THE Oleksandr Usyk-Anthony Joshua rematch is just days away and the consensus seems to be that Usyk will repeat his win of last September and expel Joshua from the upper tier of heavyweight boxing, only this time he’ll do so more dominantly. It’s honestly been difficult to find anyone making a case – with real conviction – for a Joshua win.
There is probably some off-the-shelf statistic somewhere, which confirms that most rematches are decided more emphatically in favour of the person who won the first fight, but the consignment of Joshua to the role of hopeless underdog is somewhat of a surprise.
Tribalism has undoubtedly played a part in swathes of support and public belief in Joshua falling away. The gaze of British and world heavyweight boxing has shifted towards Tyson Fury, which includes the attrition of many fans and members of the media who were steadfast “AJ” supporters just a few years ago. Bandwagon bias is really a thing.
Those who have fathomed a way that Joshua can emerge from this fight as the winner have tended to do so by including a much-repeated caveat “AJ can win but he’s mentally shot.”
Twenty-one years ago, there were similar feelings about Lennox Lewis as he prepared for his rematch against Hasim Rahman. Not only did Rahman knock Lennox out, shockingly, in their first fight, but he appeared to have gotten the better of their infamous studio brawl. The image of Rahman, biceps bulging in a sleeveless jacket, pinning Lewis to the studio floor was all the evidence needed for many fans and members of the media to make their minds up that the former champion was ‘rattled’, ‘scared’ and ‘finished’. He wasn’t, and went on to demolish Rahman in four rounds.
This is not to say that Joshua has the elite quality that Lewis had, or Rahman presents the same level of difficulty to fight as Usyk, but there are clear overlaps between the two fights. Is a similar misread of Usyk-Joshua II about to happen? Lewis went into that rematch wanting to gain revenge, but he was experienced enough to know that he needed to win to preserve his legacy as one of the greatest heavyweights of all time and reassume his place, which he saw as being rightfully his, at the top of the heavyweight tree. That need to win gave him the appropriate amount of fear to be at his best.
Sometimes the difference between what a person wants and what a person needs can be a fine line. Nearly every boxer that steps through those ropes ‘wants’ to win, as winning has huge evolutionary value, it moves you forward, improves you in some way. The ‘need’ to win requires a deeper dive, as the reasons are usually more fundamental and critical to how you function. In boxing we tend to call this ‘the hunger’.
Joshua needs to win this fight. He has revealed in the lead-up that he feels disrespected despite all that he’s achieved, and there’s probably some truth in that. His ego and pride as a man and competitor means that gaining revenge is still very much on the agenda, but he needs to deprioritise that mission, as there’s simply too much at stake.
In 1988 Lloyd Honeyghan took on Mexico’s Jorge Vaca in a rematch after losing his WBC welterweight title and unbeaten record in a major upset, by a split technical decision.
Honeyghan won the rematch in three rounds. He was more relentless than ever before, but boxed without his usual class, swinging, and missing wildly until finding the body shot that ended the fight. His bitter rival at the time, Marlon Starling was so unimpressed by the performance that he compared Honeyghan to an old lady fending off a mugger. Maybe so, but he won and that’s all that mattered. Honeyghan placed winning before style and his wanting for revenge and it paid off.
Another defeat to Uysk doesn’t necessarily end Joshua’s career, but it does effectively remove him from any ‘best heavyweight in the world’ arguments, relegating him to the second tier of the division. On the business side of things, it would alter the commercial proposition that he is now. Deontay Wilder ‘s descent from marquee champion to one of the pack won’t have gone unnoticed either.
Joshua’s long-time rival and antagonist has been banished from discussions about this era’s best heavyweight after consecutive losses to Tyson Fury. Wilder’s return to the ring against Robert Helenius in October will be a brand-new world for him after 13 straight WBC title fights (11 of which were title defences) and more than five years of being positioned at heavyweight boxing’s top table.
When Joshua lost to Andy Ruiz there was a feeling that despite the cracks in his confidence, he knew exactly what to do to right the wrongs that happened in New York. Against Usyk it’s likely he’s not so sure. The Ukrainian is a world class operator who dispassionately picks apart his opponents, and seemingly holds little fear of the giants in the division. Joshua’s decision to try and match him for skill and IQ backfired spectacularly. His constant upper body movement, deft feints and stinging counters left the Briton lost in a psychological haze.
Boxing’s talking heads and fans globally, are largely in agreement that Joshua’s best and possibly only route to victory is to make this a physically demanding fight, in which he must unshackle all his size, strength and power to dislodge Usyk’s advantage in ringcraft and generalship. This might be asking for a version of Joshua that no longer exists. There is a passivity to his boxing that has steadily increased with each fight since the humdinger he had with Wladimir Klitschko in April 2017, and it seemed to take hold completely against Usyk.
His admission that in the first fight his aim was ‘to go the full 12 rounds and prove I could box as well as he does. To land scoring punches’ was a strange one and possibly gave some insight to where he was in his career; making fights as stress-free as possible, thus reducing punishment and increasing his longevity. Like Klitschko did in his third iteration as champion. Or maybe it was overconfidence in thinking he could beat Usyk at his own game. To the naked eye he looked like a fighter without hunger or incisiveness.
Robert Garcia’s role in this camp, alongside Angel Fernandez sounds like its focused on restoring some of the old viciousness to Joshua’s armoury. Years ago, the heralded coach resuscitated Marco Maidana’s career, converting him from an intimidating puncher with questionable fitness into a high-motor threshing machine who beat a then undefeated Adrien Broner and battled Floyd Mayweather in one of the great champion’s most punishing fights. Garcia has used terms such as ‘confidence’, ‘desire’ and ‘belief’ in interviews. Joshua says the trainer breaks things down, gives him the reason for doing certain things. More than anything Garcia wants to instil a resoluteness and resilience in Joshua that can carry him through dark patches he encounters in Saudi Arabia. He’s fully aware what’s on the line. It’s all about the win.