/Anthony Joshua must pass a difficult test in Kubrat Pulev before possibly facing Tyson Fury in 2021
Anthony Joshua must pass a difficult test in Kubrat Pulev before possibly facing Tyson Fury in 2021

Anthony Joshua must pass a difficult test in Kubrat Pulev before possibly facing Tyson Fury in 2021

With the Tyson Fury-Deontay Wilder rivalry seemingly behind us for the time being, the fight to make in heavyweight boxing — and likely the biggest the sport could produce — is an undisputed championship bout between Fury and Anthony Joshua for all four recognized titles.

Promoters and fans alike remain hopeful it’s a unification matchup that can be made in 2021 provided both fighters can get through mandatory title defenses first unscathed. Step one of that process begins on Saturday for Joshua (23-1, 21 KOs) as the WBA, WBO and IBF champion faces Kubrat Pulev (28-1, 14 KOs) in front of a quarantine friendly 1,000 fans inside London’s Wembley Arena.

The 12-month layoff has turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the 31-year-old Joshua following what was a tumultuous 2019 to say the least. Not only did he lose his U.S. debut via stunning knockout to Andy Ruiz Jr., the native of England was heavily criticized for how safely he outpointed Ruiz in their September rematch in Saudi Arabia.

“After that loss, I realized what industry I’m in and it’s a non-forgiving industry,” Joshua told Yahoo Sports last week. “I had to box and out maneuver him. I didn’t want to make any mistakes so I decided to box on the back foot.

“Having this fight pushed back 12 months, it allowed me to not work to a certain opponent or deadline but just to work to prove myself mentally, tactically and physically. I have had a nice period where I dedicated myself to the gym and the gym has dedicated itself to me. I have not been worried about anyone else.”

Depending upon any exemptions given by the sanctioning bodies, Joshua could end up needing to defeat both Pulev and former undisputed cruiserweight champion Oleksandr Usyk in separate mandatories before a Fury fight could be made. Fury, meanwhile, is due a mandatory for his WBC title that should come from the winner of the delayed Alexander Povetkin-Dillian Whyte rematch.

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Wilder, whom Fury stopped in their February rematch, missed his window to activate a mandatory rematch clause during the quarantine, according to Fury co-promoter Bob Arum. Wilder has refuted the notion and said publicly he plans to take legal action to force a trilogy bout.

While both Joshua and Fury appear to be on the same wavelength in wanting this superfight, the 39-year-old Pulev is rightfully having none of it.

“I don’t believe this fight is going to happen because I win Saturday night,” Pulev said during a recent interview with Joshua promoter Matchroom Sport. “I think the world needs a new world champion like me. I think after this fight, I’m going to fight with Tyson Fury. It’s going to be good.

“We see a lot of mistakes from Anthony, lot of bad sides. I think these mistakes have stayed and I will take it and be good.”

Joshua referred to the Pulev fight as a potential “banana skin” in that it’s a fight he’s expected to win that would lead him to much bigger things. With that brings extra pressure, which he dealt poorly with int he Ruiz fight.

Pulev’s lone defeat came in a 2014 title loss to Wladimir Klitschko in which he was plenty game and aggressive but was eventually knocked out. The native of Bulgaria has won eight straight since and originally secured the mandatory status for this fight in 2017 until an injury forced him to withdraw. Joshua ultimately scored a decision over that Carlos Takam.

Asked how he might get up for a fight against Pulev that doesn’t hold the same meaning as the more desired Fury fight, Joshua said it’s rather easy because “I’ve lost before and I don’t want to do that again.” But one thing Joshua isn’t willing to entertain are the opinions of others — Fury included — as he hopes to get one step closer to a 2021 showdown that would effectively declare who is the best heavyweight in the world.

“I’ve realized that no one lives in my head rent free,” Joshua said. “Tyson Fury doesn’t live in my head. Deontay Wilder doesn’t live in my head. I’m working hard paying my own rent. I’m just focused on myself. Whether people call Tyson Fury No. 1 is down to public opinion. In my world, I’m No. 1 but the only way to prove that is to answer it in the ring. That’s why the Pulev fight is important because I have to go in there and perform and it would lead me towards proving who is No. 1.”