There’s no joie de vivre in Anthony Joshua, and hasn’t been for a long time. Even before he won a gold medal at super heavyweight in the 2012 Olympics at home in London, the pressure and the expectations on his broad shoulders were immense. He was named the successor to Lennox Lewis as the next great British heavyweight before he’d ever thrown a punch for pay.
Joshua only took up boxing in 2007, but it wasn’t long before he was tagged as “the guy” who would be the next British superstar. He was a great athlete as a kid and broke a freshman record in the 100 meters for his high school. Athletically, there was little he couldn’t do at a high level.
His decision to concentrate on boxing bore fruit quickly. 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 rolling slugfest.
He’s rich beyond measure — reports are that he’s been guaranteed upward of $72 million for Saturday’s rematch for the unified heavyweight title against champion Oleksandr Usyk in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia — and remains an idol to millions.
But as his date with destiny nears closer, Joshua has drawn inward, protected by his promoter Eddie Hearn, kept largely from the media that asks the hard questions like how, for the second time in a little over two years last September he dropped his titles as a huge favourite.
Usyk is a brilliant fighter himself and a case could be made that he’s the pound-for-pound best active fighter in the world now. He won the heavyweight gold medal in London at the same Olympic Games where Joshua earned the super heavyweight gold.
He then became the undisputed cruiserweight champion and moved up to heavyweight and captured the heavyweight title by beating Joshua.
It’s significant, though, that Usyk didn’t look great in either of his two heavyweight bouts, against Chazz Witherspoon and Derek Chisora, before he defeated Joshua on Sept. 25 to win the IBF, WBA and WBO belts.
When he wants to be, Joshua is an engaging, intelligent and charming man who doesn’t need to be protected from nosy reporters. He’s quite capable of handling himself and creating a positive public image.
He’s come under attack from all sides, but that’s often what happens when one is at the top, regardless of the sport or profession. His would-be rival, WBC heavyweight champion Tyson Fury, lambasted him during an appearance on ESPN in February.
“I think he’s a useless old dosser, Anthony Joshua,” Fury said when boxing reporter Max Kellerman asked Fury his opinion of Joshua. “He got gifted the gold medal in London. He robbed the Cuban blind in the first fight, so he shouldn’t have even gotten a medal. And as soon as he stepped up a level, he got chinned.
“He tried to go over to America, where the real fights are, and he got absolutely obliterated by a fat kid on two weeks’ notice. 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 even though he’s nowhere near the complete fighter that Lewis was in his day. Lewis lost twice, but he avenged both defeats and eventually became unquestionably the best heavyweight in the world. Along the way, I have defeated Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield and Vitali Klitschko, guys who could each have their own wing at the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
Joshua’s best win was his TKO of an aging Klitschko. He’s got other solid wins over the likes of Dillian Whyte, Joseph Parker and Ruiz in a rematch, but other than his win over a 41-year-old Klitschko in the final fight of a marvelous career, Joshua has never won a fight that was close to 50-50 or where he was the underdog.
He can do that on Saturday against Usyk, who is a 2-1 favorite and getting surprising support from within the boxing community.
Usyk has been relaxed and jovial in most of his public appearances. He’s carried a stuffed animal of the Winnie the Pooh character Eeyore with him most everywhere he’s gone this week, a toy his daughter asked him to take as a talisman.
After Wednesday’s news conference in Jeddah, Usyk stood up and sang a Ukrainian song before exiting the stage.
Joshua, by contrast, sat stone-faced and said little, even as Hearn hand-fed him simple questions.
It’s never good to make too much of a fighter’s expression at a news conference, but this has been Joshua’s public countenance for far too long.
He’s capable of winning this fight, but he needs to be unshackled and fight freely. He has to be himself and have fun and not worry about pleasing anyone else or living up to expectations.
He’s 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 he does, maybe those belts will be back on the plane with him on a triumphant return to London. If not, he’ll have a lot of thinking to do about his future in this most brutal of sports.