Anthony Joshua Is Back On Top But He’s Still Willing To Learn
Deep down, Anthony Joshua couldn’t shake the feeling that something wasn’t quite right. It was one of those gnawing doubts that, if left unresolved, could only burrow further and harder. Even so, there was a big element of his team that didn’t want to change a thing. Why would they? All they could see was a startling trajectory: an Olympic gold medal just five years after stepping into the ring, a world title belt nine fights into a professional career, and three more to go with it in the 13 fights that followed. Then there was the record; that staggeringly brutal stat showing 21 KOs in 22 fights. Despite his misgivings, Life. Was. Good.
But then to that June evening at Madison Square Garden, to Andy Ruiz Jr., to defeat.
“There were certain things I was talking about perhaps two years ahead of that loss, and the defeat just showcased them,” says Joshua. “I know people say crazy things like, ‘Oh, we were planning on that loss,’ but it really was a blessing in disguise. It highlighted everything I had been concerned about. After that it was simple: these are the changes I’ve been talking about, now you need to listen.”
Just over six months later, on an ink-black night in the historic Saudi emirate of Diriyah, Joshua boxed those changes to a comfortable victory in his rematch with Ruiz Jr., becoming only the fourth man in the 127-year history of the world heavyweight title to successfully regain his belts in a direct rematch, finding space alongside Floyd Patterson, Muhammad Ali and Lennox Lewis in the process.
In an ideal world, the next six months would have seen Joshua dispatch challenger Kubrat Pulev before preparing for a seismic clash with Tyson Fury – the closest thing the division has seen to a super fight in years. But 2020 has been anything but ideal. The Pulev fight, set for June, fell to the virus. Rumours of a new date included everything from fighting on an island to, yes, scrapping on a cruise ship. Promoter Eddie Hearn was considering all options – the more they resembled a shelved film script, the better. Now, there are tentative hopes of a fight in the first week of December – with London’s O2 Arena being the preferred, if less exciting, venue.
“I’m OK with [the delay], to be honest,” says a smiling Joshua. “It’s saved me weeks of getting punched in the head, and that can never be a bad thing.”
When it comes to dodging a punch, the 30-year-old can be as handy outside the ring as he is in it, often fielding questions with the deftness of a politician. He doesn’t duck... but he weaves. He talks sharply and his likeability is off the charts, but behind the strong northwest London accent lies a desire to spell out who he is and where he’s going. It’s a policy that has turned him into one of the most bankable athletes in the world.
In the eight years that have followed Olympic gold, Joshua’s heavyweight status has only been matched by his heavyweight earning power. Forbes recently estimated his worth around the $47m mark, thanks to lucrative tie-ups with brands including Hugo Boss, Under Armor, Jaguar Land Rover, Beats and Sky Sports. As a result, the ‘I’s’ are ‘we’s’ in any conversation – the importance of team always emphasised. But the people behind the brand have to earn their keep.
“I changed everything after that first fight,” says Joshua. “Losing to Andy made me rethink and restructure. I took the positives out of it, but it wasn’t easy. My training camp was six weeks of pure hell. I had new team members, I had injuries I was trying to overcome. There were so many different issues. But we got there in the end through will, determination and intelligence.”
Joshua’s metamorphosis across the two Ruiz Jr. fights – from big-fight banger to a more savvy ringcraft – went a little underappreciated. Most neutral observers saw the Mexican’s party lifestyle and felt a second fight should run according to script, even if the first meeting hadn’t. But behind the waistline lay a heavy puncher with a granite jaw who’d had just two losses in 35 professional fights. It took until Joshua, in fight 34, for anybody to put him on the canvas. So yeah, the use of the jab and measure to avoid a brawl in their second fight was smart. And it was reflected on the scorecards in Saudi that night.
“Being world champion, with all those knockouts, you do feel kind of unstoppable. But realistically, in boxing terms, I’m way ahead of where I should be. I’m working at such a quick pace. I shouldn’t even be in a position where I’m mentioned in Tyson Fury’s era. He’s five or six years ahead of me in terms of turning professional. In fact, when he was turning pro, I was just putting on my gloves for the first time.”
“With boxing, it wasn’t about becoming world champion. It was about becoming a world champion of myself.”
It’s true he was a late starter, only walking through the doors at Finchley Amateur Boxing Club at the age of 18. Up until that point, Watford-born Joshua’s life had been lacking direction. And while his trouble with authorities has been well-documented (a few weeks spent on remand at Reading Prison for “fighting and other crazy stuff”), boxing was his outlet for change.
“I was just living life. Enjoying myself, having no real structure. I was going to college, but there was no real purpose,” he says. “With boxing, it wasn’t even about becoming the world champion. It was about becoming a world champion of myself. I made the decision to focus on the sport. It was either sleep early, digest good food, listen to the right things, focus on my boxing education or just go to the gym to keep fit, have a bit of fun with it, sleep late, struggle the next day, probably miss training and eventually give up.
“It’s not about me elevating myself to have some sort of Hollywood status where I want to disconnect from the real world. No matter how far you go, I firmly believe that you’ll always come back to your roots. The biggest aspect is being able to take people with me, to have them see what’s on the other side, what’s achievable in life.”
In that group is his five-year-old son, Joseph. “He’s going to see different things to what I saw growing up,” says Joshua, who’s of the mind that struggle often makes the boxer. “Will he have the motivation to be a fighter? For me, life is all about vision and opportunity. I saw it in boxing, he might see it in business or education. I’m sure he’ll have the same spirit and determination, but I don’t know if he’ll have it for fighting.”
It’s true that boxing is forged in adversity. It’s a sport where all you need are the tools and desire. The fighters of days gone by were often people you knew locally. The guy that made his reputation brawling could often go on to be world champion.
“So, I was sitting eating a chocolate the other day,” says Joshua, reclining back in his chair. “And I realised that the difference between boxers of that era and now is the luxury. They didn’t have access to this life, to sweets, to luxury clothes. That bred toughness and resilience. It’s like when you see a lion kill a zebra, and the lion’s had the zebra’s neck in its jaws for 15 minutes – but it’s still not dead. That’s because they’ve evolved physically to have that thick skin, they’re products of their environment. It’s the same for those boxers. Joe Louis, Henry Armstrong, Rocky Marciano… they were a different breed of human.”
Not that Joshua’s about to shun the benefits of a modern day champ. In fact, that’s why we’re here today, a result of his new BOSS x AJBXNG capsule collection. A go-to brand for Joshua, even before he boxed, he loved how BOSS featured in the Rocky movies – even if it was the backdrop to Apollo Creed’s death – and how it was the gear of choice for the legendary Wladimir Klitschko (“our battle at Wembley felt like the passing of the torch”). Joshua’s tie-up seems right. Let’s be honest, the guy could make most things look good, but the clean lines of the collection work, and he’s very happy with the result. “Every day is a perfect day to boss-up,” he says, laughing. Catchphrases aside, the association just feels like another building block in place on the road to greatness. Although he’s taking nothing for granted.
“There’s always that question in my head. Am I as good as I should be? Am I as good as people say I am? I’ve been placed on this pedestal but with minimum experience, so there’s always that element of doubt.”
What’s certain is that he will be severely tested if the expected fight with Fury takes place next year. But Joshua is pretty clear as to where the real lesson will come from.
“Tyson needs educating,” he says. “All us athletes do. We often didn’t go far in school, so a lot of our comments and actions aren’t great. But let’s talk about him as a boxer. I don’t find him intimidating and I haven’t seen him do anything in the ring where I think, ‘This guy is going to be a massive threat.’ He’s talented and he’s awkward, and that’s often enough to get you quite far in life.”
While opinions are split on the outcome, what’s not in doubt is that he will absorb everything he can to be the man with his arm raised at the end of it all.
“I’m like a Jekyll and Hyde type of person with it. On one side I believe I can elevate myself to a different level through being the Anthony Joshua that I want the world to see. But on the other hand, I’m a real person. I make mistakes, I’m not perfect. I’m trying, though. I really am. I’m working on myself every day.”
The BOSS x AJBXNG capsule is out now