In the three years since the Anthony Joshua and Kubrat Pulev fight was first scheduled, the Bulgarian contender has grown risk averse, as investors and stockbrokers might call it.
At 39 years of age, with his stock as high as it needed to be to secure the shot at Joshua, he remained only sufficiently active to preserve his lofty rating with the governing bodies.
Evidence as to Pulev’s remaining ambition, condition and punch resistance is therefore undermined by the quality of his opposition. He’s been winning, but only against tier 3 and 4 big men.
For all the qualification, it remains an intriguing contest.
A loss in that period and the possibility of a match with the division’s cash cow Anthony Joshua would have been lost with it. A frustrating burden to take into retirement had aging limbs succumbed to an inferior opponent and particularly cruel for a fighter who got as far as a press conference three years ago before injury intervened.
Pulev’s pragmatism is now rewarded, the crescendo to to an ‘almost’ resume in which he never quite proves good enough to claim the top prize. One last opportunity to change the narrative of his career.
Is enough of his best preserved to threaten Joshua and the Joshua versus Fury fairytale that swirls beyond this weekend’s action?
From the semi-finals of Amatuer games, in which Italian Roberto Cammarelle would customarily win gold, Pulev has continued in the paid ranks as a perennial contender, but never quite the champion.
A previous opportunity, against a peak Wladimir Klitschko, only substantiated the summation that Pulev is capable, strong and proficient, but lacks any outstanding quality. Always competitive, but never dominant.
In Joshua, he will face a fearsome, but not entirely fearless opponent. The 31 year old Brit recaptured his former belts by defeating Andy Ruiz Jnr, in their rematch. A disciplined and mature performance made easier by the poor preparation of his conquerer. Ruiz took the Buster Douglas buffet option and relinquished the belts all too easily. However, despite his poor condition, his isolated attacks still offered evidence of Joshua’s newly found anxiety under pressure. Coupled with the distress Alexander Povetkin also caused him, there will always be hope for a fighter with a punch. At 240 plus pounds, everyone has a punch.
Pulev isn’t Ruiz. He doesn’t have the hand speed or the type of chutzpah Ruiz showed in knocking out the Brit on Joshua’s American debut, but he does have pedigree and will broadly match the champion for size. He has shown durability and good 12 round stamina, though rarely at a keen pace.
The proud Bulgarian, an old-fashioned big man, broad of shoulder with a lintel brow, is rugged, deploys his size well, and isn’t as upright as the stereotype of Eastern European fighters historically implies. He fights a little ‘looser’ than that and has an effective sweeping right to the body too. Across a long Amatuer career and a decade or more as a prize fighter, Pulev has experienced most things, faced most styles. But previously, he was younger, fresher and more active. This is his first fight of 2020.
Despite being a respected contender for most of his professional career he hasn’t faced too many fellow contenders. Pulev may not be Ruiz, but Joshua certainly isn’t Rydel Booker or Hughie Fury, the latter of whom travelled a respectable 12 rounds with Pulev two years ago.
It will be fascinating to see how the rehabilitation of Joshua since that slip up against Ruiz is progressing. Does he retain some vulnerability and cautiousness from that humbling loss? Or will be seek to reassert his aggressive credentials in the belief Pulev doesn’t have the hand speed to counter and punish openings or the youth to stay with him if the pace is hot?
There is a great deal at risk here for Joshua, more than the just belts, but also the prospect of a fight with compatriot Tyson Fury in 2021. An incredibly rare opportunity for the best two to meet in the richest division of all.
Lose again and the need to rebuild will loom large, the luminosity of the Fury fight will be dulled, perhaps irreparably, and a whole lot of money would disappear.
Will the fight beyond the one he is in temper his aggression? Will Pulev be able to capitalise on any tentativeness Joshua shows? At 39, does the old dinosaur have enough left?
Much will be revealed in the opening exchange, my feeling is Joshua will seek to overwhelm Pulev early. To land big shots, discourage and destroy the wily campaigner before he settles in to a rhythm or grows accustomed to the power Joshua possesses.
A lot will rest on just how willing to survive any early onslaught Pulev is prepared to be. For in attacking, Joshua offers openings and risks burning his own reserves too.
Sky Sports Box Office broadcast the event on Saturday night.