WHAT’S not to like about the big guy to my left? A tight tracksuit’s dream, Anthony Joshua is charming and polite and his earthy and earnest laugh brings smiles to the faces of all who hear it.
He stands to shake the hand of everyone in the room, bar the cooler few who opt to bump the thinly gloved fists of the IBF and WBA heavyweight king. And then, if all reporters aren’t yet suitably seduced, he takes his seat and asks each of them how they are.
Just like always, Anthony Joshua is attentive to the questions that soon follow and, whether truly interested or not, canvases the opinions of those asking them.
The admiration shouldn’t stop there. In an era where social media has provided the undeserving with not so much a leg-up but a rocket-fuelled launch to fame and fortune, Joshua has largely shunned such short cuts, instead becoming a slave to his trade, far more interested is he in carving a legacy than making a splash.
Indeed, Anthony Joshua is Anthony Joshua, perhaps now the most marketable fighter on the planet, because of his studious outlook and desire to be the very best he can be. Point to incessant exposure from Sky Sports, Eddie Hearn’s wheeling-and-a-dealing, the lucrative sponsorships and even Charles Martin being IBF champion when Joshua received his first alphabet title chance as evidence to the contrary if you like, but none would have occurred without extreme sacrifice behind the scenes, and the steep learning curve that the fighter himself opted to follow.
The Olympic gold in London 2012 was the tipping point, and everything since – the professional titles, the riches and the adulation – flowed as a direct consequence of Joshua being Joshua.
Now the flipside. Focus this intense, and fame this huge, must not be risked at any cost. His promoter Hearn, all sockless and suave, sits alongside “AJ” and interjects occasionally while the fighter’s publicist, Andy Bell, and manager, Freddie Cunningham, position themselves out of view but well within earshot.
There can be no slip-ups in interviews, let alone anything resembling a normal conversation, because the right words must always be uttered in the right crowd. Consequently, these Joshua love-ins, where British sportswriters are ushered into a semi-circle and collectively given 30 minutes to entice a story from the big man’s lips are an increasingly difficult environment to entice anything outside of the familiar tales of dedication and determination and the fight ahead.
“I remember the days when you were an amateur, and you used to love chatting on the hands free,” says Ron Lewis of The Times, yearning for the old freedom to just have a one-to-one.
“I don’t do that anymore,” replies the 28-year-old, perhaps also wishing for simpler times. “You’ve got to get smarter with this s**t.”
The s**t Joshua refers to might be leaked Twitter messages he allegedly sent to Eddie Chambers, which, if the work of AJ, showed a darker side to his character than the one we’re permitted to see today.
Perhaps the s**t is a recent interview he conducted with GQ, which resulted in him making an innocent comparison between his niece and his son that was quickly blown out of all proportion because the world, seemingly intent on creating hysteria for hysteria’s sake, has gone absolutely barking mad.
Ultimately, the s**t is likely a realisation about modern day society which elevates its heroes to supersonic levels before gathering beneath, with proverbial slingshots and pellet guns, hoping to bring them crashing back down.
So the night Joshua gallantly defeated Wladimir Klitschko last April, going from sporting champion to international superstar in 11 stunning rounds, was also the night the media slapped a target on his back.
Consider this when thinking about the current age of fame and fortune: What would be the bigger story? Joshua enhancing his sporting reputation further by winning a war of the ages against Joseph Parker, the WBO champion and this weekend’s opponent, or it being ruined as he’s photographed stumbling out of a club at 5am after drowning his sorrows following a loss? Unquestionably and unfortunately, in the year 2018, the media, or a certain type of media wholly different to those in the room today, is out to get you because scandal is a bigger story than achievement.
“Do you see me out anywhere?” a slightly prickly Joshua responds when asked about the trappings of celebrity life. “Do you hear anything about me? You don’t hear anything like that.”
We used to hear about Tyson Fury as he descended into chaos after winning the world heavyweight title. And, inevitably, we hear about him today. Inactive since defeating Klitschko in 2015, Fury is slowly getting himself back into shape after a disastrous period that saw him test positive for illegal performance enhancers, admit to taking cocaine to combat depression, and totter out of nightclubs at a time Joshua’s alarm would alert him to the start of his daily grind.
“I don’t even really like talking about him,” Joshua says, slightly frustrated to yet again be asked about a man who hasn’t fought in two-and-a-half years. “Is it my destiny to fight him? No, it’s his destiny to fight me. I’ve done what I’ve done without Tyson, and I was always going to do what I was going to do with or without Tyson.”
Considering what happened to Fury, and plenty of heavyweight champions before him whose careers collapsed as their focus waned, it’s understandable why Joshua’s team keep him close, and why these ‘media days’ are designed to promote and protect the all-conquering athlete that Joshua has worked so hard to become.
Joshua’s dedication is not faltering after all these years. If anything, it seems to have intensified as the weight of expectation on his shoulders, which for now he carries comfortably, gets heavier and heavier and heavier. Joshua’s victory over Klitschko won universal acclaim but with it the bar was raised, and the subsequent 10th round victory over late substitute Carlos Takam inevitably fell below expectation.
“Nowadays, you’re defined after one mistake,” says Joshua, admitting some frustration. “I won against Takam, I controlled it for 10 rounds with a broken nose but because I didn’t knock him out, people say ‘Has he got stamina issues?’ In [Floyd] Mayweather’s day, he goes 12 rounds in every fight and people say he’s a genius. I go past 10 rounds with Takam and I’m not as good as I should be because I didn’t knock him out in round two. It’s a different dynamic.”
So that criticism bothers him?
“No,” he says, holding eye contact. The Under Armour logo is visible on his gloves as he adjusts his Under Armour cap. “You have to understand where you are and what you’re involved in. You do it for yourself, you can’t listen to everyone’s opinion because you’ll stop believing in yourself. If I had to listen to what everyone else has got to say, then I wouldn’t be able to look in the mirror and tell myself I’m great. If I listen to everyone else and believe what they say, when someone calls out to me on the street, ‘You’re rubbish’, I’d have to put my head down. No, you’ve got to believe in yourself.”
Against Takam, Joshua showed that belief. The mistakes that made the Klitschko fight so entertaining were not apparent, even if the thrills and spills were sacrificed as a result. Many questioned the timing of the referee’s intervention in the 10th round, but Takam had been on the wrong end of a steady beating for long enough.
“You have to be clever when you’ve hurt someone,” Joshua explains in reference to both his performance in October 2017 and his tactics against Parker. “You have to keep doing what you did to get them hurt. Not just ‘bang!’ You do what you did to get them hurt in the first place. It’s learning how to execute in an assassin style, not a brave warrior, riding through on a horse, killing everyone. They get chopped up as well! I’m trying to be that sniper,” he continues, the Under Armour logo visible on his gloves as he adjusts his Under Armour cap. “That’s my mindset, to be a bit more calculated.”
When he talks about boxing, Joshua always gives the right answers, and his team nods and smiles in unison. Yes, this is the pre-fight Joshua Show. Not only is he savvy with a soundbite, he’s dedicated, he’s training hard, he’s in shape, he’s planning to beat Parker, perhaps even knock him out and, above all, he’s learning lessons. Everything is positive, everything is straight from manual of best behaviour. One can’t help but feel like it’s all been heard before.
And perhaps that’s what should be admired more than anything about the Englishman. Still only 20 bouts into his professional career, he’s about to embark on his third consecutive stadium fight, he’s arguably the most famous athlete in the UK, and he continues to take everything in his stride.
He’s showing no sign of the pressure getting to him, and he’s kept all of his promises thus far. As his celebrity grows with each passing day, Joshua, to his credit in this age of temptation and excess, is still only known for being a successful athlete.
Joshua stands up, still in character, still the media darling, still a winner. The 30-minute presentation is almost over. One last question comes his way. One last attempt to find a new angle on Anthony Joshua. Why is he wearing gloves? Is it to stave off germs? Are they to disguise an injury, or are they just another product he gets paid to wear?
“I wear the gloves because I don’t want to get cold,” Joshua chuckles. “It’s been f**king snowing and all sorts.”