So fixated is Anthony Joshua on avenging his defeat to Oleksandr Usyk, he is even blanking his own promoter. Eddie Hearn imagined he might lift his fighter’s mood when he informed him he would be competing for The Ring Magazine’s heavyweight title, after Tyson Fury’s vacation of the belt. But Joshua, with his entire body of work at stake here beside the Red Sea on Saturday night, could scarcely have been less impressed.
“I am not bothered, to be honest – I just want to win,” he said. “Eddie rang me and messaged me about it, and I didn’t even reply. I am not interested in The Ring Magazine belt. That’s where my mind is at. This is just about the fight.” “It’s because he’s a competitor,” said Hearn, at his side as ever. “It’s not about what comes with it. It is about beating the individual who has just beaten him.”
For Joshua, this rematch with Usyk, to whom he lost last September in a ragged, complacent display, is a binary equation. Win, and he will be propelled back towards the adulation that heralded his night of nights against Wladimir Klitschko in 2017. Lose, and he threatens to be discarded as one of boxing’s not-quite-greats, with a third professional defeat cementing his status as a colossal puncher with a glass chin.
When he confronts the visibly bulked-up Ukrainian for a second time, it will be a decade, almost to the day, since he grasped Olympic gold at London 2012. In those 10 years, he has delivered some of the most memorable evenings in British sport, selling out Wembley Stadium twice while earning an estimated £100 million before sponsorship. He does not deserve to be airbrushed from the country’s pantheon of heavyweights. And yet he recognises how profoundly another schooling by Usyk could affect how he is remembered.
The losses, he insists, are what shape him. “It’s not so much what I’ve achieved in the sport, it’s the time,” Joshua reflected, on the 10th anniversary of his gold-medal bout. “Back then I was coming up for 23, buzzing. Now I’m going to be 33. What would I tell my younger self? I’ve got a lot of experience I can pass on. I would definitely tell him to train hard. I’ve trained harder for this camp than I’ve ever done before. That has come from losing.
“In the times when I was winning, what I was doing was enough. I can’t say I would have changed much else. Maybe I would have had other fights – perhaps the Fury fight, the Deontay Wilder fight, but they didn’t happen. Everything has been relevant for the moment. But now, looking back on everything, I would pass on the knowledge I’ve gained to younger, up-and-coming fighters.”
'If Usyk beats him I reckon he will walk away'
If Joshua sounds nostalgic, it is because he realises he could soon run out of road. Invoking the rematch clause with Usyk is fraught with risk, given that a loss would relegate him to the second tier of heavyweights, a chastening prospect for a boxer who enjoyed an almost seamless ascent to the summit.
“It’s not in his DNA to want to be hanging around the heavyweight division, knowing there’s a guy in that division who can beat you,” argued Johnny Nelson, the former world cruiserweight champion. “It’s a fighter’s mentality. You always think, ‘I’m going to be a world champion.’ He doesn’t want to hang about, he wants to be the best. If Usyk beats him, I reckon he will walk away. It’s not in his nature to stand back and be a gatekeeper.”
A key element of Joshua’s preparation has been to readjust his fighting stance to face Usyk, an awkward southpaw. “I swear that if Oleksandr wasn’t a lefty, I would have smoked him, 100 per cent,” he said, having been on the wrong end of a unanimous decision 11 months ago. By all accounts, the switch has worked, with Joshua understood to have knocked down several sparring partners at his training camp. Not that he would claim to hold a psychological advantage just yet. “All that stuff is irrelevant,” he said. “It’s about Saturday now.”
It will be close to 1am local time when Joshua steps out for this defining duel. The fight is being staged indoors, at Jeddah’s King Abdullah Sports City, to avoid the saturating humidity of Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea coast in August. Physically, he looks in the condition of his life. But the mental fault-lines can run deep for those in Joshua’s position. The worry is that, confronted by his conqueror Usyk, he will be overwhelmed not so much by the magnitude of the task as by the potential cost of failure.