After a comprehensive win over former undefeated WBO champion Joseph Parker, Anthony Joshua could hardly have done more to stake his claim as the world’s best heavyweight boxer. Fighting at his lowest weight in four years, Joshua delivered a controlled, dominant performance to ensure a unanimous points victory, demonstrating more composure and technical skill than some have traditionally given him credit for. This was undoubtedly his most mature performance in the ring, but it represents something much more important than any one fight: Anthony Joshua’s evolution into one of Britain’s greatest role models.
Following a 2012 Olympic gold as an amateur, Joshua’s professional career has always commanded a massive fan base within boxing. But since beating Dillion Whyte in 2015, Joshua has become not only a great fighter, but an ambassador for all British sport. By heavyweight standards, Joshua is humble, kind and respectful, developing a personality that has charmed not just the nation but the entire world.
Despite its reputation as the ‘glamorous’ division, heavyweight boxing has endured difficult times recently, mostly due to the disgusting conduct of the fighters themselves. After mesmerisingly defeating Wladimir Klitschko in 2015, winning four heavyweight titles, as well as earning the Fighter of the Year award and a BBC Sports Personality of the Year nomination, Tyson Fury disgraced himself and his sport with a string of disgusting remarks about women and the LGBT+ community before losing his boxing licence for drug use. In late 2016, Derek Chisora’s press conference with Dillion Whyte was ended by security after Chisora threw a table at Whyte. Whyte had threatened that “If I see you [Chisora] anywhere, I’m going to attack you – even after the fight”. All of this comes after 15 years of Wladimir Klitschko’s attempts to restore dignity and credibility to a sport that was still struggling to recover from the rape conviction of its greatest star, Mike Tyson.
Despite his fearsome reputation in the ring, Joshua consistently conducts himself in a controlled and mature manner befitting a British sporting hero.
How, then, is Anthony Joshua so different? Despite his fearsome reputation in the ring, Joshua consistently conducts himself in a controlled and mature manner befitting a British sporting hero. Responding to constant heckling from Deontay Wilder after beating Parker, Joshua remained dignified: “Forget the hype, I’m not into that, everyone knows me better than that”. This is not to say Joshua is averse to spectacle; his ‘feuds’ with Whyte and now Wilder attract massive attention. He just refuses to degrade a great sport into petulant name-calling and personal attacks engineered to generate revenue. Perhaps ironically, it is this refusal to play characters that makes him so popular. His last three fights have sold 250,000 tickets, whilst drawing unusually large American interest (compare Joshua-Wilder with Hatton-Mayweather). Furthermore, given his general respectfulness, when Joshua does indulge in pantomime trash-talk, his comments strike with greater resonance. When he threatened, “Get him [Wilder] in the ring, and I’ll knock him spark out”, Cardiff’s 80,000 crowd went wild.
In Joshua, people idolise a sportsman who remains amazingly grounded. Despite his success, his plain-talking, decent and honest style has captivated the hearts of millions. His clear understanding of the line between sport and spectacle was epitomised by his respectful embrace with Joseph Parker after Saturday’s fight, followed by a heart-warming hug with Parker’s mother, Sala. After hearing that Sala had given a tearful press conference concerned for her son’s health against Joshua, he said that “a mother’s love is unconditional, so I respect that. But we’ve both got a job to do and we both want to be victorious, so tell his mum not to worry”.
In Joshua, people idolise a sportsman who remains amazingly grounded.
Such comments embody Joshua’s humble family roots. Despite being worth more than £50 million, until recently Joshua chose to stay living with his Mum in their Watford council flat where he grew up. For his most recent training camp in Sheffield, Joshua chose a small one-bed flat, a decision inconceivable to the likes of Floyd ‘Money’ Mayweather.
Even more surprisingly, Joshua’s pristine reputation is built from a difficult childhood. Joshua was remanded in Reading Prison for fighting and punished with a 14-month electronic tag and curfew. Two years later in 2011, Joshua was caught speeding while wearing his Team GB tracksuit, where he was then found in the possession of cannabis. As a result he received a 12-month suspended sentence and 100 hours community service for possession with intent to supply. After being suspended by Team GB, it was only through the efforts of his long-time coach Rob McCracken that he went to the London Olympics at all.
Joshua has always been clear that boxing saved him from a much darker path. It is testament to his humility that, despite his meteoric success, he remains as accessible as ever. In a time when cricket, the so-called gentlemen’s game, has embroiled itself in scandal, it is now in heavyweight boxing that we find the true sporting role model.