Nine matches, nine victories, all by knockout and only one lasting as long as round three. Even Anthony Joshua might have anticipated a tougher start to his career as a professional heavyweight boxer. On Saturday night Joshua underwent his biggest test, facing Russia’s Denis Bakhtov for the vacant WBC world title.
Much talk went on prior to the bout regarding the relative jump in quality of Joshua’s opponent, with the Russian the most experienced and steadfast boxer Joshua had faced to date. The resilience Bakhtov has displayed throughout his career – the last time an opponent emerged victorious within the allotted time was in 2007 – had appeared to foretell a close match between the pair. Having previously demonstrated an ability to withstand the kind of barrages Joshua has made use of in his previous matches, all of which he has won by knockout inside three rounds, Bakhtov represented a different kind of opponent which might pose more of a contest for the Watford-born rising star.
The talk of a more competitive encounter, however, quickly appeared premature. Joshua, evidently buoyed by the commanding and comprehensive victories that have thus far characterised his professional career, immediately gained control of the bout, displaying his defensive capabilities, heretofore largely untested, to be as impressive as the other elements of his game. Moving around the ring with intelligence and purpose, Joshua’s parrying and counterpunching were allowed to shine while his ability to take a punch was similarly highlighted, with Joshua often smiling in response to Bakhtov, who had previously held the WBC title, connecting, so as to show how little it affected him.
As the bout began Joshua swiftly took charge, controlling the pace of the contest from the centre of the ring and making use of his imposing stature (standing 6’6 with a lean, though profoundly muscular, figure belying his 16.7 stone weigh in) to keep Bakhtov at a distant, picking his punches with pinpoint precision. Bakhtov, seemingly surprised by the confident approach of his young opponent, was perhaps overly contemplative in how to make inroads into the competition, and was caught on his heels by the incisive Joshua, who opened a cut over the Russian’s left eye under two minutes into the first round. While Bakhtov attempted to gain some measure of control, at one point pushing Joshua towards the ropes, the British boxer remained composed and returned to the centre of the ring almost instantly before landing a big counter to further unsteady his capable opponent. At the bell, Joshua finished the round in a strong position.
The second round began in much the same fashion, with Joshua quickly gaining the upper hand, matching sharpness with startling power. Bakhtov, by his nature a resilient competitor, aiming with admirable determination to soak up Joshua’s enfilade until, exactly a minute into the second round, referee Ian John-Lewis stepped in and ended the bout for the Russian’s safety marking the first time Bakhtov had been stopped inside four rounds in his professional career.
Reaping the benefits of improvements made in the wake of his Olympic successes, and continuing to demonstrate the drive and determination that has seen Joshua reach the near-pinnacle of the sport just six years after taking it up (an inspiring message to those with similar goals for sporting success), Joshua laid his claim as one of the top emerging talents in world boxing. Taking his first step on the road to potentially becoming the first undisputed heavyweight champion of the world since fellow Briton Lennox Lewis in November 1999, Joshua has won the first of the four heavyweight belts necessary to unify the required titles, remaining undefeated. With more opportunities likely to follow, as titles often beget more titles, Joshua’s meteoric rise as a heavyweight contender continues apace.
What steps might Joshua take in his endeavour for further titles?