Anthony Joshua returned to ruthless form by dispatching Kubrat Pulev in nine rounds in London on Saturday to set up the prospect of facing Tyson Fury in 2021.
The WBA, IBF and WBO world heavyweight champion retained his titles by turning on the power switch to drop Pulev twice in the ninth round. It was Joshua's first knockout win since his previous performance on home soil, in September 2018.
Pulev crumbled to the canvas under a barrage of right uppercuts and was then finished by a straight right hand.
Floyd Mayweather Jr., the retired former pound-for-pound boxing No. 1, had made the trip from the United States to be among 1,000 present at the SSE Arena and was the first to congratulate Joshua at ringside.
Since halting Alexander Povetkin two years ago, the English boxer lost his titles via a shock knockout to American Andy Ruiz Jr. before regaining them on points a year ago. This was a much more explosive performance from Joshua than the Ruiz rematch, as Joshua floored tough Pulev twice in Round 3 and twice in Round 9 in front of the first crowd at a professional boxing event in the U.K. since March.
A second defense in his second reign as world heavyweight clears the way for Joshua to fight either rival world heavyweight champion Fury, his fellow Englishman, or Ukrainian Oleksandr Usyk first in 2021.
Fury, regarded as the world No. 1 heavyweight by ESPN after stopping Deontay Wilder for the WBC title in February, would be the preferred choice, but because of mandatory defense obligations, former undisputed world cruiserweight champion Usyk might be the first person in the opposing corner to Joshua in 2021.
"It's not about the opponent -- it's about who has got the belt, and if that's Tyson Fury, let it be Tyson Fury," Joshua said. "It's one fight at a time, picking them off one by one."
Matchroom promoter Eddie Hearn said he wants Fury to be Joshua's next opponent in 2021, despite the obstacles, including legal action Wilder has brought to enforce a third fight with Fury.
"Let's make the Tyson Fury fight straightaway; it's the biggest fight in boxing," Hearn said. "Let's talk more action. It's about legacy and we will get it done."
Fury does not have a fight booked at this time, and Top Rank promoter Bob Arum tweeted his intentions to make this fight after Joshua's win.
"It looks like the stage is set for the biggest Heavyweight championship fight since Ali-Frazier in 1971, when @Tyson_Fury meets @anthonyfjoshua for the undisputed crown," Arum wrote. "We at Top Rank will start on Monday working to put that fight together."
Fury also had a message for Joshua on social media, which will only increase speculation the fight will be made for Joshua's next fight.
Joshua (24-1, 22 KOs), 31, told ESPN he has worked on his stamina after his clash with Pulev was delayed from taking place at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, in north London, in June because of the coronavirus pandemic.
But so, too, had Pulev (28-2, 14 KOs), 39, judging by how he looked. The Bulgarian weighed slightly less than Joshua's 240 pounds, lighter than when he challenged Wladimir Klitschko for the same world title belts six years ago, and that conditioning enable Pulev to get up from two knockdowns in the third round.
After a heated weigh-in, both started cagey behind their jab, and it was difficult to decide who won the opener. But Joshua exploded into action in the third round and dropped Pulev twice.
The champion opened his attack with a right to the temple and Pulev never recovered, turning his back before being given a count. Pulev was sent tumbling back again for another count later in the third after taking a right uppercut. After surviving a third-round crisis, Pulev showed great resilience again in the fifth after taking a straight right hand and responding with his own shots.
But Joshua dominated this fight, even if he was less aggressive and explosive than he was in the third round until the ninth-round finish. Joshua leaned on his jab and movement, staying out of danger while setting up openings for combinations. The end was savage.
"Boxing is about less talk and more action, and I hope everyone was satisfied," Joshua said. "For me, I stuck to what I know best where I'm going to put shots."
Joshua finished Pulev with a classic one-two in the ninth round, after dropping Pulev earlier in the round with a series of right uppercuts. It was a great finish, which surely restores some confidence in Joshua after the Ruiz defeat in June 2019.