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Anthony Joshua might be too young for heavyweight title, but Klitschko probably too old

British boxer Anthony Joshua celebrates after winning the IBF heavyweight title bout between US boxer Charles Martin and British boxer Anthony Joshua at the O2 Arena in London, Saturday, April 9, 2016.(AP Photo/Matt Dunham)
(AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

Anthony Joshua is about to get a chance to become the heavyweight champion of the world.

Is he ready for it?

The same question could have been asked about his predecessor, fellow Englishman Tyson Fury. In Fury’s case, the answer was a clear “no” — he wasn’t at all prepared to deal with the scrutiny that came with holding the sport’s biggest title.

Now, less than a year after winning the championship with an upset of Wladimir Klitschko, he has given up the belt, is getting treatment for manic depression and is under investigation for cocaine and steroid use.

With Joshua, though, the question is different. He’s been under the spotlight for the last several years, thanks to his amateur success. There was incredible pressure on him to win a gold medal in the 2012 London Olympics, which he did in style, and now he’s treated with the awe and reverence that Fury expected.

The issue in this case is experience. Joshua’s only been a pro for three years, and has just 17 fights. A year ago, his best opponent had probably been Russian journeyman Denis Bakhtov, someone who had fought good heavyweights without beating any of them. Joshua knocked him out in the second round without much effort.

He’s picked up the competition level in the last 12 months, but not much. He’s fought three undefeated “prospects” — Dillian Whyte, Charles Martin and Dominic Breazeale — and won all three fights within seven rounds.

That’s not an unusual resume for a young fighter who is being protected on his way to the top. A lot of stars have gone more than 17 pro bouts without getting in the ring with a quality opponent. The plan is to get them some attention, and then slowly lift the level of opposition until they are ready to fight for a title.

When that final step gets skipped, bad things can happen. Gerry Cooney was just one example of a highly hyped fighter that went into a championship match without the proper experience. His loss to Larry Holmes destroyed his confidence and ruined his career.

There’s a serious danger of the same thing happening to Joshua. He’s never fought a good opponent, much less a Hall of Famer like Klitschko. He’ll be going into their planned fight on Dec. 10 at a massive disadvantage in terms of experience, ring generalship and the small things that help fighters steal rounds and take control when both men are running out of gas.

Klitschko is a master of all those things, and Joshua’s promoter understands what could happen.

“I don’t think it is the right fight for Anthony Joshua, but isn’t that what’s exciting about it?” Eddie Hearn asked rhetorically. “It’s definitely a jump too early, it’s his 17th pro fight, he’s never been in with anyone like Wladimir Klitschko, anyone with his experience.

“But I also believe Wladimir Klitschko has never been in with anyone like Anthony Joshua.”

What Hearn and Joshua are counting on is Klitschko having already lost his career to Father Time. He hasn’t won a tough fight since knocking out Kubrat Pulev two years ago, and he looked like an old man in the loss to Fury. His mind might have known how to beat a less skilled opponent, but his reflexes were too shot to follow through.

By the time he gets into the ring with Joshua, he’ll be a year older than he was when he struggled so badly with Fury. If he fights the same way on Dec. 10, Joshua will win the vacant title, just as any decent heavyweight would.

Fury got the heavyweight title for free by beating up an old man. Unless Klitschko finds the Fountain of Youth, Joshua has a great chance to do the same thing.

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