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Anthony Joshua: Odds for Pulev and Usyk bouts will surprise most

Joseph Herron Updated
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It's currently being projected that the IBF can expect their Heavyweight title holder, Anthony Joshua (23-1, 21 KOs), to defend his red strap against mandatory challenger Kubrat Pulev (28-1, 14 KOs) of Bulgaria within the first half of 2020. The two parties are expected to start negotiations next week.

The 38-year-old challenger was initially in line for an opportunity to face AJ in Cardiff, Wales, back in October of 2017, but was forced to back out of the event due to a shoulder injury sustained just two weeks before the scheduled fight. He was eventually replaced by fringe contender Carlos Takam, who was knocked out in the 10th round of their championship bout.

Pulev eventually regained his status as the IBF mandatory challenger in October of 2018 after earning a unanimous points victory over Hughie Fury in his hometown of Sofia, Bulgaria. The crafty boxer/puncher has been undefeated since losing his only other major world title opportunity to former lineal champion Wladimir Klitschko in November of 2014.

Should Joshua elect to fulfill his obligation to the IBF, former unified Cruiserweight champion and WBO mandatory challenger Oleksandr Usyk is expected to compete for an interim version of the WBO Heavyweight championship against former titlist Joseph Parker, or perennial contender Dereck Chisora in March.

While most interested observers are hoping to see AJ compete in a unification contest against the eventual winner of Tyson Fury vs. Deontay Wilder in 2020, it's important that the former Olympic gold medalist stay active in the interim.

Several weeks ago, the current IBF/WBO/WBA world champion was asked who he preferred to fight if he had the luxury of choosing between Pulev and Usyk.

The humble British champ was reluctant to say.

"I do have a preference, but I don't want to disrespect the other," Anthony Joshua recently stated during an interview with iFL TV. "The reason why I'm saying that is because the preference I have is who I think is the better fighter...on paper."

"Both are solid fighters, but the one I would prefer to fight first is who I believe to be the better fighter."

Despite both being worthy title challengers, Usyk clearly stands out as one of the best pound for pound pugilists in the world and is believed by most critics to be a real challenge for any of the top fighters of the division. The 32-year-old Ukrainian is not only a former Olympic gold medalist but a former unified Cruiserweight champion with no losses on his impressive resume.

Although Joshua's preference was evident, the intelligent 30-year-old Briton was very clear in explaining why he was less than eager to disclose his partiality.

"The reason I don't want to say is...through my mistakes last year, it's easy to overlook people, and I have to put them both in my mind as killers. They're both solid fighters. But Oleksandr Usyk has achieved more," admitted AJ to iFL TV.

"Gold medalist...undisputed Cruiserweight champion coming up to Heavyweight. He's got a good, solid record, so yeah...I'd go with Oleksandr Usyk, because of how good he is."

Even though Usyk is the more accomplished of the two title challengers, Pulev has the greater professional experience in the Heavyweight division with impressive victories over Dominick Guinn, Travis Walker, Alexander Dimitrenko, Alexander Ustinov, Tony Thompson, Dereck Chisora, and Sam Peter.

Pulev's current promoter in the US believes Joshua could be overlooking the Bulgarian counter-puncher, and may not be able to compete in a Heavyweight unification bout later this year.

"AJ isn't going to be around," Bob Arum of Top Rank Inc. recently stated to BT Sport. "My guy, Pulev, is going to knock him out. Believe me...I'm telling everybody. Pulev can punch, he comes in shape, he's not Andy Ruiz, he will knock Joshua out."

"Real question is do I match my two heavyweight champions against each other? Tyson Fury vs. Kubrat Pulev? Maybe...who knows?"

Heading into their first scheduled match-up back in 2017, Pulev was initially listed as a 15 to 1 (+1500) betting underdog with the champ cited as a huge 25 to 1 (-2500) betting favorite.

Though no one expects betting lines to be as wide this time around, a Joshua loss would still be viewed as a massive upset.  In comparison, AJ only holds a slight 2 to 1 (-200) betting edge over Usyk (+160) according to most race and sportsbooks. 

Look for Eddie Hearn to favor the 38 year old Bulgarian over a fight with Usyk in April.

Veteran British promoter Frank Warren, who currently co-promotes Tyson Fury with Bob Arum, doesn't share his counterpart's sentiment and actually hopes to see Anthony Joshua get past his mandatory challengers this year.

"I would love to see Fury/Joshua happen in 2020," stated Fury co-promoter Frank Warren to BT Sport. "The public wants to see Tyson Fury versus Anthony Joshua."

"Please...please make it happen that Tyson comes through on February 22nd!  Let's make the Anthony Joshua fight!  It would be the biggest event since England won the World Cup in 1966...a huge event!"

Even if AJ has had his eye on Deontay Wilder and Tyson Fury for quite some time, the popular British champ can't afford to look past a crafty pro like Kubrat Pulev.  Expect to hear an April fight announcement from Matchroom Sport within the next few weeks.

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