Anthony Joshua survived a storm and refilled the tank to earn Round 11 stoppage
Joshua led on two of the judges’ scorecards when Klitschko was stopped
Both enjoyed success but showed weaknesses as Ukrainian fell in the fifth round
Challenger responded ferociously and floored Joshua with big right in the sixth
The old champion sagged on the ropes, suddenly looking as grey as the shorts he was wearing, his eyes wild with surprise that somehow this was happening to him after the fight he had fought and the courage he had shown and the wiles he had exerted to bring himself so close to the victory he craved.
They had said Father Time would catch up with Wladimir Klitschko in front of 90,000 fans at Wembley on Saturday night but it was not Father Time that got him in what turned into the heavyweight fight of this century. It was not his 41 years. It was Anthony Joshua.
It was Joshua who staged one of the most dramatic comebacks ever seen in a British ring. It was Joshua who came back when Klitschko thought he was out.
It was Joshua who showed the heart of a champion. It was Joshua who made his claim for greatness in a fighting epic that no one who saw it will ever forget.
With the fight in the balance going into the 11th round after being felled by a vicious right hook in the sixth that most would not have survived, Joshua came out swinging like a dervish, summoning everything that he had left and catching Klitschko with a savage right upper cut. The punch landed with such power that it threw Klitschko’s head back in a grotesque arc and left him staggering around the ring.
Joshua knew this was his moment and he put Klitschko down. Somehow the Ukrainian, who ruled the heavyweight division for a decade, got up but Joshua did not relent.
He knocked him down again with a clubbing left hook and, once again, the old man staggered to his feet. He knew how close he was to winning the world heavyweight title for a third time and joining the greats of the game, but Joshua was about to destroy his dream.
The Briton swarmed over him again and this time American referee David Fields refused to let the fight continue. He put one arm around Klitschko as he sagged on those ropes and waved his other hand in the air to signal that the fight was over.
Joshua did not celebrate wildly. He walked calmly to a neutral corner and waited for the mayhem of celebration to engulf him.
Analysts were claiming Joshua as a special fighter before this clash but this was the moment he proved it. This was a battle for the ages, where young met old and future met past and Joshua gave everything to prevail. He may have become world champion a year ago when he beat Charles Martin to claim the IBF version of the heavyweight crown but this was the real deal.
Joshua has been travelling until now but on Saturday night he arrived. He brought down the curtain on an old era and ushered in a new one. The next decade belongs to him. He holds the WBA and IBO belts as well now and before he left the ring he had called out Tyson Fury, who has been baiting him on social media and is threatening to make a comeback. A unification fight with WBC champion Deontay Wilder is another possibility.
‘I’m not perfect but I’m trying,’ said Joshua in the ring after the fight. ‘If you don’t take part, you are going to fail. Klitschko is a role model in and out of the ring and I have got nothing but respect for anyone who steps in the ring. I am a little bit emotional because I know I have got doubters but I dug deep.
‘I am only going to improve. Sometimes you can be a phenomenal boxer. When you go to the trenches, that is when you find out who you really are. I came out and I won. That is how far I had to dig.’
This was about more than just a fight. It was about the search for a heavyweight to walk in the footsteps of the legends, a search which has been the sub-text of every heavyweight contest since Mike Tyson lost to Buster Douglas in Tokyo in 1990 and the division began to fall into disrepair and disrepute.
Perhaps that is unfair on great fighters like Lennox Lewis, Riddick Bowe and Klitschko and his older brother, Vitali. They were dominant fighters but never quite had the charisma or the dynamism to restore the division to its former glories. This was the night when the sporting world waited to see whether Joshua could change that.
Klitschko represented the gateway to greatness for the English fighter. Stride through it and green fields would stretch out on the other side, a land of superstardom and riches that were once beyond his wildest dreams.
There was a time in his youth when Joshua used to travel to Wembley on the Metropolitan line from his home in Watford because there was a Sunday market there. He liked shopping for belts, believe it or not. On Saturday night, he was shopping for them again.
He has acquired titles and trinkets already in his starburst career but this was for the big prize, the one that mattered. At 27, this was the one that had the potential to move him from one of the world’s best young fighters into the boxing stratosphere.
Klitschko, who had come to the ring accompanied by the sound of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers singing Can’t Stop, had made it clear in the days before the fight that he saw this as the contest that would secure his legacy.
Both men were watchful in the first round but Klitschko caught his opponent with a solid right hook at the start of the second. Joshua boxed as he had said he would, patiently and methodically, searching for the opening, respecting his opponent. He tried to unleash flurries of punches in the third round and even though Klitschko managed to slip them, Joshua was dictating the pace and dominating the fight. Klitschko connected with another right at the start of the fourth but Joshua recovered quickly to re-establish control.
Then the fight exploded. Joshua came out swinging at the start of the fifth round and Klitschko had no answer as the blows rained down on him.
Eventually he fell to the canvas and as Joshua swarmed him, Klitschko was cut above the left eye. It seemed the fight was all but over. But Klitschko responded with a big upper cut and suddenly Joshua staggered.
By the end of the fifth, it was Joshua who was hanging on and in the sixth, Klitschko slammed a huge straight right through Joshua’s defences to put him on the canvas for the first time in his professional career.
It was such a clean punch many thought Joshua would not get up but somehow he managed it.
Klitschko suddenly looked like a man going about his business, getting a job done, knowing that he had Joshua where he wanted him, knowing he had drawn his sting. More than that, knowing that he had scared him.
Joshua briefly looked spent, having never been beyond the seventh round before, but he rallied impressively. And then came the 11th round and the finish that may define his entire career.