Anthony Joshua earns bittersweet win over Otto Wallin after Deontay Wilder’s costly failure

For Anthony Joshua, this was a strange, bittersweet victory.

The sweetness was contained in the controlled aggression that “AJ” accessed across five rounds against Otto Wallin, in the intelligent, improved way in which he closed distance against a southpaw, and in the ease of this first fight under Ben Davison. That sweetness also came courtesy of Joshua’s ability to outperform and overshadow Deontay Wilder, whose failure against Joseph Parker was a costly one, just minutes before AJ dismissed Wallin.

The bitterness, however, was brought about by Wilder’s failure itself, one that might have cost the American and his distant rival a career-defining contest and generational wealth.

For 12 rounds, Wilder was steered around the ring by Parker, a patient problem in front of the most frightening puncher in a generation – or what remains of said fighter. For one round, the eighth to be exact, Parker put aside all patience and threatened to floor Wilder as his teammate Tyson Fury did on four occasions across three fights. Ultimately, Wilder did not touch the canvas, but the 38-year-old did draw a blank as he sought the kind of dramatic late finish that only he can produce. Or could produce, in a prime that might well have passed.

There was plenty of talk that the former world champion would find the shot to flatten Parker – a solid, ever-improving fighter and an ex-champion in his own right – and pile pressure on Joshua as the 34-year-old waited backstage at the Kingdom Arena. And while Joshua wisely opted not to watch Wilder’s bout, it would actually have done nothing but buoy the Briton and free him of comparisons with his stateside counterpart.

Then again, on this night there was no comparison anyway – only contrast. For Wilder floundered against Parker, while Joshua was clinical against Wallin.

For five rounds, Joshua pushed back the Swede, spearing right hands at Wallin’s head and body, hiding nearly all of them behind tidy, forceful jabs. It was not especially dynamic, but it did not need to be; all that mattered was that it was direct from Joshua, who importantly looked more certain in his tactics than he has in years.

In defeats by Oleksandr Usyk – one under coach Rob McCracken and one under Robert Garcia – and even in wins against Jermaine Franklin and Robert Helenius – both under Derrick James this year – Joshua appeared cautious. On this night, however, he was confident, with that conviction perhaps bolstered by his amateur wins and past spars with Wallin.

Joshua, right, was on the front foot for all five rounds against Wallin (Reuters)
Joshua, right, was on the front foot for all five rounds against Wallin (Reuters)

Joshua being the more powerful puncher was a given, but it was made even clearer by Wallin’s occasional and ineffective connections. Joshua being the faster puncher was not for sure, but he demonstrated his superiority in that department as the first few frames passed by. In the first, he thudded a right cross into the belly of Wallin and timed a counter straight perfectly to the head; in the second, he crushed the 33-year-old’s nose into a crooked, bloody mess.

In the third round, Joshua had Wallin scrambling after a heavy left hook, though the Swede appeared to be off balance rather than out of sorts. After a fourth round in which Joshua patiently turned the screw, however, Joshua landed that same hook again and had Wallin looking desperate. This time, the counterstrike wrecked Wallin’s equilibrium.

Joshua did what damage he could in the remnants of the round, and he would not get to unleash more punishment in the sixth. There was no sixth. Wallin’s team, mercifully, decided that their fighter should not continue, with his nose appearing to be broken. The confidence that he had emitted in fight week had long vanished.

While the ending was somewhat anticlimactic, that should not detract from the promise in AJ’s smart and aggressive outing here – certainly not on a night when his greatest hypothetical rival stumbled and fell so severely. Joshua, for his part, insisted that his win was not a throwback performance to his days of destruction. “Not a throwback, no – another day at the office,” he said, after paying respect to Wallin. “[It had to be] victory by any means. When I pray, every cell and my spirit is leading to victory. It’s a treacherous business. It’s like snakes and ladders, one win gets you up the ladder, one defeat puts you straight down.”

Parker lands a brutal overhand right on an underwhelming Wilder (AFP)
Parker lands a brutal overhand right on an underwhelming Wilder (AFP)

Wilder’s surroundings must look suspiciously scaly and serpentine right now. Joshua, though, refused to mock the American, instead saying he hopes that Wilder will come back better.

Yet maybe Wilder, surely in the final years of his career, will not come back at all. He hinted that he could in fact walk away from boxing, never mind a clash with Joshua, whose promoter Eddie Hearn seemed to know that the mega-fight had slipped away. “It was a tough decision, between the championship and Wilder,” Hearn said. “We signed for Wilder, he lost, that’s okay. Maybe it’s a blessing.

“This guy [Joshua] is about championships, he wants to become a three-time world champion. Wallin was No 2. It’ll be [Filip] Hrgovic vs AJ for the world title.

“I’m so happy to see him smiling and performing so well. He’s back, he’s destroying people in sparring, I believe he’s the best heavyweight in the world. It was a punch-perfect performance. He dispatched him. He’s a dangerous man in that mood. It was a stunning performance. In this mindset and this team, I think he’s unbeatable... 2024 will be a massive year for him.”

Not as massive as it would have been with a bout against Wilder next, but still: 2024 could indeed be pivotal for Joshua, as he bids to become a world champion for a third time.