Anthony Joshua will return to the ring for the first time in more than a year on Saturday, defending his WBA, IBF and WBO heavyweight world titles against Kubrat Pulev. It's a fight that could move boxing one step closer to a clash that unifies all four recognized heavyweight championships and caps off a resurgence of the heavyweight division.
Joshua has, like so many others, been sidelined from action by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, waiting for a safe spot to step back into the ring and defend the titles he regained from Andy Ruiz Jr. in December 2019 after Ruiz shocked Joshua the previous June. The time has now come, and Joshua will battle Pulev at SSE Arena in Wembley, London, England, with 1,000 fans in attendance.
While Joshua is a heavy favorite to retain his championships, there's a lot riding on this fight -- for Joshua as well as boxing as a whole.
Here are three things to know heading into the unified heavyweight championship battle between Joshua and Pulev.
1. Pulev win could kill undisputed championship hopes
While it may seem logical that Pulev would step into Joshua's spot in a unification bout with Fury should he pull off the upset, nothing in boxing is that simple. Joshua's rematch clause means the two would run it back, just as Joshua had with Ruiz after that upset. Now, here's where it gets complicated. Oleksandr Usyk has been the WBO mandatory challenger since moving up from cruiserweight, though he has not been in a rush to enforce his standing as he adjusts to his new weight class. That will change in 2021, according to Usyk co-promoter Alexander Krassyuk.
"Hopefully (Usyk) will be ready to return in April 2021, and hopefully AJ will be around to comply with WBO mandatory regulations," Krassyuk told Sky Sports. "If not, we will be fighting for the vacant WBO title with a contender appointed by WBO. ... The thing I can make really clear is that we will be pushing hard to put our mandatory position in effect."
If Pulev wins and Joshua enforces his rematch clause, Usyk enforcing his mandatory status would leave Pulev unable to fulfill that obligation due to his contractual duties to the Joshua rematch. That means Pulev could get stripped of the WBO title so Usyk could fight for it. Once that happens, an undisputed heavyweight champion moves from possibility to dream. With a win, Joshua could defend his belts against Usyk in early 2021 and face Fury to unify all four recognized world championships in the back half of the year.
2. Joshua loss would also derail the fight
Everyone knows the most anticipated fight in the heavyweight division is a showdown between Tyson Fury and Anthony Joshua. Fury appears to be more or less wide open after the trilogy fight with Deontay Wilder seems to have fallen apart as he'll take a tune-up fight and continue on his intended path to fight Joshua in one of his final handful of bouts before retiring. Just like the risk to Joshua's legacy against Pulev, the opportunity to receive -- and possibly win -- a fight with Fury would be an opportunity to stake a claim as a true great.
Getting to a Fury fight is the true story of the bout with Pulev. Any stumble and ... well, as Top Rank promoter Bob Arum recently said, "If Pulev beats Joshua, there's no Joshua fight for Tyson Fury because Joshua has a rematch clause. At that point, Fury is out there looking for opponents and I'd think the best available opponent would be Wilder."
Fury vs. Joshua sure sounds more appealing than Joshua vs. Pulev II and Fury vs. Wilder III, especially after Wilder's increasingly unhinged conspiracy theory-laced excuses for his one-sided loss in the February fight with Fury.
3. Joshua's legacy is on the line
Joshua is a heavy favorite at -1000 coming into the fight. That's not quite the -2000 to -3000 odds from when he stepped into the ring for his first fight with Andy Ruiz, but these are some long odds, regardless. Being the guy who loses twice as a massive favorite is a hard thing to live down going forward. Mike Tyson lost two of the biggest upsets in boxing history when he was defeated by Buster Douglas and Evander Holyfield.
Joshua, even as a massive star in England, is not the kind of cultural force that Tyson was. Joshua suffering those same level of defeats wouldn't be viewed as an intriguing part of a wild story, but as a reason to wipe Joshua forever from discussions of all-time great heavyweights. Heavyweights run a tremendous risk of losing by knockout simply by the amount of power in the ring. Lennox Lewis has a pair of ugly losses on his record -- though the Oliver McCall loss wasn't quite on the same level of upset as others mentioned. But if Joshua gets knocked out by Pulev, that would be two brutal losses in a short timeframe, and it would be hard to see Joshua being taken seriously as a major player again any time soon.
Will Joshua continue on and claim a place in history as one of the greatest heavyweights of his era (or even all time), or will he become an all-time boxing punchline? That's a lot of weight to put on a fighter, but fighting is a brutal business not only in physicality but in long-term evaluation.