Youth versus experience. It’s one of the oldest stories in sport, but that’s what sport’s for: telling us our favourite stories again and again, so they’re always new and always the same. That’s the story behind the big fight, when Anthony Joshua of Watford defends his world heavyweight title against the former champion Wladimir Klitschko from Ukraine.
Joshua is 27, fast, rangy and looks like a track-and-field athlete. Klitschko is 41 and looks like a great rock formation. That’s good in some ways, but there are times in boxing when a fearsome stillness is a liability.
So the young champion takes on the ageing former champion, offering all the usual stuff like speed, reaction and the resilience of youth. Joshua is unbeaten in 18 professional fights, so something in him just assumes he’s going to win. Which can work the other way, of course; cocky young pups get taken down a peg by their elders and betters on a daily basis in most walks of life.
It’s no great mystery why young thrusters want to take on the greats of the past and show their mastery of the present. What’s less clear is why there’s always a steady supply of fighters over 35, each one convinced that he’s the one who will defy the odds and the ageing process to do what’s seldom done – beat the champion using memory and experience.
The real problem is that it’s boxing. It’s not a tennis match, when the loser might feel tired and a bit downhearted. Boxing matches tend to be won by the person who inflicts more permanent brain damage on their opponent than they themselves sustain: a heavy beating can cost a boxer a great deal more than pride.
Are these old boxers stupid, then? Sugar Ray Leonard is probably smarter than you are, and yet when I met him, years ago at a gym on Seventh Avenue during a blizzard, he was preparing to fight again. And yes, he was 35. He knew the risks, he was under no illusion. But…
“Nothing will ever give me the same satisfaction as what I do here. I don’t care if I do the greatest movie and win an Oscar. It wouldn’t be the same satisfaction. It would be foolish to say that it could be.”
That’s combat he was talking about. A very high-stakes game indeed. It wasn’t adulation or even money he wanted – it was the chance to test himself in a genuinely dangerous form of combat.
That’s probably why Klitschko is taking on this fight: to put himself to the test at this terrifying level of intensity and danger. The fact that Joshua is the best heavyweight we’ve seen since, well, the young Klitschko only makes this dangerous enterprise more attractive.
So Joshua is cast as the impetuous youth, a part he’s rather grown out of since his wild boyhood. These days he acts another of boxing’s set roles: the man saved from himself by boxing. He speaks well, because he’s no phoney; measured statements, respect for opponents, respect for the sport – a pleasing throwback in an era when it’s never been more profitable to sell yourself as a cheap show-off.
So we have an occasion when past, present and future collide in symbolic combat – and in such archetypal circumstances, the tills of bookmakers come close to spontaneous combustion.
Youth versus experience: where’s your money? Sugar Ray lost. The race is not always to the swift – but it’s usually the right way to bet.