IT is now over a decade since the first stage of Anthony Joshua’s transformation into one of the biggest sports stars of his generation began in the inauspicious surroundings of a Berkshire prison cell. It was there he also began to appreciate the meaning of a ‘second chance’.
The story goes that the 6ft 6in street kid, who was learning his trade as a bricklayer, had been caught up in a fight and later found guilty of affray. He faced 10 years in prison for the offence and as he spent those two weeks on remand staring up at the single fluorescent light in the ceiling, he made a promise to himself.
“When I had that second chance at life when I was getting in trouble,” he recalls. “I just dedicated myself. I said I would put myself on a 15-year prison sentence to boxing and have that focus.”
That was 2008, meaning there are still four years left before he is a free man again. It has been suggested that defeat in Diriyah, Saudi Arabia, might just cut the sentence short, offer him the chance at an early release, but that is not part of the plan.
“When I beat that court case, and I prayed ‘God, if you give me a second chance at life I will make all the changes in the world’”Anthony Joshua
“I live boxing, I live it, that’s all I do,” he says. “I could go on longer than that initial 15 years. It’s just a mindset, a prison mindset, like a military mindset, lock-down. Training, focus, sleep. You have to have that mindset. You have to be in that regimen.
“I’m smarter now than I’ve ever been before. When I was younger, I was hungry, but I was stupid. Now I’m clever. I feel about 90 per cent of the world work hard, 10 per cent work smart. That’s why there’s that barrier and I’m trying to get on the smart side of the world.”
Many think that his decision to take what appears to be the most important fight of his life to the Middle East, giving up the chance of home advantage and all that comes with it, is anything but clever. Indeed George Groves, the first British man in history to lose a professional fight on Saudi soil, described the idea as ‘dangerous’.
But Joshua is expected to bank by far and away the biggest purse of his six-year career to date and, should he emerge with the IBF, WBA and WBO titles in his hand luggage, the whole manoeuvre will look incredibly smart.
“You have got to get smart,” he adds. “The red mist doesn’t come over me, I just get smarter. But the good thing is that I feel if you are always blessed with a second chance, you are going to get it right.”
For Joshua that means in life and the ring. Saturday night brings up 27 weeks since he surrendered his world titles to Ruiz on that hellacious evening at Madison Square Garden. The initial contract declared that such a defeat would present Joshua with the chance to exact immediate revenge and he took it, despite the humbling nature of his seventh-round stoppage.
It was the first loss of his professional career and his first of any kind since the final of the 2011 world amateur championships. The performance, which contained four knockdowns before the scarcely believable ending, provoked the first real criticism from the wider public.
“Not everyone’s going to love you, and that’s just how it goes,” he says when asked if it was difficult to deal with. “But I’ve lost before, I’ve lost a few times and I just keep on going.
“The good thing about boxing is I had the same passion when I wasn’t known so being known or not known doesn’t define my passion or what I want to achieve, or me as a person.
“It’s just more opinions really and everyone’s entitled to their own, but if you’re going to ask me about mine I still think I’m going to go and do great things in boxing.
“I’m still in my amateur gym, I’m still with the GB boys, I’m with Rob [McCracken] and Eddie [Hearn], I haven’t changed my team along the way, I’m still with the boys, same management company, so yeah we’re in it for the long run. That’s why it doesn’t hurt because I know how much I’ve got to give to the sport.
“People know I’m not soft so I don’t need people to pat me on the back. I’m quite motivated through and through.”
Before he was beaten by Ruiz, the 30-year-old from Watford had punched his way to the very pinnacle of the division and was rated as the planet’s No. 1 heavyweight by many inside the sport. He is now considered below the likes of Tyson Fury, Deontay Wilder and Ruiz.
These days, Joshua has no time for such debate after indulging far too much in talk of potential fights over the past 18 months.
“All that stuff before the Ruiz fight,” he says. “I don’t even want to talk about it.
“And even if I win this fight I don’t really want to get involved in that type of debate again. I had all those belts, that should have said enough, but I still tried to prove myself.
“It’s like, why was I even debating that conversation before, trying to prove myself? It was clear to see, I was the man on the table with four of the rings out of the five and I was still debating where my position was in the heavyweight division. Now I feel like, when I listen to people talk, they don’t even know what went into my last training camp.
“If you are talking about pressure, I’ve been under pressure since I walked into boxing. My whole career has been under the bright lights. I’ve never been able to learn quietly and go through my amateurs and work my way up as a pro, it has always been ‘Boom’! So I cope with pressure pretty well.”
In some ways, the Saudi sojourn might ease the usual pressure on Joshua a little. The anticipation would be approaching fever pitch by now had the showdown headed to Cardiff, where nearly 100,000 people would have crammed into the Principality Stadium to watch whether or not Joshua could keep his career alive or not.
The stakes are similarly high here, just outside Riyadh, but the fight week vibe is clearly very different. Joshua’s promotional team, Matchroom, led by Eddie Hearn, have worked closely alongside the Saudi Arabian General Sports Authority to put on the event which is part of the so called ‘Diriyah Season’.
Although it makes obvious financial sense, it seems like a strange time to take a fight of this magnitude to Saudi Arabia, which is currently involved in an active conflict on their southern border with the Yemen and recently had to deal with what has been described as the biggest attack on oil production in the history of humankind when drones hit a location just 200km from Diriyah.
None of that has put a dent in the plan, however, with Joshua and his team touching down in the Kingdom last week after a gruelling camp at his usual base in the English Institute of Sport, Sheffield. The hard yards, he insists, have been done and no expense has been spared on sparring partners capable of recreating Ruiz’s style.
“They throw everything at me,” Joshua laughs when asked whether the visitors have been told to particularly imitate the left hook with which Ruiz initially dropped him back in June.
“I am worried about every shot in boxing, you have to be cautious. If I do 12 rounds then it’s with five different people back-to-back and I am dealing with every shot coming at me.
“Ruiz and his people don’t get enough credit for his jab, he has a decent jab as well, we need to be prepared for that and that is why we got so many sparring partners.
“It is important for fighters to invest in your sparring, we don’t always want to because it is a big cost but it’s the best way to prepare.
“It’s almost good that I lost because all of the sparring partners are coming out of the woodwork now, no one wanted to spar me before. Klitschko told me it would happen, he said he could only get good sparring after he had lost.
“It’s ended up like a blessing because everyone wants to come to the gym now and see what it’s all about. When we lace the gloves up now there is no holding back.”
One man who was invited to the Steel City was Dereck Chisora, fresh from his victory over David Price at the O2 Arena last month.
“That was brilliant,” Joshua beams. “The last time we sparred was back in 2009-10. He is much better now, fitter and focused, he has developed over the years.
“He came with a Joe Frazier style and he is strong on the inside so it was good to have someone challenge my strength and push me back.”
Given he was such a late stand-in for the first fight, Ruiz appeared to take Joshua by surprise, particularly having got up from a third-round knockdown to win. Now the challenger will have absolutely no questions about who he is facing.
“I’ve watched the first fight back many times,” Joshua says. “You have to study it. I slow it right down. From that you can analyse your training, you analyse your body.
“He’s good but I don’t think he’s great. Until he caught me, I was beating him to the punch. But it is a good way to promote Ruiz, to say he’s the fastest heavyweight out there. They are all quick, but in the first two or three rounds I was beating him to the punch.
“But now I have stuff to prove to myself. That’s the main thing, I definitely have stuff I have to prove to myself.
“Unfortunately, it’s not a team sport, this game, so I have to prove it to myself. They don’t mention the PR team, the trainers, they mention Anthony Joshua. So I have to prove it to myself and that’s the hunger, isn’t it?
“When I beat that court case, and I prayed ‘God, if you give me a second chance at life I will make all the changes in the world.’ When I beat that court case, I got into boxing and I focused. It’s the same thing with Ruiz, give me a second chance and see what I can do.
“Now I want to take it more seriously because I’m going to that next level. And when I win,” Joshua says, raising the middle fingers on both of his heavily scarred hands. “I will be like, ‘F*** everybody.’”