On coming to boxing late

“Did you know…” I say, “…that Wembley has more toilets than any other building in the world?” They did not know, my friends Matt and James and Jon. They did not know that fact.

This is the kind of thing you say when you, a football fan, are watching Anthony Joshua vs Wladimir Klitschko, a boxing match. They are fighting over (I think) three world titles; in boxing, I gather, world titles are less one-ring-to-rule-them-all and more gotta-catch-’em-all. They are fighting at Wembley Stadium, which I know as a football stadium but which tonight has been turned over to boxing, and the narrative (I believe) is one of an exciting young pretender (Joshua) versus a grizzled old silverback (Klitschko).

We are in James’ flat watching the long, high-kicking build-up with which Sky TV apparently likes to preface such events. It is my first boxing match, which is why my only contributions to the conversation so far have been questions and Wembley facts*. Matt and James watch the Big Fights; I have avoided the Big Fights so far, partly through niggardliness (Sky Box Office charges £20), partly through disorganisation, and partly through a self-righteous lack of interest in violence. Not unrelatedly, I’m also sceptical of the confluence of literariness and “pugilism”; it often seems too obvious a protest, too explicitly defensive. Yes, I enjoy watching people beat each other up, these writers seem to say, but that is because I am Sensitive to Aesthetics. I am an Artist, but I am a Real Man too.

But I was curious and fancied a beer (thus end so many ethical poses) so I went round to James and Jon’s to watch. When I arrived at 8pm, a four-pack of Fosters under my arm, there were still a couple of hours before the start of the fight (kick-off? Punch-up? I am unsure).

Matt and James are excited (“It’s an event,” says Matt, gleefully. “Like the Royal Wedding.”). Jon, a studious lawyer, is gazing at the screen thoughtfully. From two sofas the four of us are watching the helicopter shots above the stadium, its arch glowing lightsaber-blue on the black-and-amber London night.

There are some shots from inside the stadium. Klitschko and Joshua are preparing. A flustered interviewer quizzes Joshua in his dressing room as a lackey straps up his hands. “Are you feeling any nerves, at all?” she asks. (This is no Frost/Nixon).

“Nah,” grins Joshua predictably. His face’s smoothness and symmetry hint at his record: 16 knockouts in 18 victories in 18 matches. Most of his fights are over in a matter of minutes. His opponents, hitherto, have not been boxers so much as boxees.

Joshua is 28, which means that he was six when Klitschko, a mountainous 41-year-old, won an Olympic gold in Atlanta. As the white straps are wound around Joshua’s great big anvil hands, Klitschko’s brother Vitali looms sternly in the background. He is checking, I think, that there is no funny business going on, that Joshua hasn’t slipped a horseshoe or two into his gloves.

Vitali is himself a former world heavyweight champion, and in his retirement has taken the mayoralty of Kiev. He is about as literal a strongman as they get. (In times of uncertainty, voters tend to pick taller, older leaders; in times of Russian encroachment, it seems, they like 6’7” ex-boxers so successful the sport has an era named after them). Apparently, because he has a PhD, he was nicknamed “Dr Ironfist.” He has the face, body and expression of a cliffside.

The undercard

We learn little from the presenter’s chat with Joshua beyond that Sky need to screen their interviewers better, and things cut to a sort of pre-fight. Two lean featherweights are the amuse-bouche, spattering each other with blows and blood in the centre of a half-empty stadium. The front row is occupied by photographers, and behind them is a mixture of vacant seats and detached-looking white guys. Even the fighters, whose names I don’t know, seem aware that this match (which could, quite plausibly, end with a life-threatening injury) is a warm-up, a support act. A couple of slaves sent onto the Colosseum sands to fight some lions while everyone arrives. One of them wins on points, the one whose mother, the ticker at the bottom of the screen says, works in a chip shop.

(There’s another ad break, and to fill it we watch the Premier League’s Goal of the Month montage from December 2006. This Goal of the Month montage is said to be the best Goal of the Month montage in the Premier League’s 26-year-history. Goal of the Month is a rare example of an almost entirely aesthetic contest in popular sport, and this one has vigorously outlived the storylines of every match it samples. I sense that this will not happen in tonight’s fight.)

Now the foreplay is almost over. We see a highlights reel of Joshua’s succession of knockouts. He is a handsome man who makes his ugly opponents uglier, and sometimes attacks them so aggressively that he wins in the first round (rounds are three minutes long).

Next, holograms of both Joshua and Klitschko come up as their statistics are compared: Joshua, who is 6’6”, weighs 17 stone, 12 pounds and two ounces; Klitschko, who is also 6’6”, weighs 17 stone, two pounds and six ounces. Their holograms are topless and facing each other. We are watching them side-on. They are disconcertingly close in this construction, in the way that, when people square up to one another, their tilted faces are almost touching, almost intimate.

In the stadium, the showmanship is lurid and Vegas-like. The fighters make their entrances, walking to the centre of the stadium having emerged from one of the corners. Klitschko is first, booed merrily by the crowd (Joshua is English). Like a mob leader, he is surrounded by heavies, which is strange considering that within a few minutes he could officially be the human being with the least need of a bodyguard. He is wearing a dark dressing gown, which along with all the heavies makes him look like a drugs baron arrested at his mansion in a dawn raid.

Now for Joshua. He is white-robed and smiling, as if he is redeeming a coupon trip to an upmarket hotel and spa. The crowd, of course, is ravenous for him. He is put on a literal pedestal, which is raised a couple of metres alongside further pedestals bearing his initials, writ in dancing flames.

Both boxers are introduced by a man called Michael Buffer, who came up with that way of saying “Lee-eet’s get ready to ruuuu-mblllllle.” It is easily mocked, but he is earning £4m from this, which I reckon works out to about £50,000 per word, so the joke, really, is on us. If you are wondering where the women are, wonder no more: here is one, busty and flag-bearing; here are two more, singing each national anthem. Already, it has been an evening of family, flags and fighting.

And so to the match. The dressing gowns are removed, and Klitschko and Joshua are now down to their big, shiny, high-waisted trunks. (Counter-intuitively, these are not called boxer shorts.) The cameraman is too short to really capture their faces, but we can see the sweat and the cheekbone hollows and the great bunches of muscle on each man. Joshua’s torso is hairless; Klitschko’s chest has been trimmed to the equivalent of a barbershop’s number one. Cyclists go hairless too, partly for streamlining, but partly in case of a particularly bloody and flesh-rending crash. Wouldn’t want hair in a wound. Maybe this is what’s on Klitschko’s mind; he is trying to look impassive, I think, but there is a sliver of concern in his em-dash mouth (or am I imagining it?), like a soldier standing to attention who’s just realised he left the gas on.

The bell dings and the match begins. They are hunched, prowling, gloves covering face. “They’re sizing each other up,” explains James. At risk of spoiling the surprise, they are both very large.

A boxing match lasts for twelve rounds, at which point the winner is chosen by a panel of judges, or until a “knockout”, which is declared when one fighter has been so obviously overpowered that the match has to be stopped. Joshua, as we know, deals mostly in knockouts, and early knockouts at that, but this match, as we know, is going to be cagier. No real, thumping, get-out-of-your seat punches are landed until we’re a few rounds deep, and what’s really striking (as it were) about the hits is how quick they are: like bullets, like pistons, and when they find their target (a chin, a nose, a cheek) the replays show the slow bulge of the arm, the Channel Tunnel-sized veins, the rippling of struck flesh and the white nebula of sweat that, scattered by the blow, glitters white against the stadium’s darkness.

Joshua lands a good slug on Klitschko in the fifth, but takes one himself in the sixth. Klitschko does not go easy into that good night, and Joshua is dizzy and dazed. If this were a cartoon, his tongue would be lolling out of his mouth and there’d be cheeping birds circling his head.

Out for the count. On the ropes. We are suddenly in linguistic hyper-reality. Boxing is one of those experiential engines whose output is heard across quotidian speech. Klitschko drives him to the edge of the ring, and the purpose of those ropes become clear: not to keep spectators out, but to keep backpedalling fighters in.

He lasts the round, somehow. Klitschko gives him another torrid three minutes after the break, but Joshua makes it through again. He sinks into a chair, as fighters do between rounds, and attendants spray Lucozade into his mouth, over his brow, and shout encouragement. “He ain’t got nothing left now!”, one of them says. “We can get to work now!”

To us this seems absurd. Joshua is gone. He is a boxer, yes, but he is Boxer the horse, on a one-way trip to the glue factory. The wasted months of training (over the last 98 days he has cycled 350km, run 210 miles, sparred for 1470 minutes and spent more than 400 hours in the gym**), the emphatic, unarguable emasculation of losing a one-on-one fight in front of millions: it must be harder to lose a boxing match, I think, than to win one. What kind of pain is he feeling, right now, in that ring? Is it sharp, blinding, aching? Is he so full of adrenaline that the blows are dulled? Or is it more pain than anyone should experience while doing their job? Is he suppressing emotion? Or perhaps he is thinking (and his glazed eyes suggest this) — nothing.

But then he rallies. He has walked through the valley of the shadow of death. We are into the tenth, eleventh rounds, and his fists are flying, pounding, in a binary state of being either (i) ready to hit Klitschko or (ii) embedded in Klitschko. We are on our feet. I am on my feet. I am shouting encouragement to a faraway man as he attacks another man.

He wins, our man wins. Good and True and Brave and English Anthony Joshua. He pummels a crouching Klitschko and the referee ends the match.

In sport, we often narrativise absurdly: football, being a low-scoring game, is so affected by fine margins that much of the discourse surrounding it is entirely vacuous. A boot connects with a ball in a very slightly different spot, to the millimetre, and the pundits would have entirely different opinions about the performance of a player, a team and its management. Here, though, it is tempting to consider otherwise: with none of of the chaotic angle-of-incidence permutations that come with ball sports, one can easily imagine that a boxing match, though still prey to the particular angle or placement of a punch, can be swung by an individual’s personality.

In all this I have forgotten the blood that is streaming from Klitschko’s eyebrows, the bruises that are beginning to bloom on both men’s battered torsos, the pain that these injuries have caused them and will cause them, and the unfathomable resolve that leads them into the ring, knowing full well what they will face.

“When you go into the trenches that’s when you find out who you really are,” a triumphant Joshua says afterwards. When you go into the trenches — and when you watch other people go into the trenches.

*The total number of toilets at Wembley Stadium: 2,618. This includes urinals.

**He also, by the way, eats 4500–5000 kcal each day, of which a significant proportion comes from his nightly meal of an entire chicken.