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The Beltline: The problem with “yes men” in no-man’s land

Anthony Joshua has always found comfort in numbers (Francois Nel/Getty Images)
The team behind Anthony Joshua received criticism for not protecting their fighter in the aftermath of his defeat against Oleksandr Usyk on Saturday. But what exactly could they have done? asks Elliot Worsell

THE concept of “yes men” is not a new one, nor one exclusive to boxing, but it tends to be particularly prevalent in boxing due to the sport’s open-door policy and the easy nature of its entrance exam.

Like the world’s worst matchday steward, boxing has a habit of patting down prospective entrants with its eyes closed, thus letting in any old chancer, whether in possession of a bottle of water, a knife, or an explosive device. It is, alas, the most generous of sports. The most welcoming of sports. The most accessible of sports. If you have either the requisite money or chat you can easily find your way inside, no questions asked, and in time could even find yourself in a position of power should you adopt a key role in a boxer’s life, business, or training camp.

Because, in boxing, saying the right things trumps knowing the right things and any power or responsibility accrued is usually the product of longevity – that is, sticking around – rather than any sort of intelligence, insight, or honesty.

“How do they all get in?” wrote W.C. Heinz in his 1958 novel The Professional. “A kid is a street fighter, and he’s got a pal. The kid goes into the amateurs and his pal goes into the corner with him. The kid wins a dozen fights and wants to turn pro, so he brings his pal along. His pal’s gonna train him, maybe even manage him. They’re friends, and it’s a beautiful thing. The kid has a half-dozen fights and gets flattened. He quits, but does his pal quit? Oh, no. Of course not. He’s a trainer now. He’s up in the gym. He’s got a towel over his shoulder. He’s in for life. Some innocent kid comes walking in, wants to be a fighter. Now he’s got another fighter.”

On Saturday night the team behind heavyweight Anthony Joshua received no small amount of criticism for failing to prevent the bizarre outburst that followed his second defeat against Oleksandr Usyk, leading to the phrase “yes men” once again being bandied about. It was in this instance used primarily because Joshua, wounded and confused by his latest loss, had been left to then compound his own misery by being granted free rein to say and do whatever he wanted in the aftermath. This resulted in him doing things he shouldn’t have done and saying things he shouldn’t have said, with his “team” either hiding elsewhere or too afraid to intervene.

In an ideal world, they would have done. That goes without saying. But this is not an ideal world and that, for both them and for Joshua, was far from an ideal situation. In fact, by the time any of them realised what was going on, it had already gone on. It was happening. It was escalating. It was too late.

Or, then again, was it?

It was too late, no doubt, by the time those at home were standing in front of their televisions in wide-eyed disbelief, but there is an argument to be made that the seeds of Joshua’s outburst had been planted as early as round three of the fight. It was at that point, remember, Joshua returned to his corner to be told by new trainer Robert Garcia that he was three rounds ahead, which, to any rational person, seemed a barefaced lie. That piece of misinformation didn’t cause the outburst at the end, no, but it offered an insight into the delusion of Team Joshua, as well as the need for Joshua to be told things he wants to hear and be surrounded by people adept at telling him things he wants to hear.

In boxing, for the most part that’s the entire premise and job description of a “team member”. A strange sport, one that is simultaneously as honest as they come and as dishonest as they come, its participants typically require confidence and self-belief at all times, just to get them through training camp and come to terms with the idea of trading punches with another human being, and will therefore invariably gravitate towards people capable of offering this confidence in spades. Most likely, they will attempt to seek out team members who are either young and naïve or old and greedy. Whichever it is, they will find the best candidates available and stick with them – using them as much as they are in turn being used – for as long as the relationship remains fruitful and they keep winning.

The moment they lose, the relationship then sours and a divorce is inevitable. If, by some miracle, it ends before they lose, chances are the “yes man” will have spoken up, challenged the boxer, said something they are not being paid to say, or simply grown up. Those cases are rare, however.

Anthony Joshua heads into battle in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia (Mark Robinson Matchroom Boxing)

With Joshua last weekend the delusion started as early as round three but, more worrying than that, there were clues as to his unravelling, mentally as much as physically, in round 10. That was the moment he began to tire, following a dominant but ultimately stamina-sapping ninth, and displayed detectable signs of fatigue, pain, and concussion. There was, in that round and the two to follow, a stiffness to his movements and a delay in his reactions whenever he was nailed by Usyk’s punches. In fact, as dramatic and extreme as it sounds, given I had him winning only three rounds and couldn’t imagine him stopping Usyk, I wouldn’t have been averse to seeing him pulled out at that stage.

That was never going to happen, of course. But what perhaps could have happened immediately after the fight is that someone, having seen the signs of concussion apparent to idiots like me watching through a television screen, took some preemptive measures and, like a referee, saved Joshua from himself.

Easier said than done, I’ll admit, yet they were evident in the fight’s final rounds, these signs, and were practically then screaming at us through the screen when Joshua was aimlessly wandering the ring after the fight and conversing with Ukrainians who couldn’t understand what he was saying, nor, based on their expressions, cared about what he was saying. It brought to mind a drunk in a pub attacking the ear of a sober stranger, driving them closer and closer to the exit and a bus home. It was off, all of it: Joshua’s sudden loss of control, this thing he once held so dearly, and also the discomfort on the faces of tough men from a tough country. He needed stopping and they, Usyk included, needed saving. But by whom?

The next day Matchroom USA’s Head of Press Anthony Leaver, someone who has been around plenty of boxers, made a valid and interesting point when tweeting: “Reaaaaally wanna see the last time any team member took the mic from a fighter… chuck those videos out there!”

It was a point worth making for the simple reason that the fantasy of stopping a fighter about to make an error of judgement on a global stage is quite different from the reality of stopping a fighter about to make an error of judgement on a global stage.

The fantasy is that there is someone within the fighter’s team the fighter respects enough to listen to, not just in general terms but during the most disappointing moment of their career to date, and that this person – this 18-stone mentor or deity – has the courage and chin to approach the fighter in question and wrestle from them whatever weapon they have in their hand (in this case, thankfully just a microphone). The reality, however, is that this kind of person is unlikely to exist within the inner sanctum of a fighter’s team. Moreover, even more unusual is it for a fighter to listen to anyone when their emotions are running wild and they are more than likely concussed. (Who, by the way, is getting in the ear of Tyson Fury, a far bigger problem than Anthony Joshua at this moment in time, and telling him to maybe tone it down, make up his mind, or have a day off?)

If in doubt, just check the look on Usyk’s face as Joshua roamed the ring in which he had for 36 minutes been outclassed. There, on Usyk’s face, was the look of a man who knew for sure he was the superior boxer of the two yet, despite this, couldn’t be certain he knew how to control Joshua with the fight now over. He was not scared. That was not it. But he was clearly both on edge and concerned. More importantly, he saw the tell-tale signs of a boxer who was concussed, emotional, and potentially volatile, never quite sure what he was going to do or say next.

If that was enough for Usyk to keep a distance, it is hard to then blame Joshua’s team for sheepishly staying out of his way and letting him get on with it. They, after all, are not equipped (physically) to deal with him on a good day, let alone a day like that, and no amount of begging, bargaining or appealing to his human side would have changed that fact in Saudi Arabia.

All in all, the sight of Joshua touring the ring, this so-called loneliest place in the world, completely alone was a sad one. It was made all the sadder, too, by virtue of the fact the same ring had earlier been heaving with members of his training team, his management team, and his cheerleaders, and that other rings, ones in which he had been victorious, have for years been flooded by these same faces and voices at a fight’s conclusion. But this night, alas, was to be a different kind of night. The fight was different and, crucially, Joshua, at its conclusion, was markedly different than he had ever been before, whether in victory or defeat.

Obvious to those of us watching on TV, it must have been even more obvious to those close to Joshua; those who see him on a regular basis and can detect the signs; those who know the person, not just the brand. (Which is to say, the image of him all alone probably said as much about Joshua as it did the “yes men” who received criticism for not offering him an autocue and getting him back into character.)

This, for better or for worse, was perhaps the real Joshua. Not wind-up toy Joshua. Not “Live, Laugh, Love” Joshua. Not “Stay Hungry, Stay Humble” Joshua. This was the Anthony Joshua those closest to him know exists, bubbling beneath the surface, and one they hoped to forever keep under wraps, both for his own sake and theirs. “A f**king weirdo,” Dillian Whyte called Joshua only last year. Yet the truth is that Joshua is simply a human being, as vulnerable as any other, and not a brand to be exploited at every turn. Worst of all, Joshua is a human being who gets punched in the head for a living while being watched by millions of people who have no idea how that actually feels, much less understand the damage it does.

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