Anthony Joshua dominated and then floored mandatory challenger Kubrat Pulev to score a ninth-round knockout and retain his WBA, WBO and IBF heavyweight titles at the SSE Arena, Wembley on Saturday.
With 1,000 ticket-buying fans allowed into the building for the first time at a British fight since the COVID-19 pandemic began, Joshua's entrance was met by a huge roar from the partisan crowd which was topped each of the four times he drove his Bulgarian adversary into deep trouble.
After a slow feeling-out process, Joshua exploded in the third round with a series of hard shots that forced Pulev to back away from his opponent, triggering a standing count. "AJ" then added a good old-fashioned knockdown before the round was over for the 10-7 frame.
To the challenger's credit, he was able to shake off the tumultuous stanza and looked to come back into things, only for Joshua's jab, finesse and variety to keep him comfortably at bay. A shutout points win appeared to be on the cards — until Joshua again hit high gear in the ninth.
Stringing together a series of short uppercuts, the champ put Pulev down once more with a pair of hard shots before following up moments later with a right hand for his first win inside the distance since 2018 when he finished off Alexander Povetkin at Wembley Stadium, just down the road from the SSE.
Fans and experts alike spent the buildup to Joshua's first fight since regaining his titles from Andy Ruiz Jr. wondering if he would attempt to once again outbox his foe or perhaps consider a return to his vintage days of dropping bombs on his opponents. The encouraging news was that the champion displayed a slick hybrid of both — perhaps the slickest since he turned pro.
Perhaps surprised Pulev wasn't knocking at his door from the opening bell, like the 39-year-old did the last time he challenged for the world titles against Wladimir Klitschko, AJ kept things cagey in rounds one and two, but did enough to win the rounds with jabs to the head and body.
Round three was when Pulev was introduced to Joshua's power, and the battle-hardened challenger initially responded to the aggression with a wild-eyed grin, only to actually back away from the heat as shot after shot landed and did damage.
Pulev could not flee the round's second wave and he hit the canvas for a knockdown. To his credit, he recovered from what could have easily been a very brief titles challenge. But Joshua refused to let doubt or complacency enter his mind.
The champion took every other round from the fourth until the ninth, when "AJ" again decided it was time to crank up the heat and test Pulev's mettle. Though the Bulgarian was allowed to continue after the third count of the bout, he was soon on the canvas again and did not get back up.
Joshua moves to 24-1 with his 22nd career knockout. Pulev, meanwhile, has suffered only his second professional loss and is now 28-2 with 14 wins inside the distance.
Lawrence Okolie looked like a new, improved and far more dangerous fighter in the chief support bout of the evening, as he obliterated late replacement opponent Nikodem Jezewski with three knockdowns in less than two rounds of action before the official mercifully called it off. An organ-displacing body shot brought the previously-undefeated Jezewski to a knee early in the first, and knockdown number two really should have triggered the referee stoppage before either man could warm their corner stools.
Another vicious shot earned Okolie a swift treble of scoring strikes in the second and though the visibly-hurt Polish fighter staggered up at the count of nine, this time around the referee knew better than to let the slaughter continue.
Okolie was originally set to fight Jezewski’s compatriot Krzysztof Glowacki for the vacant WBO cruiserweight title, but the Rio 2016 Olympian is surely destined for a world title opportunity in the first half of 2021 after such an emphatic showing under new trainer Shane McGuigan.
Hughie Fury (25-3, 14 KOs) sustained a nasty cut above his left eye in the fourth round of his must-win bout with seasoned Polish heavyweight Mariusz Wach (36-7, 19 KOs), but thanks to the stellar work of cornerman Kerry Kayes was able to soldier on and cruise to victory. Fury shut Wach out on two of the three scorecards, 100-90, and claimed the other 99-91 for a unanimous decision win which saw the Brit settle into a stylish groove after the accidental clash of heads that opened him up.
The 26-year-old started off with a clear intent of a quick stoppage and a statement-making performance, but walked onto far too many shots before adjusting his gameplan to far more success. Despite a late Fury flurry in the closing stages, the rugged Wach held on to settle for a scorecards defeat.
Martin Bakole (16-1, 12 KOs) bolstered his efforts to muscle in on the world title scene at the maximum weight class with a 10-round unanimous decision over Sergey Kuzmin (15-2, 11 KOs) to capture the WBC International heavyweight title. The three ringside judges had it at 98-92, 97-93 and 96-94 in favour of Bakole, who called out the only man to beat him so far, Michael Hunter, for a rematch in a post-fight interview./DAZN