AJ: The beginning or the end?

Anthony Joshua has already cemented his legacy as a British boxing legend. Starting boxing at 18, winning Olympic gold just five years later, confirming his greatness by winning the world heavyweight championship, twice. At 6’6” it would be difficult to characterise his 2017 bout against Wladimir Klitschko as a “David vs Goliath” story, but in the boxing world at the time, Wladimir Klitschko was not just the heavyweight champion, he was the king. Klitschko’s record before the bout stood at 64-4. The fight before Klitschko lost to Joshua? A defeat at the hands of Tyson Fury.

Klitschko had inadvertently set the stage for the future of British heavyweight boxing. Before the Joshua-Klitschko fight, Fury would be forced to relinquish his heavyweight titles, struggling with depression and addiction. In 2016, Joshua would beat Charles Martin for the IBF title, but not without controversy – Mickey Vann accused Martin of having no ambition to win. But the bell had rang, the dust had settled, and the IBF belt was in Joshua’s hands. The amateur boxing hero was at the pinnacle of heavyweight boxing, now he just needed to get the rest of the belts. By the time of their fight Klitschko held the WBA (Super) and IBO heavyweight titles, and soon they were Joshua’s. After winning the WBO title in a fight with Joseph Parker, Joshua was an undeniable force in the heavyweight division. With IBF, WBA (Super), IBO and WBO titles Joshua was second only to the royal family in the number of letters associated with his name.

All that remained was the WBC, then Joshua would be the first undisputed champion in nearly two decades since Lennox Lewis. The WBC lay in the hands of the “Bronze Bomber” Deontay Wilder. Eddie Hearn and Shelly Finkel held talks for a unification bout between the two. However, talks repeatedly broke down, and before any possible matchup two fights had to happen: Wilder vs Breazeale, Joshua vs Andy Ruiz Jr.

Then the unthinkable happened: Ruiz Jr scored a double knockdown and Joshua was out by TKO.

What happened next was arguably the biggest upset in boxing for 30 years. The Joshua-Ruiz fight should have been a card-filler, bookies giving Ruiz Jr 25:1 odds. The hulking Adonis of Anthony Joshua loomed over the four inches smaller, twenty pounds heavier Ruiz Jr. Joshua was the heavyweight division. Fury was gone, Wilder could only punch. Joshua was the true boxer, the true champion. Then the unthinkable happened: Ruiz Jr scored a double knockdown and Joshua was out by TKO. Joshua was still an Olympic champion, still the giant-killer, but now he was only the former unified heavyweight champion. Joshua blamed his legs, but legs are just as important as arms. David Haye, in two bouts with Tony Bellew, had the same problem, his legs wavered and sure enough, he lost – two TKO’s. Joshua soon won his titles back withRuiz Jr blaming partying and weight, but Joshua’s record was not x-0 anymore, it was x-1. He was no longer unblemished, his meteoric rise to the top had faltered. Joshua has not seemed the same fighter since.

Bad turned to worse, Fury was back, he was champion, proving himself to be one of the most skilful, technically gifted big men in the ring. Joshua scored a soft win over the nearly 40 year old Kubrat Pulev, and his eyes turned back to reunification. His appearance on Graham Norton suggested a confident, rebuilt Joshua. But regaining charisma, and dominance after such a slip was always going to be a big task, especially for someone who was so commanding in his career up until then. First, however, Joshua needed to fight the number 1 contender, the compatriot of his foe Klitschko, Oleksandr Usyk. The former cruiserweight stepped into the ring with Joshua and gave one of the most technically gifted performances in recent heavyweight boxing history. Joshua was taken back to school; Usyk’s massive amateur record of 335-15 showed. Most great amateurs need rhythm, speed, and footwork. Since knockouts are incredibly rare, winning on points is the only option. AJ, as an amateur, was the exception proving the rule. Was this a lack of technical skill and historic over-reliance on size, or the demons of a now-tarnished record playing on the mind of Joshua? Perhaps his media appearances belied the state of his mind, now less comfortable in his style, less willing to use size to overwhelm his opponents. The second Usyk fight, and Joshua’s strange rant, confirmed it – Anthony Joshua was no longer the biggest force in heavyweight boxing, his confidence was gone. The Ukrainian reasserted his technical prowess. Tight, quick footwork had him darting around the ring. Intelligent and considered boxing pestered Joshua for 12 rounds – Joshua had no response.

Then came Joshua’s most recent fight against Jermaine Franklin – an American with a fine record, one loss against Dillian Whyte. Franklin wasn’t a heavyweight leviathan, but Joshua seemed different: he stood confidently, moved boldly, and capitalised on his greatest asset – physicality. This was a glimmer of the old Joshua, who never faltered, but now more intelligent, more cautious. Fury and Usyk are technical boxers. Fury is the awkward giant, clever footwork, constant movement, speed that belies his sheer size. Usyk is pure technique, perfect footwork, perfect jabs, but he cannot compare in size and power to Joshua or Fury. The Anthony Joshua who beat Franklin cannot beat Fury; he could never go toe-to-toe with Usyk. But the Anthony Joshua who beat Wladimir Klitschko at least had the potential to.

Joshua’s career was perfect. When Joshua fought Ruiz Jr, he was the villain in the underdog story, now he is the hero. If Joshua can search his soul and fight with that confidence that marked his early career, he can get back to the top. Ali lost his prime years under conviction, yet remains the greatest heavyweight fighter ever. Ali never lost his sting, in his words or his punches, Joshua needs to find that sting again. Joshua needs to find the Olympic champion, the unified world champion – Joshua is a legend, he just needs to remember it.

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