffering, presented for our entertainment; a thing that would have no place in a more civilised world. Happily, our world is not that civilised.
It follows that attending a big fight as a reporter is not a matter, as it is with more banal pursuits like football, rugby and cricket, of telling the authorities you’ll be there.
In this case the authorities were the British Boxing Board of Control. Contact the promoter, they said. Fine. But the promoter’s website didn’t offer a way of cracking the accreditation nod.
So I ended up banging on the inbox of someone I had had no contact with but had read, with admiration and respect, for years: Kevin Mitchell of the Guardian and the Observer. He kindly passed on an e-mail address, which yielded the fact that fight night accreditation was no longer possible but that fight week accreditation might yet be if I tried another e-mail address.
Suits me, I thought. Pre-fight press conferences are three-penny operas, and covering them is often far more fun than writing about the fight itself. Alas, it turned out I was also late for those.
So there I was, standing on Bethnal Green Road somewhere past 10 o’clock on a snarling Saturday night, looking for somewhere to do the next best thing than be at the fight. And failing.
As a member of an older, simpler, perhaps less easily dissuaded vintage than the not-so-famous five, I went back to my flat a little further up Bethnal Green Road and did something that, in this era of anything analogue anathema, is radical: I turned on the radio. Digital, of course.
There they were, finally. Joshua and Povetkin in all their aural glory, commentators jabbing verbally and uppercutting their exclamations, and the rollercoasting primal growl of 75,000 spectators, some of whom had paid the equivalent of R37,000 for a plastic poncho. And a ringside seat.
We were in round four, and soon learnt that Povetkin had bloodied Joshua’s nose in the second and that the Russian, to the chagrin of all present, was giving rather a better account of himself than had been hoped.
But he was out of there in the seventh, first felled by the precision bombing of Joshua’s left and right hooks, then by the kind of hacking you might see from a gimp armed with a meat cleaver.
Only some of it was pretty but all of it was effective.
“Oh, Anthony Joshua,” the crowd warbled to the same tune that Brits have been singing Jeremy Corbyn’s name for more than a year.
Either of them would make a more impressive prime minister than the badly taxidermied pigeon known as Theresa May. Less certain is, if the contest was between Corbyn and Joshua, who would win.
Joshua has drawn close to 400,000 paying customers to his last five fights, and he has given them what they want in the shape of victories – the first of them over the unlovely, unloved and unlovable Wladimir Klitschko.
If the Ukrainian is worth remembering at all it’s for how close to the brink of disaster he took boxing’s relevance and credibility; heavyweight boxing in particular. That Joshua has been able to rebuild those ruins in just less than 17 months is an unmitigated triumph.
Writing in the Guardian on Friday, Mitchell described him as “the No 1 individual box-office draw in the history of British sport. Nobody comes close”.
Damn straight. Watford-born of Nigerian heritage, Joshua is a vision of what Britain could be if it gets its act together – which is by no means certain in the wake of the Brexit bullet the country is poised to put through its own head.
Articulate, intelligent and blessed with an uncommon empathy, among the marks of Joshua’s success is that lesser, nastier rivals don’t have a good word to say about him.
Some of them don’t want to hear a word from him, either: Tyson Fury, not half the fighter Joshua is and less than half the man, has blocked him on Twitter.
Now that would earn the respect of young guns spoiling for a fight.