THERE’S so much more to a fight than the minutes and seconds spent in the ring. There are the weeks, the months and years of physical training, of mental preparation, from each camp, from an entire career, that go into the fight. There are the deals and financial arrangements that set the event in motion and compensate the boxers for the time, the effort and the suffering they invest in the sport. Boxing is rarely a simple endeavour.
For Anthony Joshua, the knockouts have been coming quickly. In his 17 professional bouts, which have included two world title fights, as well as contests for the British and Commonwealth straps, only two men have taken him into the seventh round, and none have beaten him. More often than not Joshua has made it look, dare I say it, straightforward. His power is clear, he’s brushed aside journeymen and gatekeepers alike, securing the British title with a hellacious uppercut, and claiming the IBF heavyweight crown from Charles Martin in a mere two rounds, courtesy of a brace of crisp, accurate right crosses backed by genuine force.
But a punch carries a meaning of its own. While Joshua hasn’t lingered long in his professional bouts, that success still has not been easily won. He’s endured hard times in the gym and gone through a heavy-duty training programme to get those results.
“It’s been tough, it’s been repetitive,” Joshua told Boxing News. “But I’d rather be a master of one than a master of none. So where I have been doing repetitive stuff, and it has been mind-boggling sometimes, but I’m starting to perfect my style, my skill. I’m starting to understand myself more.”
Four years ago the Watford man confirmed his burgeoning reputation, boxing for the gold medal at the 2012 Olympic Games. He was raw then, often having to rely on his natural attributes and physical strength. But as he’s developed as a professional, he has smoothed the rougher edges of his work. There is a keener appreciation too of the craft, both of what is needed to achieve his goals and an understanding of why it’s required.
“I was learning my trade and why I’m doing it. So this time around I understand why I’m here and what I’ve got to do,” he said. “Before, I didn’t know what I had to do. I was just going through the motions, just learning my trade. Now I know my trade and I know what I need to do in order to improve. So it’s the same situation, just with a better mindset.”
There is a sense of mission about what he is trying to accomplish. There’s the idea of where he wants to be, and the pragmatism of the hard graft that, step by step, will get him there.
“I’ve learned over time just to fizzle out the bulls*** and focus on how do I become the best athlete I can be, whether that’s British title, world title level or unification.
“I’m just trying to find my level, where I’m at and – who knows? – I might just keep on going for a long time. We don’t know where that stops, that’s what’s interesting about this journey at the minute. As you said, people are seeing the progression. From 2008 [when he first started] to now, you can definitely see a progression. So it’s interesting to see where we can go with it,” he said.
It is all-consuming. Joshua is astute, taking a keen interest in his own training. He explained a typical day’s work: “7.45am on the track warming up, do a lot of aerobics stuff, yoga-like stuff, enough to get your body warm so the cardio you do you don’t have injuries. Obviously it varies. The cardio that we base around is swimming, bike or running. Back in the day it just used to be 10-mile runs, but times have changed, so people are incorporating swimming or the bike. There are so many different things.
“It will be quite intense. Boxing’s quite simple – three minutes’ work, one minute’s rest. So if you can, replicate that in your cardio sessions. We work on that kind of rounds structure.
“After that we’ll be back in the gym at 11.30am grinding, doing a lot of strength and conditioning, core work, sand drills to get your legs strong, anything to condition your body so number one you don’t get injured, number two you ain’t going to get manhandled in the ring, because heavyweight boxing you need to have a bit of grit and a bit of strength about you. So you try to do a lot of stuff like that.
“And then we get back, rest, and at about 5.30pm we’re back in the gym and you warm up and then you’ve got to get ready for intense sparring. When you’re with coaches who are taskmasters, you have to make sure that your sparring is elite, on point – so you just have to make sure you’re resting well, you’re eating well, so you’ve got the energy to perform when you’re back in the gym. Because even though you’ve done your running, your strength, your boxing is the most important session of the day, so you want to be fresh and you want to be able to perform. It’s a really tough time because you’ve done two hard sessions, but you want to still make sure you get your boxing right.”
His one-punch power has caught the attention of the wider public. His popularity is such that he’s been packing out arenas. But he wants to show more, he wants to refine his technical abilities and win respect for boxing skills as well as the brutal stoppages. That’s the next stage. He has, after all, been in the sport for only eight years. There is more to come. He remains ambitious, thinking of Vasyl Lomachenko and fighters of that ilk who seem a level ahead of their contemporaries.
“I’m not ahead of my time,” he notes. In fact, because of that comparatively late start in boxing at 18 years old, he has been playing catch up. “For me it hasn’t been quick because I know the reality of my journey. I’ve still got eight years before I get to be one of the best fighters in the world,” he smiled. “Sometimes it does get hard and I do really understand the 10,000-hour rule and all that.”
That’s the concept that you have to put in enough hours of practise over a lifetime to master an art. “You can’t cheat hard work in order to achieve great things,” he noted.
But, if he keeps his discipline and his rate of development, he is on the right track. Joshua has been building himself as a boxer in the gym and as a brand beyond the ropes. His company is another facet of that rise. If in training he has to obey instruction, when it comes to the business of his boxing career it’s Joshua who has to give the orders and make the decisions.
He set up his own management group only last year, a gamble at the time but one that’s paid off. It’s a key lesson for a boxer on how important it is to have some control and engagement with the financial side of a career that can end all too soon for many fighters. The balance sheet of his business may not be as exciting as the knockouts of the fights, but it matters. Fighters deserve to be rewarded for their efforts and they ought to be aware of what they stand to gain, and lose.
Freddie Cunningham, his commercial manager, is best placed to speak about ‘the Joshua brand’.
“It’s got to come from them and what they are. The best brands are built on something true, not trying to create something false that’s not there. Anthony is fundamentally a nice guy, a guy who understands he is, in a way, a brand himself,” he explained. “Anthony straightaway, and this is testament to him and his uncle, [knew] Matchroom do the promotion side, but there’s another side to my business. All these other sportsmen have agencies, they have management who look after their IP, image, PR, everything like that. Why should boxing be different or why should I be different? And he had the confidence in his own ability and what he was going to achieve that he wanted someone doing that.”
Anthony might be a friendly giant when the gloves are off but, of course, when the first bell chimes and it’s time to go to work, the menace is revealed and a vicious streak comes to the fore. It’s proving an appealing combination. “It attracts that in training and in that ring there’s a switch that’s gone and then it’s business and I’m a fighter, it’s a ‘me or him’ sort of approach. Then when he’s out of it, he’s very quick to switch off,” Freddie continued, “and then go into the normal Anthony and then the normal guy.”
They’ve actively sought out new audiences and have been looking to bring in companies that aren’t normally associated with boxing. “That’s the goal – to get as many eyes on boxing and on Anthony as possible,” Cunningham said. That isn’t an easy process.
“You have to say to a brand, why: why are we going to spend this money here? What return are we going to get from it? Is boxing the right sport we want to be in? A whole load of questions we go through. The interest is there, everybody knows about him, it’s then about unlocking it and saying this is the right guy, this is what he does in the ring, this is who he is out of the ring. This is the personality behind it and this is the brand we’re trying to build. It’s a bit of both.
“A lot of brands I spoke to a couple of years ago [said], ‘We don’t work in combat sports.’ Honestly, all the time. Then as soon as people start seeing a bit more about him, seeing what he’s doing in the ring, it then becomes, ‘We’ve never worked in fight sports before, but we’re interested to hear how we could.’”
It’s all part of a plan to broaden his appeal. “If they’re using Anthony, it’s like a free campaign for us to show off ultimately him being Anthony, which hopefully then people take an interest in,” Freddie said. “It’s a very important factor for us to make sure we’re working with the right brands, that he’s getting activated the right way, because ultimately, hopefully it brings more people into the sport and more eyes on the sport.
“You want to have long-term relationships with brands that a fan sees and goes, ‘That’s cool, that makes sense, I get that.’ Like Under Armour, he wears training gear all the time, it looks cool, there’s nothing in your face. Beats – he’s constantly listening to music, he trains with music, it’s relevant, Lucozade Sports, it’s all about his training, it’s about him achieving. It all works.”
Only last year, Joshua, rather than going with a major agency, took the plunge and decided to set up his own management group. His earning power has only accelerated, with his last three fights all being lucrative pay-per-views. “He wants to be so involved and understand and talk business, whereas you go into one of those bigger companies it becomes hard because you go into the sort of machine and you have less control over it all. So he really wanted to maintain control. So it was a massive decision,” Cunningham noted.
But crucially he’s engaged with the steps he’s taking. The outcomes will be his responsibility. “The decisions aren’t all made financially in Anthony’s career, it’s much more – is this the right thing to do? Is this the right person to box at the right time? He’s still learning. It’s such a quick turnaround, even from when he started boxing at 18, he just fast-tracked through everything,” Freddie said.
“We’ve got to build a solid platform to continue building on. He wants to fight for the next 10 years, there will be pressure to fight the likes of [Deontay] Wilder straightaway, it all comes down to whether that’s the right decision in his boxing career and if it is, fine, we do it. There are considerations financially, but it’s never the factor that makes the decisions in any way. It’s more the afterthought.”
There are riches on offer in the heavyweight division, but plenty of pitfalls in the sport too. “He’s seen the mistakes that have been made, he doesn’t want to make the same mistakes, always wants to be in control of his money, maximise his money, make sure he’s got stable companies,” Freddie continued. “It’s easy because he’s got everything, looks, speaks well, ability in the ring, naturally normal, personable, likeable guy. He’s got all the ingredients.
“But then it becomes quite hard, it’s the potential, the pressure for him to take fights already, at such an early age, if you compare him to other boxers, they were fighting similar fights but not under the microscope, under the pressure. Everyone sees him, sees the success and wants to be involved. It’s about how you channel that and make sure it’s with the right people.”
Joshua’s ambitions are broad and long term. He is boxing regularly, while Wilder, the WBC heavyweight champion, is injured, and Tyson Fury, the WBO and WBA ruler, is otherwise engaged. That activity has helped elevate Joshua. Dominic Breazeale was not the sternest of tests but the fight came straight after winning his IBF title. It kept Joshua moving forward and gave him another showcase. But ultimately in boxing fighters will be judged on who they fight and how they perform. He knows that.
“I’m still going to progress and fight someone like Breazeale, who’s just as equal as I am – 17 fights, 17 wins. So when that time comes, I’ll be ready. I’m not going to sit down and wait for these guys to fight. I’ve got to keep active as well,” Joshua reflected.
“In the meanwhile I’m just going to keep continuing my own journey and wait for us to collide at some stage. It will happen, come on, it has to, and I say exactly like this: every era has heavyweights and every era the heavyweights have to come together and fight. And this is just our era right now. So we can’t hide from each other. This would be the worst era in history if that was the case. You are who you fight. So we’ll fight, we will get it on.”
In boxing, you are who you fight. You’re also who you beat. The rise has been remarkable, but he doesn’t want to be just a puncher. He wants to be a complete fighter.
“I don’t feel I’m ‘at a point’. I’m not this style that everyone thinks I am. I’m this hungry, grafting fighter that wants to prove himself still. I’m not at the top of the pecking order yet,” he added.
“I don’t think it’s [trying to] make myself extraordinary, I think we’re unique in person anyway. I think I want to do extraordinary things. I don’t like the normal,” he concluded. “So it’s not me, that I’m looking to be extraordinary, it’s the thing I lay my hands on, I want that to be extraordinary. I want my boxing to be extraordinary, I want my company to be extraordinary… It’s just whatever I involve myself in, I like to push that to the limit. That’s a representation of me.
“We are on a mission.”