surviving the sixth

words: tim struby

photography: james michelfelder

On Saturday, April 29, as the bell rang at Wembley Stadium for the sixth round, Anthony Joshua didn’t know he was about to fight in the most critical round of his life. The 27-year-old certainly knew the importance of the bout. Joshua, undefeated in 18 pro fights (with 18 KOs), was facing Wladimir Klitschko (63-4, 53 KOs) for the undisputed Heavyweight Championship of the world. Until a loss last year, Klitschko had dominated the division for nearly a decade. At 41, he had been in 29 title fights (wining 25 of them), defeated a dozen former/current World Champions and had cemented his legacy as one of the greatest heavyweights in history. Joshua, on the other hand, was the future; a British amateur champion after only 18 amateur fights, winner of a 2012 Olympic gold medal, a heavy-handed yet humble young man thought to the brightest hope to reignite a moribund division. The fight had captivated the boxing world as well as the entirety of England and 90,000 of Joshua’s countrymen—the biggest boxing crowd in Wembley history—had come to bear witness and see if the young Brit was ready and able to take his place in history.

The two men stepped cautiously towards each other. Why wouldn’t they? Both stood 6’ 6” and together they weighed close to a quarter ton. They also intimately knew each other’s power; in 2014 they’d sparred 25 rounds when Klitschko invited Joshua to his training camp. And they’d also just survived one of the most electrifying three minutes in recent heavyweight memory. In the opening seconds of the fifth round, a short left hook from Joshua badly hurt Klitschko, opened up a gash over his left eye and shortly thereafter the Ukrainian went down. But Klitschko got up, Joshua punched himself tired and by the end of the round the Brit himself was in trouble.

The first minute of the sixth round was uneventful. The pair traded only a handful of punches. Joshua landed a right hand, Klitschko a couple of jabs. But then it happened. Klitschko fired a straight right hand that connected flush to the center of Joshua’s face. The 27-year-old’s knees buckled and he crumpled to the canvas. There, in that instant, he was no longer the millionaire golden child with A-list endorsement deals and the heir apparent to Lennox Lewis, the last great British big man. He was just Anthony Oluwafemi Olaseni Joshua, ten seconds away from his life unraveling. As the ref began his count, a stunned Joshua rolled off of his back on onto all fours. He caught his breath. Steadied himself. And the 90,000 faithful wondered if the passing of the proverbial torch was premature.

Joshua stood up, but was far from safe. He was shaky, exhausted and still had had to survive the minute and a half remaining in the round. There were no shortage of doubters. “I don’t think this kid can recover,” barked HBO commentator Roy Jones, Jr.

But Joshua knew about survival. He grew up one of four children of a single mother in the Meriden Estate in Watford. While not the worst of public housing, it’s a place where college and careers mean little. Futures are all about teenage pregnancy, unemployment and sometimes jail. And that’s where “Femi,” as his friends and teachers called him (because of his middle name), was heading. By his teens he’d discovered booze and girls and was running around with a crew whose idea of fun, according to Joshua, was “fighting and other crazy stuff.” In secondary school he was banned from soccer for overly aggressive play. At 18, Joshua found himself in Reading Prison looking at a 10-year bid. (While he avoided serious time, for the following year he had to wear an electronic monitoring tag and check in at the police station three times a week). Three years later—even after he’d claimed the British Super Heavyweight Amateur title—he was arrested after police had found a half pound of herbal cannabis in his car. With a fortunate slap on the wrist, he was banned from boxing and returned to Watford, back with his old mates. But a call from the UK National Team served as a wake up, a life line, a last chance for survival.

So when the ref signaled to continue the round, Joshua kept his cool. He slipped a left hook from the pouncing Klitschko. Then he slipped a right, clinched, and retreated to the corner. The Ukrainian landed a few punches, but nothing grave. Back into the middle of the ring, Joshua stepped back, just out of Klitschko’s range. Seconds ticked away. More seconds. “If Joshua makes it though this,” said HBO ring announcer Max Kellerman. “This fight goes from excellent to epic.” Finally the bell rang. Joshua was still standing.

As the fight progressed through the seventh, eighth and ninth rounds, Joshua gradually recovered. He found more bounce in his step. More snap in his punches. In the opening seconds of the eleventh round, the script flipped once again. Joshua caught Klitschko with a sharp uppercut. The 41-year-old got on his horse and tried to run. But Joshua patiently tracked him down and another uppercut send Klitschko to the canvas. He got up, but a minute later a Joshua combination sent him crashing down a second time. There would no third knockdown. Joshua pounded Klitschko against the ropes until referee David Fields stepped in between the two big men at 2 minutes and 25 seconds. It was over.

As 90,000 fans leapt to their feet, Anthony Joshua did something usual. He didn’t yell triumphantly or thrust his arms into the air or jump onto the ropes and salute his fans. He simply turned and walked to his corner. There was serenity to his expression, to his body language. Relief, perhaps. But also something more. Self knowledge. The sixth round.

Sometimes a single round can define a fighter’s career. Elevate them from good to great. Serve as a lesson that can never be taught, only experienced. Muhammad Ali’s fifteenth round knockdown against Joe Frazier in their first fight (Ali lost). Larry Holmes’ blistering last round against Ken Norton. Evander Holyfield surviving the tenth round against Riddick Bowe. “No one knows what a fighter has until he faces adversity,” says Showtime analyst and boxing historian Steve Farhood. “Joshua was hurt and tired in the sixth. And now he’ll use that round through his entire career, summoning that experience in future fights.”