ESPN's 2017 boxing fight of the year: Joshua vs. Klitschko

Anthony Joshua came into his fight with former longtime heavyweight world champion Wladimir Klitschko as the owner of a belt, but with so many questions about how good he really was because he had such an easy road to the title.

England's Joshua had faced 18 relatively nonthreatening opponents and knocked them all out inside seven rounds, but how would he fare against a legitimate opponent? And not just any legitimate opponent.

Here he was facing Ukraine's Klitschko, a fellow Olympic super heavyweight gold medalist and an all-time great former champion just one fight removed from his title reign. Klitschko had ruled the division for a decade and was participating in his 29th heavyweight title fight, more than anyone else who ever lived.

But there were also serious questions surrounding Klitschko, 13 years older than Joshua and fighting for the first time since losing his three major belts to Tyson Fury 17 months earlier in a forgettable slumber in which both guys looked awful. Did Klitschko's desultory performance mean he was done? How would the longest layoff of his career affect him?

Joshua and Klitschko came together for Joshua's title, as well as for a vacant belt, in one of the most anticipated heavyweight title fights in years on April 29 in the ultimate matchup of young star vs. aging star. But even before a punch was thrown, the fight had captured the imagination of the boxing public in the United Kingdom and around the world -- it was televised by both Showtime and HBO in the United States.

And then Joshua and Klitschko delivered big-time, putting on an all-time classic that won't soon be forgotten. Their breathtaking battle will go down as one of the best heavyweight title fights in history and was the slam-dunk pick for 2017 ESPN.com fight of the year.

It more than lived up to the considerable hype.

It had everything: high stakes, two-way action, knockdowns, massive momentum swings, blood, heart and copious amounts of drama, all set to the spectacular backdrop of London's Wembley Stadium filled with a British boxing record crowd of 90,000, making for an incredible big-fight atmosphere.

The first four rounds were good, but the fight took off in the fifth round when Joshua put his punches together for a knockdown early on and cut Klitschko over the left eye. Klitschko looked about done but mounted a furious comeback unlike any in his career. He went for broke, and, by the time the 2017 ESPN.com round of the year was over, Klitschko was in command and had Joshua in huge trouble and reeling.

Klitschko, 41, continued to work Joshua over in the sixth round and dropped the 27-year-old for the first time in his career with a stiff right hand down the middle.

"If Joshua makes it through [the round], this fight goes from excellent to epic," HBO analyst Max Kellerman exclaimed.

Joshua did survive, and Kellerman was right.

As they traded blows late in the round, HBO commentator Jim Lampley barked, "A heavyweight brawl in London!"

And it wasn't over yet.

Joshua and Klitschko continued to trade bombs in a gripping bout, one that appeared to be slipping away from Joshua, whose early lead was eroding. But in the 11th round, he got his mojo back. He ripped Klitschko with a brutal right uppercut that led to a knockdown, then dropped him again with another onslaught moments later before stopping him.

Klitschko, who had been disrespected by so many over the years for his sometimes clinical and boring fights, erased all of that with his grand performance as he showed the heart of a lion to continue fighting with abandon. But young Joshua was also fighting hard and finally cornered Klitschko. As he was unloading punches referee, David Field stepped in at 2 minutes, 25 seconds.

"That was a great heavyweight championship fight," Kellerman roared as the fight was halted.

Lampley responded: "Spectacular fight. The best fight at the summit of the heavyweight division in as long as we can remember, maybe since Lennox Lewis vs. older brother Vitali Klitschko [in 2003]."

The fight elevated Joshua and Wladimir Klitschko as they had their mettle tested like never before, and fans got a heavyweight title fight for the ages.

Other unforgettable fights of 2017:

2. Srisaket Sor Rungvisai W12 Roman "Chocolatito" Gonzalez I (March 18 at Madison Square Garden, New York): Gonzalez came into the fight as the undefeated junior bantamweight world champion and the pound-for-pound king, but left the ring having lost the belt, the perfect record and his perch as the best in the business after a massive upset as Sor Rungvisai got a controversial majority decision in an intense, bloody, grinding slugfest not for the faint of heart.

Perhaps it was a bad decision, but it was a truly great fight. They waged 12 rounds of relentless combat, spending the fight, as HBO's Kellerman said, "Trying to punch holes through each other."

On paper it had all the makings of a special fight, and Kellerman knew it, saying moments before the opening bell, "This should be brutal for as long as it lasts." Truer words were never spoken. Gonzalez suffered a first-round knockdown on a body shot and then the slugfest broke out. "They're trading punches back and forth. Looks like it's going to evolve into a full-scale slugfest as they stand toe to toe and fire away," HBO's Lampley explained late in the second round. Gonzalez fought much of the fight with blood pouring from a cut over his right eye caused by an accidental head-butt in the third round. Another butt cost Sor Rungvisai a point in the seventh round. But they continued to hammer each other, ultimately combining to land 725 of 1,953 punches.

3. Gennady Golovkin D12 Canelo Alvarez (Sept. 16 at T-Mobile Arena, Las Vegas): Too often heavily anticipated fights don't live up to the hype, but unified middleweight champion Golovkin and former champ Alvarez both insisted that they wanted to put on a great show, and they did not let us down. They waged a ferocious fight, although GGG appeared to clearly win only to have the result marred by highly controversial scorecards from Adalaide Byrd and Don Trella. Nonetheless, there's no denying it was a punishing battle between two of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the world.

Moments before it began, Kellerman said what we were all thinking: "Everyone is expecting a violent classic. Will GGG and Canelo author the latest chapter in the glorious history of the middleweight championship of the world?"

Thankfully, they did, delivering on their promise of extreme combat. Golovkin stalked Alvarez relentlessly through the middle rounds and looked as if he might have him in trouble only to have Alvarez make a late rally. They covered themselves in glory, displaying skills, power, chins and hearts. They gave us what we wanted in a thrilling fight that likely will lead to a May rematch. As the final bell rang, Lampley exclaimed, "The crowd is going berserk! They love the action they saw!" We all did.

4. James DeGale D12 Badou Jack (Jan. 14 at Barclays Center, New York): The super middleweight unification bout in Brooklyn was one of the best fights in the 33-year history of the division as DeGale, who had two teeth punched out, and Jack produced a hellacious brawl in the first major fight of 2017. Both have skills, but they largely dispensed with them in a back-and-forth war in which both had to dig deep and show heart. Jack got dropped in the first round; DeGale was down and nearly stopped in the 12th round; and they battled hard on basically even terms in between. It was a legitimately close fight with a draw being hard to argue against. Even referee Arthur Mercante got involved in the action when he nearly got knocked down by a Jack left hand at the end of the fifth round. High drama and great action between the two best in the division. Can't ask for more than that.

5. Dominic Breazeale KO5 Izuagbe Ugonoh (Feb. 25 at Legacy Arena, Birmingham, Alabama): In an unexpectedly wild rock 'em, sock 'em heavyweight brawl, former title challenger Breazeale and then-unbeaten Ugonoh, in his first real test, went at it in a fight that featured four knockdowns and tremendous action and drama. They both had huge moments and showed courage.

Ugonoh nearly had Breazeale out in the third round before Breazeale turned the tables and dropped him with a right hand in a round of the year contender. In the fourth round, Ugonoh dropped a fading and busted-up Breazeale, only to have Breazeale rally for two knockdowns in the fifth round, including the final one that sent Ugonoh between the ropes and onto the ring apron in dramatic fashion. This was about as exciting as it gets for heavyweight boxing.

When it was over, Breazeale leaned over the ring ropes and shouted to press row: "You gotta have heart!" They both did.

6. Oscar Valdez W12 Genesis Servania (Sept. 22 at Tucson Convention Center, Tucson, Arizona.): Featherweight titleholder Valdez returned the city where he spent several years of his childhood and had his hands full with Servania, who was a big underdog but fought him tooth and nail in a very competitive and action-packed ESPN main event. It was an all-out slugfest in which Servania dropped a wide open Valdez in the fourth round with a right hand, and then went down when Valdez ripped him with an overhand left in the fifth round. They traded back and forth and put a bow on this rumble with a sensational 12th round, a round of the year candidate. As the final seconds ticked away, ESPN announcer Joe Tessitore was enthralled. "Ohhh, that's good stuff! How 'bout it! Valdez, Servania - they traded knockdowns and they take it to the limit."

7. Jarrett Hurd TKO10 Austin Trout (Oct. 14 at Barclays Center, Brooklyn): For his first junior middleweight title defense Hurd didn't opt for a soft touch. He gave a shot to battle-tested former titlist Trout, and they put on a tremendous show in which Trout's heart was on full display in a toe-to-toe slugfest. Younger, stronger Hurd won in the end when the fight was stopped by Trout's trainer, Louie Burke, because Trout had taken tremendous punishment. But Trout did win some early rounds and got in his share of punches.

Hurd, who suffered a cut over his left eye in the seventh round, walked through everything while Trout showed enormous courage throughout the barnburner to stay on his feet and give it everything he possibly could. He just could not withstand Hurd's withering pressure.

8. John Molina Jr. KO4 Ivan Redkach (Dec. 15 at Pioneer Event Center, Lancaster, California): As soon as this junior welterweight Premier Boxing Champions bout was signed, it figured to provide fireworks. It did just that as these two turned in an exciting shootout that saw both hit the deck in a back-and-forth battle.

Molina was in trouble when Redkach battered him in the second round and dropped him hard with a left hand. But Molina bounced back in the third round -- the toe-to-toe round of the year contender -- to land a huge right hand and knock Redkach down. They continued to trade wildly in the fourth round until Molina nailed Redkach with a sharp right hand to the head that hurt him. Molina then unloaded a series of punches and sent Redkach to the mat face first to conclude the bout.

9. Gilberto "Zurdo" Ramirez W12 Jesse Hart (Sept. 22 at Tucson Convention Center, Tucson): In a hard-hitting fight, Ramirez retained his super middleweight world title against a very game Hart, who showed enormous heart to survive a second-round knockdown and punishment for the rest of the round. Ramirez battered Hart during the fight, but Hart would not give in. He willed himself back into the thoroughly exciting fight that featured many exchanges and powerful punches. As much punishment as Hart took, he closed strong, going for a knockout because it was his only chance to win.

10. Ivan Baranchyk W10 Abel Ramos (Feb. 10 at Buffalo Run Casino, Miami, Oklahoma): In one of the most exciting fights in the 16-year history of Showtime's "ShoBox: The New Generation," Baranchyk and Ramos put on a fantastic slugfest. It went from interesting to thrilling in the third round when both got knocked down. Ramos was dominating the round when Baranchyk clobbered him with a right hand to knock him down. But seconds before the bell ended the round, Ramos dropped Baranchyk with a left hand.

In the toe-to-toe fourth round, Baranchyk appeared hurt from a series of body blows before dropping Ramos again with a left hook. The sixth round was another round of pure action as they smashed each other around the ring. The action rarely relented.

More slobber knockers: Miguel Roman TKO9 Orlando Salido, David Benavidez W12 Ronald Gavril, Takashi Miura KO12 Miguel Roman, Immanuwel Aleem TKO6 Ievgen Khytrov, Juan Francisco Estrada W12 Carlos Cuadras, Gennady Golovkin W12 Daniel Jacobs, Leo Santa Cruz W12 Carl Frampton II, Yuandale Evans W10 Luis Rosa.