Speak to those who were lucky enough to be at fights in this country and elsewhere at the height of the pandemic and many will tell you they did not feel that lucky at all. As was the case in other sports, the lack of spectators made for an eerie experience, but in boxing it also led to something altogether more disturbing – the sound of pain.
You could hear every punch. Every thud to the chest, every crack to the head, and while as a journalist or general observer you know those echoes are always there amid the heat of battle it was unappealing, to say they least, to hear them so raw and unfiltered in near desolate venues.
Quite simply boxing needs spectators, partly to camouflage its brutality and partly for its very existence. Few sports have suffered more during the past 18 months due to the lack of income from paying punters, with entire livelihoods lost as a result. In that regard the staging of fights in front of no crowds was a survival measure as much as anything else, with the subsequent TV revenue helping to make up some of the shortfall. But ultimately the people needed to return and slowly but surely they have, with no fight, on these shores at least, seeing more come together than the one that took place here.
Anthony Joshua versus Oleksandr Usyk, an occasion that demanded a big turnout and one that very much got that. Estimates put the attendance between 67,000-68,000, making it not only the largest crowd for a British fight since the return of spectators but also since Joshua’s victory over Alexander Povetkin in front of 70,000 people at Wembley Stadium in September 2018. The fact they packed the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium felt especially fitting given this is a venue that has also suffered during the pandemic – opened just before Covid struck and rarely filled since.
It was packed on Saturday and more than lived up to its billing as a spectacular setting for elite sport; its sleek, towering stands a stunning sight amid the blue-and-white house lights and its renowned acoustics well and truly coming to the fore. You could barely hear yourself think, let alone the sound of a punch, amid the din.
It was created by men in their best polo shirts and jeans, and women in their best dresses and heels, sat among famous faces such as Idris Elba and Mo Farah, providing a collective reminder of the glitz and glamour that comes with live boxing. And while some people remain justifiably nervous, even disapproving, of crowds being allowed to return to sporting events given the ongoing prevalence of Covid, to be here was to be reminded that many others have really missed this sort of thing.
The noise grew during an undercard that included a victory for Callum Smith over Lenin Castillo via a second-round knockout so brutal that the Dominican fighter had to be carried out of the ring on a stretcher and straight to hospital. By time Joshua and Usyk were ready to rumble, the atmosphere was incredible. Chanting and cheering amid a deafening playlist and which was followed by the traditional pre-main event singing of Sweet Caroline that was wonderfully loud and in synch. The accompanying smart phone-inspired light show wasn’t bad either.
The volume rose and fell during the fight itself, which rightly ended in an unanimous points victory for Usyk. The Ukrainian displayed incredible movement, resilience and power to leave Joshua chasing shadows and, por último, without his heavyweight titles after a second defeat of his career.
It was devastating blow for Joshua in more ways than one, forcing him back once again to the drawing board and further away than ever from a showdown with Tyson Fury. It was also certainly not what the majority of those in attendance wanted to see and to their credit they rose to salute the victor on a night that more than any other since boxing’s emergence from the dark, debilitating shadow of the pandemic, showed the sport is getting off the ropes and back on its feet.