THE progress that Anthony Joshua has made in the last 10 years is frankly incredible. Today, he is a household name the world over and his face and famous smile graces billboards and television advertisements. A commodity in his own right, a celebrity who has transcended his trade, Joshua has come an awfully long way since he was pulled over by the police in 2011 and caught in possession of cannabis. A little over 12 months later – community service completed, a suspension served and important life lessons learned – Joshua had won an Olympic gold medal that changed his life forever.
In the past decade he has drawn immeasurable interest to the sport, inspired countless young lives and beaten every heavyweight he has faced. Without that success in the ring, the rest would not have fallen into place. That financial security, those accolades, and that turnaround from petty criminal to superstar, already point to a job well done.
Today he speaks in a bittersweet way about how far he has come. In this week’s issue of the magazine he talks about how he “feels sorry” for the current crop of GB Olympians who prepare to take their first steps into professional boxing. He knows they will be pulled this way and that, their medals dangling like targets for the money-grabbers and money-makers. He understands the ‘business’ of boxing, though it’s clear he would prefer to focus purely on the sport. Anyone suggesting he doesn’t want to fight Tyson Fury, that he has ‘ducked’ the world heavyweight champion, simply don’t know what makes him tick.
This weekend, Joshua heads into a contest that might turn out to be the hardest fight of his career to date. Though we should rightfully expect the best boxers to seek out their best available opponents, Joshua doing so at this juncture, right after his date with Fury was aborted, is refreshing. Oleksandr Usyk, outside of his native Ukraine, is nowhere near as famous as Joshua or Fury but he’s a fearsome competitor and arguably the best boxer, talent-wise, in the division. One can argue that “AJ” had no choice but to take this fight due to Usyk’s mandatory position with the World Boxing Organisation. But when you’re a name like Anthony Joshua, you always have a choice. He could have swerved Usyk, no question. He could have made more money from taking on Dillian Whyte in a domestic showdown that would have generated more attention and headlines in the UK. In the end he opted to accept the most difficult challenge outside of Fury.
If he had no intention of fighting Tyson in the future (or Deontay Wilder if he upsets the Gypsy King in a fortnight’s time), he would have no reason to retain that WBO belt because, in his mind, holding all the belts is the ultimate achievement. After defeating Charles Martin to win the IBF trinket in 2016, his first title, he immediately spoke of his desire to rule without argument. The irony, of course, is that if the belts did not exist in their current form, the path to universal recognition would be markedly simpler. Yet it’s only fair to point out that the chaos at the top will now and again create fights that wouldn’t otherwise happen. Like this sumptuous clash of styles and personalities.
Usyk enjoys a less complicated life. He can spend time away from the glare of the camera, he can exist in a private world. Unlike Joshua, who every time he leaves his home must make sure he’s wearing the right clothes and saying the right things to those his team deem worthy of his attention, Usyk can simply be Usyk. And Oleksandr Usyk is preparing to show the world much more than they already know.
Joshua is aware of the threat, even though he will downplay it. He will say it’s just another opponent. He will try to say what’s expected of him, not give too much away, and retain his focus when everybody close by wants his attention.
Joshua is at times obviously fed up with answering questions about opponents he is not contracted to fight, like Fury and before that, Wilder. He feels he doesn’t get the credit for the many he has actually defeated. He has a point.
Compared to every other active heavyweight, Joshua’s record contains the most victories over top opposition. Critics will point, while missing the point, to his opponents being past their best. If he destroys Usyk at the weekend, they will say that the former world cruiserweight champion was too small. But if you add the scalp of Usyk to Pulev, Ruiz, Povetkin, Parker, Takam, Klitschko and Whyte – all while being a relative newcomer to the sport, all while living under a microscope – then the legacy he really wants, far more than the fame, will almost be complete.
Oleksandr Usyk speaks ahead of the heavyweight showdown here