THE dome of the O2 stretches high above their heads, a long line of people lean against a metal barrier. They hold gloves, pens, photos, phones, all waiting for an autograph or a picture with the aspiring heavyweight champion of the world. Anthony Joshua processes along the line, shaking hands, smiling happily, you’d have thought he was running for office rather than waiting out the final 24 hours before the most important fight of his life.
It takes a long time to work the crowd, two hours at least, after weighing in, greeting Shannon Briggs and getting through his TV interviews. It is perhaps not ideal preparation for a title fight. Does signing the autographs, taking the selfies not get boring, I ask. “It is a bit but do they get bored of waiting two hours, three hours? So it’s a give and take type relationship. Some people don’t like doing it but I do appreciate them,” Joshua replies.
He continues with a laugh, “I’m campaigning. But it’s not fake, as I said it’s the point that they’ve waited three hours for me so I’m just giving something back to them.”
There are different sides to Joshua, the amiable giant with his public, the vicious destroyer in the ring who’s knocked out all 15 of his professional opponents. People are complicated but boxers it seems are rarely allowed different dimensions. They are styled as a benign Frank Bruno-type or a ferocious, brutal Mike Tyson. Joshua doesn’t fit easily into a simple definition. “It’s one or the other in boxing,” Joshua says but he adds, “You’ve got a good ground in boxing to show your character to the people and just be natural with them. This is your chance to announce yourself.
“We’re all representing each other. I’m a representation of the people I’m around… It’s a chance to show who we are and gain respect from masses of people.”
Joshua has built his profile, particularly with December’s exhilarating win over London rival Dillian Whyte. “It’s all important building steps. I could have gone in there and blasted Dillian Whyte out in a round and it wouldn’t have been so good ahead of this type of fight. The fact that we had the hype, then so much of the aftermath, it’s really good because it led to this. I haven’t really stepped off the train. So for me my 1-14 fights I was on the train, then I stepped off the train, then we got to the next chapter and I feel with that fight with Dillian we’re back on that roller coaster now,” he said. “It’s a good continuous flow of motion towards the IBF title so it was really important to have that fight. Even though this is so big, I haven’t really stepped off the barrier and tried to walk up the mountain, I’ve steadily climbed it, so it’s not so much of a big deal to me. Not so much of a big deal. I’m still on the road to major fights. If I beat Charles, we’re still on that road to another major fight. So we’re all motion right now.
“The thing is I need to win tomorrow.”
He speaks back stage at the O2, leaning against the side of a parked van as insouciantly as a six foot six, 244lbs heavyweight can. In a day Joshua’s campaign reaches its moment of truth. He will challenge IBF world champion Charles Martin. Yet Joshua is relaxed. “Calm, man,” as he puts it. “Because I’m here. There’s no running away from it now. I’ve got to handle business. So I’ve just got to keep my nut down, give the fans what they want and just handle business in the best way possible.”
Eventually he’ll have to turn his full attention to the fight itself. “It’s hard because so much time talking to the fans now you just want to kind of block [yourself] away. Then you’ve got to see your family and stuff,” he said. “I don’t get to spend much time with the family because I’m always training.
“It’s only until I get that break away from everything I can kind of get my head into to it. It’s a circus, you’re an entertainer. I’m going to entertain everyone’s needs. Until you can get yourself away and just focus on yourself that’s when you lock yourself away for the fight.”
Prizefighting is a test of nerve. Hard work, long waits punctuated by moments of high tension. In this final week Joshua has gone from performing in a public workout at York Hall, putting the final touches on his own training, to standing on a stage to weigh in before his crowd on the concourse at the O2.
“It’s always a new experience really, in that sense where your nerves are going. Do I feel any different from when I felt for the December 12 fight? You’re always trying to calculate yourself. I feel calm I feel relaxed. If I can go in there with that same attitude, hold my nerves for the fight I should be in a good place,” he reflects.
Joshua has to keep his composure on Saturday night. But so too has the champion. Martin has been a hard man to read in the build up to this. The American is laidback for the most part, relaxed, but Joshua notes, “Very strange, then he’ll be like, ‘I’m keeping my belt!’ He just says things randomly. So I don’t know whether it’s the nerves. It is a big occasion. You can’t deny it. The UK scene is big now, you know what I mean? I think maybe it’s the nerves, a certain thing. That makes a dangerous person when they come out and do reckless things.”
“I think it’s going to be an interesting boxing match,” Joshua continued. “I think he’ll respect me towards the end of the fight and I’ll respect him. May the best man win. I’ll take him out for a pint. I don’t drink, but if he wants a pint. He’s one of those characters who’s a lot different to some of those people I’ve been in the ring with,” Anthony continued. “Just the respect, especially as the champion, more respect.”
Friday was their final chance to read one another before the fight, going head to head up on the stage after the weigh in. “I can only look how I look,” Joshua said. “Stand up properly. Brace myself and I say, ‘This is it now’, soul to soul, eye to eye. It’s the last time I see him. Before we step in the ring.”
The wait is almost over. Tomorrow has finally come.