Opinion | Jun 03 2019

Anthony Joshua and the strange case of his post-Klitschko decline

Anthony Joshua's loss to Andy Ruiz marks the abrupt end to the reign of a champion who faltered just as he looked set to soar, writes Alex Reid
Anthony Joshua
There will be huge pressure on Joshua in a rematch

IT was the victory that was supposed to make Anthony Joshua. In April 2017 when he stopped Wladimir Klitschko after 11 dramatic rounds, multiple boxes seemed to have been ticked.

The then 27-year-old had proved he could recover from being hurt by a world-class puncher. That he could reverse the trend of a fight that seemed to be slipping away. That he could cope with the pressure of facing an elite opponent in front of 90,000 people and – in the words of his trainer Rob McCracken – “find the punches” to see him triumphant.

More importantly than all this, it was surely an experience he could only build on. Joshua’s amateur career was successful but truncated, while his fearsome power meant professional rounds were in short supply. He required seasoning. Eleven rounds with Dr Klitschko was the perfect prescription: a proof of Joshua’s intangible qualities and an experience he couldn’t help but learn from.

Instead, in the four fights since we’ve seen a curious decline. That his performance against Carlos Takam had an after-the-lord-mayor’s-show quality was understandable. Takam was a late replacement, a tough contender who bloodied Joshua’s nose on his way to his 10th-round stoppage loss.

Anthony Joshua vs Carlos Takam who won

This appeared a blip. McCracken has spoken since about how Joshua wasn’t quite focused in camp and he seemed too heavy at 254lb. For his next challenge, Joshua talked persuasively of how he’d consciously shed bulk, coming in 12lb lighter for his unification fight with Joseph Parker.

This is his only post-Klitschko performance that can be looked upon with some satisfaction. On one hand, Joshua handily picked up enough rounds to outpoint a top-10 heavyweight. Yet Parker was extremely cagey (something he may regret now he’s seen how the Andy Ruiz fight played out) and the fight was a drab affair with Joshua never truly establishing dominance even as he banked rounds.

His last win, against Alexander Povetkin in 2018, set alarm bells ringing within his own mind. Joshua allowed Povetkin, quick and crafty – yet far smaller and a decade older – to get the jump on him. Joshua was caught flush several times before his opponent ran out of steam and Joshua finished him impressively in round seven.

It was clear Joshua, who’d suffered with an illness going into fight week, was unhappy with his own work. A break, nine months as it turned out, was decided upon to give the Brit time to recuperate.

Serious changes were wrung in his training camp for the Ruiz fight. “We all came together round a table and talked about where I’m struggling,” said Joshua with commendable candour. A US base, work with Navy Seals and enlisting a psychologist for the first time as a professional were only some of the tweaks.

And yet, even before Ruiz changed the fight in that astonishing third round, Joshua looked notably uneasy. A delayed entrance from his dressing room and a pensive look on his scuffed face as he chewed on his gumshield pre-fight did not speak the language of a destroyer ready to do business.

The first two rounds were curious, as Joshua ceded ground to his smaller opponent, looking tense and tentative. He seemed to have found the punches once more in the third, before Ruiz’s return fire changed the course of the fight and both of their careers.

Joshua’s odd questions to McCracken between rounds (including “What will he come out and do?” as if his trainer was a seer rather than a second) can be written off as a man shaken and quite possibly concussed. Yet he failed to regroup and recover as he did so coolly against the harder-hitting Klitschko.

None of this is to try rob Ruiz of his hard-earned glory. He showed the fortitude, nous, speed and skill to grab a definitive victory. It’s more to ascertain how Ruiz, a boxer whose power had failed to dislodge the likes of Franklin Lawrence and Raphael Zumbano Love was able to dictate a fight with Joshua, as well as to so badly hurt the deposed champion.

While nobody without the surname Ruiz saw this upset was coming, the fight continued a worrying trend for Joshua. Namely that a boxer with so many obvious qualities – size, strength, power, amateur pedigree and no little boxing ability – seemed to reluctant to play to his strengths. “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth,” Mike Tyson infamously said. The bizarre thing about Joshua is that his plan against Ruiz was hard to fathom.

The Klitschko fight should have bolstered Joshua’s confidence, yet it seems to have eroded since. With each fight he seemed less sure of his strategy, less willing to take the initiative and increasingly susceptible to being pushed back and hit clean by significantly smaller men.

Perhaps, as with so many big heavyweights including Lennox Lewis, Joshua struggles punching downwards against a smaller foe. Yet this cannot be the sole reason for his abrupt decline. Nor does it explain why a man who once looked so composed on the big stage, to actually relish it, now appears from the outside to be struggling with it.

What’s worrying for Joshua is that after each underwhelming post-Klitschko display, he has made astute moves to correct any issues. From slimming down to changing up his camp to giving his body a well-earned rest, Joshua has wisely looked to address each of his problems. Yet a resulting improvement in performance has been lacking.

When fighters suffer a shock loss, especially after a period of stagnation, a change in trainer often follows. But Joshua’s choice here seems perfect. McCracken has proven his mettle during his time with Carl Froch as well as with the Great Britain amateur team, where he worked so successfully with Joshua. His calm advice was the glue that helped get Joshua through that seesaw classic with Klitschko.

In other words, the Ruiz fight was not a case of Tyson vs Buster Douglas with a Jay Bright, clueless and Enswell-less, in the corner. There can be no easy solutions to the predicament Joshua finds himself in.

If, as some have speculated, he took his eye of the ball against Ruiz and has allowed his outside the ring activities to distract him, this is an issue that can be resolved. Yet that would speak to overconfidence, whereas Joshua appeared anxious and unsure on the night.

It’s always easy to make judgements from outside the ropes, especially with the 20/20 vision of hindsight, but there does seem a sense that Joshua is overthinking in the ring. No boxer is perfect and with heavyweights, there’s always the risk of a shocking stoppage from a foe with ambition and fast hands, as Wladimir Klitschko discovered when he fought Corrie Sanders in 2003.

However Joshua seems to fight with the weight of the world on his broad shoulders, moving as if his mind is whirring. The most spectacular moments of his professional career – including against Klitschko – came when he relaxed and allowed his punches to flow in instinctive and devastating fashion.

Joshua may have been on the offensive, seeking the finish when the fight-changing punches came from Ruiz in that third round. Yet he seemed to have been fighting on the counter until then, moving back and away from his smaller opponent.

It was hoped that the performance against Klitschko would allay fears about his stamina (he found a second wind) and his chin (not bulletproof, but clearly capable of absorbing hefty blows). Instead, he has seemed more concerned than ever about what his opponent is doing rather than taking the old Joe Frazier maxim of letting your opponent worry about you, rather than you worrying about him.

Now Joshua faces his hardest challenge. He said all the right things in the aftermath, classily praising Ruiz while talking about how one loss doesn’t derail a boxing career, which is true. But he seemed to be talking on autopilot; “vacant” was the word used to describe Joshua’s expression by the BBC’s Mike Costello post-fight.

Joshua now has to do more than just overturn a defeat, he – and the people around him – must reverse a trend. The goal here is to lift the millstone from around Joshua’s neck. To somehow get him back on to the front foot once more, physically and mentally. It’s a big task, but at least the path is clear.

If he can revive his fortunes, this career low will be seen – as Lewis’s knockouts losses are – as a rebooting point rather than a decline. But if Joshua keeps descending, his career will take on the narrative of a man who looked to have it all but fell apart. No pressure, Anthony. Which ironically may be the exact mindset he needs to rediscover, when he finds himself under those hot ring lights once more.

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