There is no joie de vivre in it Anthony Joshua, and hasn’t for a long time. Even before he won a super heavyweight gold medal at the 2012 Olympics at home in London, the pressure and expectations were immense on his broad shoulders. He was anointed to succeed Lennox Lewis as the next great British heavyweight before ever throwing a punch for pay.
Joshua didn’t start boxing until 2007, but it wasn’t long before he was being dubbed “the guy” who would become the next British superstar. As a child, he was a great athlete, breaking a freshman record in the 100 meters for his high school. In terms of sport, there was little he couldn’t do at a high level.
His decision to focus on boxing quickly bore fruit. He won a version of the heavyweight title in his 16th pro fight and unified two of the four major belts in his 19th when he stopped the legendary Wladimir Klitschko in the 11th round of a boisterous slugfest.
He is immeasurably rich – he was reportedly guaranteed over $72 million for Saturday’s unified heavyweight title rematch against the champ Oleksandr Usyk in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia – and remains an idol for millions.
But as his date with Destiny draws near, Joshua has retreated inside, protected by his promoter Eddie Hearn, largely kept away from the media asking the tough questions, like, for the second time in just over two years last September dropped his title as a big favourite.
Usyk is a brilliant fighter himself and it could be argued that he is now pound for pound the best active fighter in the world. He won the heavyweight gold medal in London at the same Olympics where Joshua won the super heavyweight gold.
He then became the undisputed cruiserweight champion and moved up to heavyweight and captured the heavyweight title by defeating Joshua.
It is telling, however, that Usyk didn’t look good in either of his two heavyweight bouts against Chazz Witherspoon and Derek Chisora before defeating Joshua on September 25 to win the IBF, WBA and WBO belts.
When he wants, Joshua is an engaging, intelligent, and charming man who doesn’t need to be shielded from nosy reporters. He is quite capable of dealing with himself and creating a positive image in public.
He’s under attack from all sides, but that often happens when you’re at the top of whatever sport or profession. His potential rival, WBC heavyweight champion Tyson Fury, berated him during an appearance on ESPN in February.
“I think he’s a useless old bastard, Anthony Joshua,” Fury said when boxing reporter Max Kellerman asked Fury for his opinion on Joshua. “He was given the gold medal in London. He blindly robbed the Cuban in the first fight, so he shouldn’t even have gotten a medal. And as soon as he went up a step, he got a chin.
“He tried to go to America, where the real fighting is, and was completely obliterated by a fat boy in two weeks. Do I think he’s a great fighter? Hell no I don’t think he’s a great fighter. I think he’s a useless bum.”
He’s clearly a talent, although he’s nowhere near the complete fighter that Lewis was in his day. Lewis lost twice, but he took revenge on both losses and eventually became hands down the best heavyweight in the world. Along the way he defeated Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield and Vitali Klitschko, guys who could each have their own wing in the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
Joshua’s best win was his TKO of an aging Klitschko. He’s had other solid victories over the likes of Dillian Whyte, Joseph Parker and Ruiz in a rematch, but aside from his win over a 41-year-old Klitschko in the final fight of a wonderful career, Joshua has never won a fight quite like it has been in the Close to 50-50 or where he was the underdog.
He can do that against Usyk on Saturday, who is a 2-1 favorite and has surprising support from the boxing community.
Usyk was relaxed and cheerful in most of his public appearances. Almost everywhere he’s gone this week he’s carried a stuffed animal of the Winnie the Pooh character Eeyore, a toy his daughter wanted him to take as a talisman.
After Wednesday’s press conference in Jeddah, Usyk got up and sang a Ukrainian song before exiting the stage.
In contrast, Joshua sat stony-faced and said little, even as Hearn handed him simple questions.
It’s never good to make too much of a fighter’s facial expression at a press conference, but that’s been Joshua’s public face for far too long.
He’s capable of winning this fight, but he needs to be unleashed and fight free. He needs to be himself and have fun and not worry about pleasing anyone else or meeting expectations.
He always tried to do things to make someone else happy.
Now is the time and Jeddah is the place for Joshua to go out and compete with the goal of making himself happy.
If so, perhaps those belts will be back on the plane with him on a triumphant return to London. If not, he has a lot to think about about his future in this most brutal of sports.