Anthony Joshua is back on British soil aiming to avoid another untimely career setback when he defends his IBF, WBA and WBO titles against Kubrat Pulev.
The unified heavyweight champion has Tyson Fury penciled in for a fight in 2021 — provided he comes through Saturday’s main event at Wembley Arena, which will see a 1,000-strong crowd present.
Pulev has patiently waited his turn — this pair were initially due to meet in 2017, only for the Bulgarian to have to pull out through injury — but finally gets his chance, this a second attempt to stage the contest in 2020 after a June date was postponed by the coronavirus pandemic.
He certainly did not waste his opportunity at the weigh-in to get under Joshua’s skin, as a lengthy exchange between the pair went on for several minutes as security watched on, just in case.
The challenger has a record to suggest there is reason to believe he can back up his words with meaningful actions. Pulev’s only defeat in the paid ranks was to Wladimir Klitschko six years ago — and he’s won eight in a row since that setback.
Still, he is now 39 and has not fought anyone close to Joshua’s level since being stopped inside five rounds by Klitschko.
In truth, though, this is all about Joshua. The Briton bounced back from a first career loss to regain his titles a year ago against an out-of-shape Andy Ruiz Jr., a considered approach allowing him to dictate terms over 12 rounds.
His method paid off on that occasion, aided by his opponent’s lack of thorough preparation, but will we see a return to the more aggressive, open style that helped his rise in popularity?
A desire to impress somewhat caused his downfall in the first meeting with Ruiz, who climbed off the canvas to cause a monumental shock at the famous Madison Square Garden. Pulev’s prefight words may well have tempted Joshua into a battle, but to do so is a risk for the home favorite when so much is at stake.
Fury — and boxing fans across the world — will watch on with great interest, knowing a win for the home favorite clears one of the major hurdles in the way of a huge unification showdown for next year.
Joshua has not fought at home since September 2018, when he stopped Alexander Povetkin at a packed Wembley Stadium. Since then, his two fights on the road have both been against Ruiz, the last of them a rematch staged in Diriyah, Saudi Arabia, that went the distance.
Pulev, meanwhile, fought twice in 2019, beating Rydell Booker on points in a 10-rounder to follow a stoppage success against Bogdan Dinu. He has two relatively recent bouts against British fighters on his career resume, too, having beaten both Hughie Fury (October 2018) and Dereck Chisora (May 2016) on points.
Tale of the tape
Weight: 241 pounds
Reach: 82 inches
Professional record: 23-1 (21 KOs)
Major career titles: IBF, WBA, WBO heavyweight
Weight: 239 pounds
Reach: 79.5 inches
Professional record: 28-1 (14 KOs)
Major career titles: European heavyweight
Lawrence Okolie takes on late stand-in Nikodem Jezewski in a cruiserweight contest as chief support. Originally, the plan had been to fight for the vacant WBO title against Krzysztof Glowacki, who was forced to withdraw from the card after testing positive for COVID-19.
Hughie Fury — a former Pulev foe — is in action against the experienced Mariusz Wach, while there is an intriguing heavyweight clash involving Martin Bakole and Sergey Kuzmin.
Unbeaten welterweight Florian Marku makes his Matchroom debut, taking on Jamie Stewart over eight rounds. However, the former nearly came to blows long before the first bell after becoming involved in a Twitter spat with another boxer inside the bubble.
Macaulay McGowan, who is up against Kieron Conway on Saturday, made clear in an interview he wants to take on Marku in the future, leading to an exchange of messages on social media and a meeting in a hotel corridor that required the presence of security to defuse the situation.
What they had to say . . .
Joshua on the weigh-in confrontation: “I know what’s he like. He thinks he’s a warrior. I said, ‘Don’t let the guys you’ve fought gas you up — you’re in against a real one now.'”
Pulev after the verbal exchange: “I respect him — he’s an Olympic champion, a world champion. I respect him so much, but I am the better boxer. Tomorrow (Saturday) I will show him.”
Trainer Rob McCracken on Joshua’s mindset: “He doesn’t underestimate anybody, takes everybody seriously. But he’s not unified champion twice for no reason — he’s a fantastic fighter and will only get better.”