Anthony Joshua is at a crossroads in his boxing career: defeat Oleksandr Usyk in their rematch next year and he rejoins Tyson Fury and the Ukrainian at the top of the heavyweight mountain. Lose and it’s hard to see how he ever gets back there again.
The concern is that Joshua has never looked so lost, inside and outside the ropes. An athlete who seems as uncertain of his boxing style as he is unsure of who he’s trying to be away from the ring. The good news is that in heavyweight boxing, a lot can change in one fight – and Joshua has been in this make-or-break situation before, coming through with a dominant win against Andy Ruiz Jr. But it seems unlikely that, unless Usyk spends Christmas waging war on Quality Street, he will give AJ the same advantages Ruiz did in their 2019 rematch.
Ever since he turned professional and started making waves in the sport, Joshua has faced unfair accusations that he is somehow a fake or a phoney. The inevitable result of a charming, hard-hitting, good-looking heavyweight who rapidly gains mainstream appeal and has to serve two different audiences: the sport’s hardcore fans and the wider public.
The underlying truth is more worrying. That Joshua – warm and likeable in person – now cuts a divided figure, unsure about who he really is either. In one moment there’s pictures of him grinning with David Beckham in Miami on Instagram or his talk of wanting to be a global citizen of the world. In the next moment, he’s on IFL TV, dropping f-bombs and talking about how he wants to go into the Usyk rematch with ‘war’ and ‘murder’ in his mind.
More fuel for critics, who sneered at the ‘stay humble’ mantra. But what makes it more complex is that Joshua, an intelligent individual, seems acutely aware of the contradiction. He almost bemoans his own IG lifestyle image (something he ultimately controls) at the start of his hour-long IFL interview.
Just as he seems split between two characters outside the ropes – the clean cut role model or the violent heavyweight – he seems equally unsure of his style in the ring. An inability to decide whether he wants to be the front-foot, seek-and-destroy puncher of his early pro career or the rangy, careful, Klitschko-like boxer who skewered Ruiz in their rematch.
Against Usyk in September, the pre-fight choice was intriguing. Would Joshua try to bully the natural cruiserweight with his strength and power or would he look to use his superior reach and height to box on the back foot and avoid walking into the southpaw’s traps. Were we about to see Dr AJekyll or Mr Dish-Out-A-Hyding?
We saw neither. Joshua came forward and bafflingly tried to outbox one of the world’s best pound-for-pound boxers at mid-range. It’s harsh to judge any fighter on their post-fight interview when defeat is still raw but Joshua’s blank-eyed talk of being a “boxer-fighter” and the match being “a good chess match” seemed divorced from reality. Pre-fight there were the bizarre scenes of him apparently asking boxing coach Clifton Mitchell for last-minute advice after he spotted him during his ring entrance in Tottenham.
One thing even Joshua’s harshest critics agree on is that after his two pro defeats, there was a refreshing refusal to make excuses or to steal credit from his opponent. AJ gave both Ruiz and Usyk their props. But that is not the same as being able to accept and understand a defeat. Joshua’s insistence that, “You would have to ask the team what their plan was” after his loss to Usyk and his apparent desire to add yet more voices to an already overcrowded corner speak of a man who – contrarily – has taken defeat on the chin but not learned the lessons from it.
If Joshua cuts a confused figure in both his fighting style and his persona away from the ring, it stands in stark contrast to his British rival Fury.
‘The Gypsy King’ can be a contrary character, too. Sometimes charismatic, sometimes surly. Sometimes generous, sometimes vindictive. The key difference is that in any situation, Fury is being 100 per cent authentic to who he is. There is no filter with a character like Fury. While Joshua seems to be continually second-guessing himself, to be gauging how his actions will play out, Fury is merrily either causing joy or havoc but always being true to himself in that moment.
It does not take a genius to work out which of these is more draining for a person; overthinking the part you’re trying to play contrasted to an individual constantly being authentic (and not particularly caring how much chaos that causes). It is similar in the ring, where Fury has worked with different trainers, adopted different styles, but always completely committed to each one (aided by the fact that he is able to adjust and think on his feet better than Joshua).
Fury in fact hit the nail on the head when he strongly advised Joshua, before the Usyk fight, to go in and try to smash the Ukrainian to bits in the first half of the fight because he was not about to win a 12-round bout against a boxer of Usyk’s class. The Rocky movie scenario would therefore be Fury training Joshua for next year’s rematch, holding the bucket and hollering instructions from the corner as his British nemesis pummels the unbeaten Usyk.
Back in the real world, however, Joshua can still learn from Fury – and from Usyk – ahead of his crunch 2022. Not by imitating either of these naturally zany characters, but by finding a place where he is comfortable inside and outside the ropes. By avoiding the PR ambassador duties if he finds them draining or openly embracing them if the distractions help him. But no longer trying to be all things to all men.
Similarly with his brains trust and trainer situation, which seems to encompass an array of individuals. If he has lost faith with Robert McCracken, an excellent trainer but even the best relationships don’t always work forever, it is time to walk away and find somebody entirely new – even if Joshua’s admirable loyalty would make that difficult. But cutting someone and moving on, as Fury has done so successfully, may be the best path if this trainer-boxer bond is not working.
The good news for AJ is that he can hardly be a great deal worse against Usyk. That there is generally more for the loser of a bout to learn than the winner; that he at least now knows what won’t work and that can be the path to what will.
But Joshua, who seems to be trying to keep a foot in every camp inside boxing and away from it, needs to commit. McCracken is his trainer or he isn’t. He’s going to violently take the fight right to Usyk or he’s going to keep a stiff jab in the Ukrainian’s face and tie him up in close. He’s a stay-humble ambassador or he’s a big, angry heavyweight. Any of these approaches could work, so long as he fully commits to one. The time has come for Anthony Joshua to stick or or to twist.