As Anthony Joshua walks to the ring at the 02 in London on Saturday night, to face the relatively limited American Jermaine Franklin, it will be more than two years and three months since he last had his hand raised in victory. In December 2020, on a bleak winter night in the midst of Covid and in front of a sparse crowd of a thousand socially distanced fans, Joshua bludgeoned Kubrat Pulev to earn a ninth-round stoppage win.
Despite lockdown restrictions, Joshua left Wembley Arena on a high as he retained his IBF, WBA and WBO world heavyweight titles. It seemed certain, then, that he would soon fight Tyson Fury, the WBC belt-holder, for the undisputed heavyweight championship of the world.
Boxing politics, however, derailed that wildly lucrative showdown and, instead of facing Fury, Joshua was clearly beaten by the much smaller but far more skilful Oleksandr Usyk in September 2021. In only his third fight as a heavyweight, after he had dominated the cruiserweight division, Usyk’s victory was not really a shock to the boxing hardcore. But it was a sign of the chaos in his corner that Joshua looked initially surprised when the scorecards went against him.
In the rematch in Jeddah, last August, Joshua produced a much improved performance and was ahead on points when he rocked Usyk in the ninth round. But the hugely impressive Ukrainian showed his more natural aptitude for fighting as he outfought Joshua comprehensively in the last three championship rounds to retain his titles.
A distressed and concussed Joshua reacted in uncharacteristic fashion. He threw two of Usyk’s belts out of the ring and stormed away to his dressing room – only to make a sudden U-turn and climb between the ropes again. Just as Usyk should have been celebrating his justified victory, on behalf of Ukraine, Joshua launched into a rambling monologue. It was embarrassing and sad to see a former champion reduced to such incoherence.
Joshua has since shown his more typical decency. He has been as approachable as ever this week, even if his management still try to curb his interviews, but Joshua knows that he cannot afford another defeat on Saturday. There would be no return from a third straight loss, especially against an inferior opponent, and so a little edge has also been evident.
When it was suggested that Franklin might regard this as the best time to face a vulnerable fallen champion, Joshua said: “It is the worst time. The more he talks, the bigger grave he digs for himself.” He quickly slipped back into the smooth old AJ mode: “But I respect my opponent. It is for you to do all the talking and for me to do my job on Saturday.”
Joshua was more contemplative as he considered how his career’s contrasting highs and lows have impacted on him. He has made an astronomical amount of money and his corporate sheen often got in the way of his progress in the ring. The contrast between the moneyed limelight and the grittier need for him to improve as a fighter, who started boxing as an amateur much later than his contemporaries, has always sat at the complicated heart of Joshua’s story.
“Boxing’s helped me develop, but at a rate I wasn’t ready for,” he admitted. “I’ve never been prepared for this pressure or these situations and sacrifices. I’m standing up in front of the Queen, for example, reading a speech at Westminster Abbey that I’ve never really been prepared for. I’ve not come from that walk of life, and the sacrifice is getting up there and presenting yourself to the public. After that gig, I’m going back to the estate with my mates. So you’re opening up yourself to higher expectations.”
Joshua was thoughtful, too, when he said, “I’ve always tried to carry myself, with or without the belts, as just me. Regardless, always just be joyful, love life, because life is more vibrant than any championship belt. I’ve got to look at myself in the mirror, with or without the belts. Losing teaches you to ask yourself questions and disconnect from the noise. I learnt about mind control, self-improvement and that’s how I found myself in Dallas.”
In a quest to rebuild his career, Joshua moved his training base to Texas. This will be his first fight under the stark and abrasive tutelage of Derrick James – who, in Dallas, also trains the great world welterweight champion Errol Spence. In public James is a man of few words, and none of them are flowery, but Joshua said: “When I speak to Derrick, and ask him certain questions, the knowledge he spits is phenomenal. I appreciate the fact he took me on and I am looking forward to showing him he hasn’t wasted his time.”
In moving to Dallas, Joshua said: “I thought: ‘How can I get better? Where should I go? Who shall I contact? How am I going to set up the next phase of my career? Do I want to go on the same trajectory or take it up a notch?’ Asking myself all these questions is how I found myself in Texas. What I found through failure – even if it’s not failure because I got to a certain level but plateaued there – is that if I want to achieve again I’ve got to go to another level. I found out that what I thought was good enough, wasn’t.”
Franklin, who lost for the first time in his 22-fight career when he was outpointed by Dillian Whyte in London last November, did not look this week as if he really believed he is good enough to shock Joshua. But the American roused himself to say: “If I can put him on his ass then that’s what I’m going to try to do. I come from a place [Saginaw in Michigan] with not a lot of possibilities, and I made it this far, so anything is possible.”
Joshua’s future in boxing will be defined if or when he faces either Fury or Deontay Wilder later this year. But first, at home again, he expects a decisive victory against Franklin to get him back on track amid the enduring mess of the heavyweight division – with a planned unification showdown between Fury and Usyk collapsing predictably last week.
“I think we will see blood and I just really look forward to getting in there again,” he said of his bout against Franklin. “I’m so happy I’m fighting again because when you look at the champions now it is just a shambles trying to compete with mandatories and negotiations. Honestly, I can’t believe no [unification] fights have been made [in the heavyweight division].”
But, as he seeks the sweet taste of victory after such a long and bitter period, Joshua stressed that he is boxing for himself now. “I’m wiser and more numb to the expectations of others,” he said quietly. “I just do it for me now.”