Anthony Joshua wins! AJ returns with ninth round KO of Kubrat Pulev with eyes now on Tyson Fury

And on he goes, smashing his way past the Bulgarian named after a warlord and upwards towards that royal appointment with the king of the gypsies.

It took a while, through nine thrilling rounds, but with one final right hand, Kubrat Pulev was violently proven to be no equal to Anthony Joshua; the stepping stone no match for a boulder who rolls on to fight a mountain.

What a showdown that will be with Tyson Fury in 2021, and what a finish this was, just like the ones we used to know.

Anthony Joshua has moved a step closer to a heavyweight unification bout with Tyson Fury after defeating Kubrat Pulev

Joshua returned to the ring for the first time in over a year to take on IBF mandatory challenger Pulev in front of 1,000 fans

The 31-year-old had the wily veteran under pressure having knocked him down in a thrilling third round at Wembley Arena

The 31-year-old had the wily veteran under pressure having knocked him down in a thrilling third round at Wembley Arena

The 31-year-old had the wily veteran under pressure having knocked him down in a thrilling third round at Wembley Arena

Pulev incredibly turned his back on Joshua while receiving a barrage of punches before being given a standing count

Pulev incredibly turned his back on Joshua while receiving a barrage of punches before being given a standing count

Pulev incredibly turned his back on Joshua while receiving a barrage of punches before being given a standing count

It was brutal, it was spectacular and it was also the sort of statement that will perhaps inspire second thoughts in those who believe the proposed clash for the undisputed heavyweight championship next year will go the way of that giant from the north.

Defensively, Joshua was not wobbled until the seventh; on the front foot, he was a monster. The referee was forced to count Pulev to eight after the Bulgarian was sent spinning into the corner in the third, and within the same session he dropped him hard with an uppercut. But what a tough man Pulev is.

At times, he manically laughed in the midst of thundering assaults, but having worked his way his way back into the fight, he was felled twice in the ninth, first by a succession of floor-to-ceiling uppercuts, and then by a left-right combination. With Pulev bleeding from his nose, mouth and behind the ear, he didn’t beat the count one last time, and that was it.

His second challenge for the world title ended in a second career defeat; in Joshua’s first fight since out-pointing Andy Ruiz in a performance of boring necessity, he offered a quite superb reminder of how his circus ever grew so big.

However, the Bulgarian displayed his durability and Joshua was required to stay patient and wait for his moment to strike

However, the Bulgarian displayed his durability and Joshua was required to stay patient and wait for his moment to strike

However, the Bulgarian displayed his durability and Joshua was required to stay patient and wait for his moment to strike

The 39-year-old lets out a scream after displaying incredible durability following the blitz he faced in the third round

Granted, it was Pulev, an old warrior but also 7-1 outsider, so sharp perspective is urged. And yet it was hard to find much fault in the way Joshua took apart his mandatory challenger. It was a promising blend of his old aggression and a newer level of patience from the 31-year-old.

When it was done, he climbed the ropes and screamed. Briefly, Pulev refused to embrace him, but in time that 39-year-old nutter relented. They then roared in each other’s faces and hugged – a weird and wonderful sport, boxing.

Of course, the context of all this was the bigger picture. The Fury picture. The picture we all want to see. And on that, Joshua was not nearly so forthcoming.

‘It’s not about the opponent, it’s about the legacy of the belt,’ he said, holding his straps for the IBF, WBA, WBO and IBO titles. ‘If that is Tyson Fury next, let it be Tyson Fury. It’s no big deal.’

AJ got behind the jab and found a home for the right uppercut, landing with success throughout before Pulev succumbed

AJ got behind the jab and found a home for the right uppercut, landing with success throughout before Pulev succumbed

AJ got behind the jab and found a home for the right uppercut, landing with success throughout before Pulev succumbed

Pulev bounced up from the first knockdown in the 9th before AJ followed up with a huge one-two that ended the contest

Pulev bounced up from the first knockdown in the 9th before AJ followed up with a huge one-two that ended the contest

Pulev bounced up from the first knockdown in the 9th before AJ followed up with a huge one-two that ended the contest

Eddie Hearn, his promoter, was more bullish. Indeed, if he is to be believed a good chunk of the negotiations have been wrapped up on a fight worth a barely believable £100m to each man.

Hearn said: ‘Starting from tomorrow we make the Tyson Fury fight happen. It’s the only fight in boxing, it’s the biggest fight in British boxing history. He will knock him out. He is the best heavyweight in the world.’

What a night that will be, albeit the likelihood is the first of a planned double-header fights will be in the far removed lands of Saudi Arabia.

This one didn’t get going until 10.52pm when the fighters were finally left alone together in the ring. By then, the crowd of 1,000 had incrementally climbed from a slumber to a memory-stirring roar through the undercard. Lawrence Okolie blitzed Nikodem Jezewski in two, Hughie Fury was badly cut in getting a unanimous points win over Mariusz Wach, and Jamie Stewart, a recovered drug addict, snatched a controversial draw against Florian Marku. But, really, there was only a single fight in town, at an arena where 40 years earlier Britain’s Alan Minter had lost his world middleweight title to Marvin Hagler.

That was a wild one, they say, and it was rounded off with a riot. This was a rather different kind of riot, especially in relation to what Joshua is used to. You would have to spool back to the months before those golden Olympics of 2012, and a hall in Debrecen, Hungary, to find the last time he fought in front of a smaller gathering.

Joshua celebrates after landing a huge victory to set up a mouthwatering 2021 among the heavyweight division

Joshua celebrates after landing a huge victory to set up a mouthwatering 2021 among the heavyweight division

Joshua celebrates after landing a huge victory to set up a mouthwatering 2021 among the heavyweight division

Joshua and Pulev show mutual respect after the fight, with emotions high between the pair in the lead up to the bout

The champion thanked the 1,000-strong crowd but refused to be drawn into calling out WBC champion Tyson Fury

The champion thanked the 1,000-strong crowd but refused to be drawn into calling out WBC champion Tyson Fury

The champion thanked the 1,000-strong crowd but refused to be drawn into calling out WBC champion Tyson Fury

The IBF, WBA, WBO and WBA champion salutes the crowd after making a triumphant return to the ring after over a year out

The IBF, WBA, WBO and WBA champion salutes the crowd after making a triumphant return to the ring after over a year out

The IBF, WBA, WBO and WBA champion salutes the crowd after making a triumphant return to the ring after over a year out

Here, the mystery was how he would adapt. Equally, there was intrigue over whether Pulev had unsettled him – the tetchy exchanges at Friday’s weigh-in suggested he had – and a further question of how Joshua might fight.

Would he resemble the pragmatist who out-jabbed Ruiz in their rematch, and therefore take the safer road to Fury, or would he be the ‘killer’ and ‘psychopath’ he alluded to in his final press session? Most predictions swung towards the latter; most felt he needed to, with a big win necessary in response to how Fury demolished Deontay Wilder in February.

How it delivered. And yet the first round offered nothing – no clues, no punches. The second was marginally better, culminating in an aggressive stand-off at the bell, before we then entered the third. That crazy, crazy third.

A smattering of spectators were inside Wembley Arena to see Joshua defend his titles for the first time since reclaiming them

A smattering of spectators were inside Wembley Arena to see Joshua defend his titles for the first time since reclaiming them

A smattering of spectators were inside Wembley Arena to see Joshua defend his titles for the first time since reclaiming them

Despite the considerable shortage of fans that he is usually accustomed to, AJ made a spectacular entrance into the ring 

Pay per view king Floyd Mayweather was in attendance to support his friend Joshua in London on Saturday evening

Pay per view king Floyd Mayweather was in attendance to support his friend Joshua in London on Saturday evening

Pay per view king Floyd Mayweather was in attendance to support his friend Joshua in London on Saturday evening

Joshua came out swinging and with a massive right hand spun Pulev’s head through 90 degrees on his neck. He landed big as he went in for the kill and, incredibly, Pulev turned to the crowd and laughed. Joshua stormed forward with two big hits and when Pulev turned his back on the fight, the referee generously gave him an eight-count instead of waving it off. At that point, bedlam fell on ringside as Pulev’s brother, Tervel, tried to hurdle a cordon to get to his brother.

Joshua then dropped Pulev again, this time with a right uppercut, but with blood coming from behind the Bulgarian’s right ear, he made it to the bell.

Pulev lost each of the first six rounds, while also somehow escaping punishment for frequent rabbit punches, but he steadied himself in the seventh and eighth before the thrilling end in the ninth. Three successive uppercuts hurt the Bulgarian and two more dropped him, but up he got.

A left-right immediately upon the resumption finished it. A stunning way to end, and a wonderful way to the start the countdown to the one that really matters.

Re-live the round-by-round action of Anthony Joshua’s win over Kubrat Pulev, brought to you by Sportsmail’s OLLIE LEWIS 

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