AT a time when seemingly everybody is looking for their safe space, Anthony Joshua may have found his in the Middle East. It is there, after all, he bagged his biggest payday to date and recorded the most important victory of his career back in 2019. It is there, too, he can be found this Saturday (August 20), when again he seeks comfort in the sand and silence and apparent serenity of Saudi Arabia, hoping it will once more allow him to both make a fortune and change his fortunes.

His opponent this time will be Ukraine’s Oleksandr Usyk and the upside of beating Usyk, both financially and in legacy terms, will, for Joshua, eclipse even that of beating Andy Ruiz three years ago. This time, however, he is up against it, really up against it, with both the purse and odds indicative of this. He is to be rewarded financially for the risk he is about to take but is expected by many to fall short, his skills considered no match for his slicker, more intelligent opponent. It is only in Saudi Arabia, in fact, that this rematch, to some, makes any sort of sense. For at least there, in the desert, Joshua will be both handsomely compensated and flooded by positive memories of overturning his 2019 loss against Ruiz. It is there, also, he can expect to be aided by the kind of backdrop important as far as getting his mind focused and then executing a game plan he must follow this time to the letter.

In other words, unlike before, when meeting Usyk at a raucous Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, Joshua will on Saturday meet him in a comparatively subdued affair. The stakes will remain ludicrously high, of course, but the atmosphere itself will not be a patch on the one they experienced in September 2021, nor will the temptation to act out be as great for Joshua. Here, in Saudi Arabia, he will instead be able to truly concentrate and listen. Indeed, one could argue that if Joshua can’t beat Usyk in Saudi Arabia, he can’t beat him anywhere.

It worked for Joshua last time, this sea change. That night in Diriyah, against Ruiz, he was able to box with a cool head and maintain his composure from first round to last, never once trading as recklessly as he did at Madison Square Garden, where the pair met the first time. It made for a dull spectacle, granted, but just as Ruiz’s shape helped create an easy night’s work, the dead atmosphere of Saudi Arabia helped to silence Joshua’s mind and carry him through to the final bell.

He showed plenty that night, no question. Favourite or not, it could not have been easy going back in with a man who had six months earlier rocked his world when stopping him inside seven rounds. Nor will it have been easy holding it all together when many, including Ruiz, fully expected Joshua to start well, fade in the middle rounds, then eventually malfunction and implode late on. To ensure that never happened in Diryah was a mark of both Joshua’s mental fortitude and his ability to adapt from fight one to fight two.

Even so, the prospect of rematching Andy Ruiz is decidedly less daunting than what Joshua will face on Saturday, when rematching Oleksandr Usyk in his safe space (Jeddah, specifically). This time, in what is the biggest difference between the two rematches, he will be confronting someone who not only defeated him previously, but also stifled him, shut him down, and dominated him. Twelve months on, Joshua presumably now knows that it is better to be suddenly, if shockingly, knocked out by an opponent (as was the case with Ruiz) than endure what Usyk did to him in London last year. Because what Usyk ultimately did to Joshua that night was something tough to understand, much less immediately remedy. He exposed his limitations, not simply his mistakes.

Mistakes, they can be fixed of course, whereas limitations speak to a deficiency on the part of a fighter. They are stuck with them and rarely will this change. In this instance, regardless of the fact he was knocked out by Ruiz and only outpointed by Usyk, the difference between those two losses, in terms of damage accrued (psychologically more so than physically), cannot be understated.

Last time: Anthony Joshua and Oleksander Usyk (Picture By Mark Robinson Matchroom Boxing)

Indeed, it is for this reason Joshua, despite the obscene amount of money he stands to make from it, deserves credit for returning to his teacher this weekend. It’s an admirable move. A courageous one. Lesser men would have likely heeded the first lesson and gone in a different direction, yet Joshua, never one to shirk a challenge, has for better or worse opted to sit the test again, straight away.

Depending on the result, this decision will be viewed as either the brave and smart move of a calculated risk-taker, or it will be viewed as the move of a greedy and ego-driven fool. Either way, though, we should always appreciate it when a fighter backs their ability in this manner, even if fuelled entirely by pride, and tries to solve a problem that was too great for them the first time around.

Ask some, too, and they will say the answer to fixing this problem is simple. All Joshua needs to do, they say, is be a bit more aggressive next time, work a little harder, and throw more punches. Bring out the beast, they say, and Usyk, a man who has never shown signs of folding, will supposedly just fold, returning to Joshua all he stole from him last year.

If that theory seems perhaps wide of the mark, it’s because it is. It is also typically something said only by those who started following boxing at the time of Joshua’s professional debut back in 2013. Yet, whether it’s in the end wide of the mark or bang on the money, it remains the narrative being pushed and it is something that will no doubt sell the rematch to a lot of people who are for the most part ignorant about such matters. These people, one assumes, will have been oblivious to a lot of the subtle things Usyk was doing in fight one, as well as oblivious to all the opportunities he created for himself but ultimately refrained from exploiting, due either to hesitation, tiredness, or there simply being no need. Instead, wanting to sell the rematch to themselves, or inflate Joshua with false hope, they have zeroed in on all Joshua can do better in fight number two. They have told us, just as we were told before fight one, that he is naturally bigger than Usyk, and more powerful than Usyk, and that he is this time capable of becoming, in fight two, something he has never been before. 

Should Joshua become this fighter, and should he therefore right his wrong, he will deserve all the praise he receives. He will, after all, not only have gained revenge over Usyk, but will have secured the best win of his career, eclipsing the 2017 knockout of the great but faded Wladimir Klitschko at Wembley. There is, for him, clearly so much to gain, then. But also, much to do.

Knowing this, Joshua, 24-2 (22), has enlisted the help of top American trainer Robert Garcia, who replaces Robert McCracken, Joshua’s former coach. Together, Joshua and Garcia have been working for most of the year, with only Usyk in mind, and that single focus, combined with some fresh voices and ideas, will undoubtedly have done Joshua the world of good. It might not be enough for him to win, no, but if people want aggression from Joshua this time around, there is arguably no better trainer than Garcia, a man whose fighters are often aggressive, to drag this out of him.

The counter to this, however, is that while on the face of it a Garcia-trained Joshua is an improvement on the previously reticent version, aggression in a boxing ring typically leads to opportunity, especially for a counterpuncher as clever as Usyk, 19-0 (13). So strong is this conflicting belief, in fact, you only have to look at the first fight between the pair to find supporting evidence; that is, see how much easier it was for Usyk to hit Joshua whenever Joshua tried to come forward and open up. It was in those moments a big man with long arms made himself smaller and his target significantly larger. It was in those moments Usyk, a southpaw whose entire offensive game is set up by his feet and the movement of his head, found openings alluring enough to exploit.

Given this, you fear for Joshua should he offer up any more of himself, particularly seeing as he seemed exhausted and hurt at the end of round 12, not far off being stopped. Then again, when they speak of aggression, what they actually mean is pressure. Educated pressure. That’s the primary buzzword thrown at Joshua ahead of this rematch and it’s something Garcia will unquestionably have tried to emphasise in the weeks and months they have spent working together in America. For if it is applied correctly and at the right time, educated pressure could be the thing to get Joshua in range and allow him to make use of his size and strength in a way he was unable to before. Then, so the theory goes, Usyk will be reminded of the fact he was once a cruiserweight and has, to date, only three pro heavyweight fights to his name. Then he will also be reminded of the fact that in fight one, despite Joshua’s lack of success, there were still sporadic moments when Joshua’s blows, as innocuous as they appeared, knocked Usyk off balance and unsettled him, such was their weight.

Still, I’ll admit, even the concept of educated pressure being Usyk’s kryptonite sounds farfetched right now. It sounds all the more farfetched, too, when you think about how Usyk himself may have improved from fight one to fight two and how his own confidence will have surely grown due to going 12 rounds with Joshua and winning most of them. Moreover, unlike with Ruiz back in 2019, Joshua is on this occasion fighting a man in Usyk whose motivation has probably never been greater than it is in 2022. Rivalry aside, Usyk’s motivation for this one, coming as it does during a year in which his country – his one-time safe space – has become a warzone, is something even Joshua cannot expect to match. The motivation to overturn a loss is one thing. However, the motivation to bring fleeting joy to an otherwise devastated nation is something Usyk has in abundance and something Joshua, still thinking both superficially and financially, will at this point perhaps not even comprehend.