Anthony Joshua must not take Kubrat Pulev lightly

After close to a year of inaction due to the coronavirus pandemic, Anthony Joshua is set to return to the ring at last. Kubrat Pulev is the opponent, as AJ seeks to defend his WBA (Super), IBF, WBO and IBO heavyweight titles – the belts he regained from Andy Ruiz Jr. last December having lost to the American earlier in 2019.

The relief will be palpable for Joshua as he enters the ring, even though circumstances won’t be quite what he’s used to, with only a severely reduced crowd allowed inside the SSE Arena, Wembley. And while the spotlight will be firmly fixed on the British boxer, his opponent will be heading to London as a man on a mission, to usurp the multiple heavyweight champion. 

Amid the clamour of Joshua’s return, and the joy of returning to competitive action, he must take care not to underestimate the threat posed by his Bulgarian opponent. Pulev is about as fearsome a heavyweight fighter as they come, and while he is a couple of inches shorter than AJ, the sheer brutish density of his physique is enough to pose a threat to any boxer, even a champion such as Joshua. 

Add to that the fact that Pulev is a fighter very much in form, and you have a recipe for a possible upset. Naturally, the Briton is the firm favourite in the Joshua – Pulev odds, but the Bulgarian will be fancying his chances as he gears up to take on the Watford fighter. He has won his last eight fights since his only professional defeat to Wladimir Klitschko back in 2014. Since then, Pulev has slowly built up his status as one of the heavyweight division’s most fearsome competitors, and this next shot at winning heavyweight titles is well deserved.

Given Joshua’s difficult time of it recently, not only in losing to Ruiz in New York, but in the taxing 12-round effort it took to beat him in the rematch in Saudi Arabia, you’d expect him to be well steeled for the test Pulev represents. While defeat has no doubt placed an unwanted asterisk next to Joshua’s status as multiple heavyweight champion, the experience will stand him in good stead for future bouts, and should help him guard against complacency when Pulev steps into the ring.

Or at least, that’s what you’d expect in normal circumstances, but the nature of the upcoming December 12th event will be anything but normal. A maximum crowd of 1,000 will be granted access to the SSE Arena, which in many ways may prove stranger to Joshua, used to sell-out 90,000-strong crowds, than a behind-closed-doors bout. The tendency to lapse into the same kind of mindset as if it was an exhibition or sparring session may well affect both fighters, and it’ll be a test for both to prove that they can stand up to the strange conditions. 

But then, such a unique setting for a high-profile fight will be another test of Joshua’s mettle and mentality in the way of the Ruiz defeat 18 months ago, which shook him to his core. If he can stand up to Pulev and record the victory that everyone expects, then perhaps we can safely say that AJ is back to his best, and that a future of further glory stretches out before him.