Unified world heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua mixed power and patience as he knocked out Kubrat Pulev to bolster hopes that a historic fight against Tyson Fury could soon be a reality.
The British heavyweight drilled his mandatory challenger to the canvas twice in round three in a chaotic flurry that saw Pulev smiling while under attack and turning his back when under fire, only to somehow make the bell.
Joshua, perhaps fatigued by the chaos, stepped off the gas and allowed Pulev to at least offer some mild threat, but a barrage of uppercuts in the ninth dropped Pulev and a straight right hand wiped him out seconds later.
The 1,000 fans granted access to Wembley Arena saw a blend of the boxing skills and crushing punches that have helped build Joshua into the attraction he is.
Moments after the fans roared at the prospect of the IBF, WBA and WBO champion facing WBC champion Fury next, Joshua said: “I started this game in 2013, gathered the belts.
“Whoever has the belts I want to compete with. If that is Tyson Fury, let it be Tyson Fury.”
Fury quickly took to social media and said: “There you go everyone. Anthony Joshua got asked if he wanted the fight and he went round the bushes.
“I want the fight. I want the fight next. I will knock him out inside three rounds. I can’t wait to knock him out.”
Patience, power and uppercuts
Joshua, in a gleaming white sleeveless hoodie for his ring walk, was smart from start to finish on a night when the widespread anticipation of a fight with Fury – in which all four world heavyweight titles could be contested for the first time – dominated the narrative.
In his last two outings, Joshua has stood up to immense pressure. A second defeat by Andy Ruiz Jr in December would have left his career in tatters. He was punch perfect on the night.
A loss here would have made him the instant fall guy amid public demand for the Fury bout. Once again he was emphatic.
He found his range early on with flicked jabs as 39-year-old Pulev boxed cautiously and struggled to throw anything fast or crisp.
When he did throw a jab in the third, a counter right landed on his jaw and stunned him, allowing Joshua to follow up with an uppercut and send him down.
Pulev had briefly tried to smile and roar in the face of adversity but within seconds his back was turned and an uppercut turned his legs to jelly as he crashed down again.
The pair punched one another after the bell, glared at one another before the fifth and while Pulev gained some traction in the intervening rounds, he was never able to land anything that would allow him to dictate the pace.
Some will ask why Joshua was unable to end things more quickly but after a year out of the ring, he controlled this fight.
Jabs to head and body drew roars of approval from trainer Rob McCracken and four uppercuts early in the ninth saw a now-fatigued Pulev cover up.
Joshua could not miss with the right uppercut all night and another flurry dropped the game Pulev, before a jolting straight right to the chin left him unable to answer the count.
It is testament to Joshua that he continues to rise to such mental challenges.
Fury will move better than Pulev, punch with far greater variety, believe in himself more and set far more traps in the ring.
He will also inevitably bring a whole new level of mental warfare to any build-up should the fight happen.
Hope has never been higher that it will.
‘AJ v Fury work starts tomorrow’
No sooner had Pulev regained his footing did Joshua’s promoter Eddie Hearn state efforts to make the Fury fight would start “tomorrow”, adding: “It’s the only fight to be made in boxing. It is the biggest fight in British boxing history.”
Encouragingly, Fury’s co-promoter Bob Arum – one of several key power brokers involved – said he would work from Monday to make the “biggest fight since Muhammad Ali v Joe Frazier in 1971”.
That such integral figures seem so positive, coupled with the fact an agreement over a financial split is said to already be in place, offers real hope the two could appear in what Fury’s UK promoter Frank Warren repeatedly says will be the “biggest UK sporting event since the 1966 World Cup final”.
There are many issues to resolve before a date is in place – complex television broadcast deals and a venue among them. The sight of 1,000 fans singing ‘Sweet Caroline’ before Joshua’s ring walk showed a return to packed out arenas – which will be a necessity for this event – is closer.
In the ring the pair are both showing signs of improvement. Fury moved from elusive fighter to front-foot aggressor in defeating Deontay Wilder last time out. Joshua here – and in beating Ruiz – has shown he too can do more than simply wield knockout punches.
This was defence number one of his second reign as champion. A small cluster of men – Ali, Lennox Lewis and Mike Tyson among them – have had the chance to take the heavyweight-world-champion journey a second time.
Fury is in the select bunch too. The plot lines are endless.
It is time to make the fight of a generation.
Analysis – ‘A UK sporting occasion’
BBC Radio 5 Live analyst Steve Bunce: Tyson Fury will be seeing that and saying if he fights like that against me I will walk right through him. Joshua kept flipping between styles and tactics.
British heavyweight Dillian Whyte on BBC Radio 5 Live: Joshua did what he had to do, which was worry about winning today, not worry about what he will do tomorrow. He looked good. He boxed well, he moved well, he punched well. Obviously, Pulev was not much of a threat, but Joshua showed he is a champion.
BBC Sport boxing correspondent Mike Costello on BBC Radio 5 Live: In the end a devastating performance. Destructive hitting from Anthony Joshua. Everything is set for now for Fury v Joshua – one of the greatest sporting occasions Britain has ever known.