Anthony Joshua didn't let his mind wander before his fight against Kubrat Pulev. He had previously stumbled over hurdles and had not anchored himself in the present. But all week he refused to look beyond Pulev, and that unwavering focus led him to a stop on the ninth round on Saturday in front of 1,000 fans at the SSE Arena in London.
Joshua knocked Pulev down with a sweetly struck uppercut in the third round, but the Bulgarian's strong chin kept him in the fight until the ninth. A flurry of overcuts and a straight right hand eventually covered the spirited Pulev.
For Joshua (24-1, 22 KOs), this was as much an exorcism of that ugly spell by Andy Ruiz Jr. as it was a reminder of Joshua's ruthless ability to stop a fight in his tracks. The uppercut was on point when Joshua kept his promise of thrill, but despite its laser-like focus, this felt like a starter with the main course to come.
Joshua didn't even mention the name of Tyson Fury in the lead up to this fight, but the WBC belt holder and a potential epic matchup between them in 2021 hovered over this fight as a ubiquitous distraction. It was only after Pulev was dispatched that Joshua finally mentioned these two words from the man who stood in the way of union.
Anthony Joshua (right) sent Kubrat Pulev (left) down four times for a knockout win in the ninth round. Andrew Couldridge / Getty Images
"When I started this game in 2013, I was hunting all the belts and looking at the requirements," said Joshua. "Of course I want a challenge, it's not about the opponents, it's about the heritage and the belts – whoever has the belt, I'd love to compete with them. If that's Tyson Fury, let it be Tyson Fury. It is not a big deal. "
Fury turned down Matchroom Promoter Eddie Hearn's invitation to be at the SSE Arena at the Ring, but watched from afar as Joshua defended his WBA, IBF and WBO titles and kept his prefight promise, " (Pulev's) soul to destroy ".
. @anthonyfjoshua it's a matter of time ….. ⏰ ⏰ ⏰ I'll beat you up like I did @BronzeBomber 2/3 rounds. #YOUBUMSOSER #letsgetiton pic.twitter.com/7m8A8Je0ui
– TYSON FURY (@Tyson_Fury) December 12, 2020
It has been a long time between fights – a year and five days since Joshua Ruiz stopped in the rematch in Saudi Arabia after his nightmare in Madison Square Garden. There were concerns that Joshua would show ring rust, but to counter that, he competed against each other on the Thursday night of fight week and alerted his trainer Rob McCracken by not wearing headgear just days before the fight.
Pulev (28-2, 14 KOs), 39, was a competent opponent and landed a couple of thrusts on Joshua, but the British fighter was in control.
Floyd Mayweather Jr. was at the ring telling Joshua to use the push more, but Joshua did so in his own way, sticking to a plan to dispatch Pulev and avoid another slip.
He prepared for this fight, as Wladimir Klitschko did for Pulev in 2014. Back then Joshua was one of Klitschko's sparring partners. He spoke to the Ukrainian for an hour on Wednesday, looking for inside information about his opponent and gathering information from Klitschko on how he had inflicted the only other defeat in Pulev's career before Saturday.
This performance was reminiscent of Klitschko, as did his words after the fight.
"I'm the best version of myself – I'm not in a fight with anyone else, just myself," said Joshua, avoiding any predictions about who he would reach down the line.
Anthony Joshua, center, could be led to a four-belt unification battle with title mate Tyson Fury in 2021. Andrew Couldridge / PA Images via Getty Images
The next move for Joshua could be mandatory WBO challenger Oleksandr Usyk, but the boxing world wants to see the all-British super fight against Fury. The "Gypsy King" has absorbed part of Joshua's limelight this year thanks to his victory over Deontay Wilder in February, but Joshua will never dwell in the shadows for long.
Joshua will know deep down that he will have to keep improving to defeat Fury. It felt like he could have ended this fight against Pulev sooner but let the Bulgarian get back on track. Against an opponent like Fury, he cannot afford to take advantage of these opportunities or be drawn to Fury's distractions. Joshua has long taken pride in avoiding the pantomime of boxing. He was concerned that his December win over Ruiz wasn't entertaining enough. After defeating Pulev on Saturday, he immediately spoke of his hope that the 1,000 fans who were lucky enough to secure one of the tickets had enjoyed the show. But it was about winning, little else.
It was just like Joshua's previous fight in the UK, which took place in 2018. He was in the same corner of London, complete with the flaming AJ initials and the White Stripes' chest-pounding bass guitar riff to welcome Joshua to the arena. At that time, his stop by Alexander Povetkin in the seventh round should be the last hurdle before an unification battle. But Joshua's perfectly crafted plan for world domination had to wait when Ruiz stunned the British and the boxing world. That win got him to get his show back on track. This win provides Joshua with the platform to follow the immortality of boxing with Fury, who turned to Instagram after the fight and promised to take out Joshua in three rounds and lie in wait.
Joshua did his part – he based his preparation on "less talking, more doing". That is his message to the waiting boxing world. Now the brokers need to close the deal to give boxing the fight they want.