A LONG way from the Shangri-La hotel in Jeddah there was a night when the referee had to pull Anthony Joshua off Dillian Whyte.
That was in a long, lost time in the life and fights of AJ.
On Monday night at the Shangri-La, which is close to the promenade on the Red Sea, Joshua was in a side room with his shrunken team. He was relaxed, talking candidly and smiling. His interviews were interrupted every few minutes by the arrival of somebody important, somebody he had to stand and joke with. There are a lot of important people in Jeddah and they all seemed to know what room Joshua was using.
There is a lot ceremony here in Saudi Arabia, a lot of protocol attached to meetings and greetings. They can never be rushed, it’s all done at a fine pace that suits the heat. And, there must be bloody cake! And dates and nuts.
Joshua sat down in the room, Eddie Hearn at his side, his other loyal men on another side of the table. We talked about the Haringey Box Cup and his fight with Otto Wallin. “People got to see that for about a fiver,” he said. He smiled at the memory of the Olympic gold, which he won close to exactly 10 years ago. He was sharp, focused and relaxed. He is always happy talking about his amateur days. They shaped and saved him, it’s that simple.
The room in the hotel was his temporary war room, his base to share his thoughts on Saturday night: “Now, the talking doesn’t matter,” he said. “It’s just the fight.” Then the door would open and a woman or a man with three kids would enter, AJ would walk over, squat down and do high-fives with the kids. He never stopped smiling. It’s a side to the fighter that we seldom get to see. He is a father, remember.
Oleksandr Usyk is also a father and he did his two hours of interviews holding and stroking an Eyore fluffy toy, which his daughter had given him when he left Ukraine to start camp. I told him that in Winnie the Pooh, Eyore is a melancholic little fella. “Is not boy, is girl,” he told me. I always get the hard questions in.
Usyk looked a bit heavier, Joshua looked a bit lighter; they each acted about as relaxed as they could during the scrum for their thoughts on the fight. And, the war.
Usyk was brilliant again on the frontline he left behind. The men and women he left behind and the people he will never see again. I asked John Hornewer, possibly modern boxing’s greatest insider, what he thought about the pressures inside Usyk’s head. “He can compartmentalise,” he said. And that is exactly what I thought when I spoke to him. Usyk also has a coach to work on his mind, to control his emotions. That, in a fight like this and against a backdrop of lethal battlefields, is a critical job.
The Monday night gathering was choreographed to make both men miss each other; rooms for interviews, rooms for photographers and the main scrum area. There was also a buffet. People talked about the boxer’s dimensions as they tucked away tiny red cupcakes. “He looks so much bigger…. He looks so much smaller… I expected him to be a lot bigger.” That type of idle chat. There will be other meetings this week in the seaside city, they will stand eye-to-eye and then, at just about midnight on Saturday, they will walk to the ring.
In the gaps, when the fighters were up on the fourth floor, Hearn was quick to dismiss rumours and talk about Joshua quitting if he loses. “Ridiculous, total rubbish,” he told me.
Joshua and Hearn had spent a lot of time at the table in the room, talking in whispers and then, at one point, Joshua had stood up – checking first who was in the room – and went through a few punches; Hearn was Usyk in the role play. I did my best to be invisible. It is always good to be a silent witness to a moment of private talk in the boxing business. I looked around the room and it was a small and familiar group. Obviously, Robert McCracken is gone, but Robert Garcia and Angel Fernandez were not there. The men in that room were 10-year veterans of the AJ Show. It has, by the way, been a show.
It was a fluid night, a long night. Joshua was probably done in just about three hours and Usyk about the same. I have left some of these early-week meets with a worry before, a sense that one fighter is not right. In New York many, many moons ago, when Andy Ruiz joined Mike Costello and I on a balcony, we were struck by his confidence. He had new gold, major swag and he was comfortably gobbing at the pedestrians about 20 floors below us. In the land of after-timing, we missed a few clues: Ruiz was fearless and hungry. And, AJ had a sty on his eye, was snuffling and complained about being tired! Ouch.
That was certainly not the case at the Shangri-La on Monday night. Usyk was not too relaxed and Joshua was not too tense. I sensed a real calm in Joshua and a great sense of purpose from Usyk. The whole fighting-for-a-nation thing is very real. However, I still remain unconvinced that it is not a burden on Usyk, an extra weight in his head and heart.
That night, so long ago now at the O2, when Joshua mauled Whyte was on my mind when I left the Shangri-La after about five-hours of mingling. Joshua was carefree then, unbeaten, loved by his fans and very dangerous. That man is still there, I could see it in his eyes.