Anthony Joshua returns to Saudi Arabia after mixed previous attempts at redemption

British fighter takes on Otto Wallin on December 23 in what will be his third Middle East bout

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For his previous two visits to Saudi Arabia, Anthony Joshua had been a man seeking redemption. Only in one of them would he come away with the desired result.

In June 2019, Joshua's world had been left in tatters when his dream debut in the US against Andy Ruiz Jr – at the hallowed arena that is Madison Square Garden – turned into a nightmare.

The Briton fell to one of the biggest shocks in heavyweight boxing history when he was floored four times on the way to a stunning defeat against the unfancied Mexican-American, who only took the bout at six weeks' notice after Jarrell Miller had failed a drugs test.

A rematch was quickly set for December that year, only this time it would be taking place in Saudi Arabia, and dubbed the "Clash on the Dunes".

If Joshua was to have any hope of getting his career back on track, there could be no mistake in the historic bout at the Diriyah Arena.

“All the pressure is on him,” insisted Ruiz, who came into the fight almost 7kg heavier than the first encounter, the second-heaviest world champion in heavyweight history at 128.7kg.

And that extra timber on Ruiz was to prove his downfall. Joshua boxed clever as he took a clearly ill-prepared Ruiz the distance, securing a 118-110, 118-110 and 119-109 victory on the cards.

“I don't want to say the three months of partying or celebrating didn't affect me as, to tell you the truth, it kind of did,” Ruiz said at the post-fight press conference.

Whatever the failings of his opponent, Joshua had righted the wrongs from what had been the only defeat of his pro career. “Boxers will have good nights and bad nights in the heavyweight division,” said Joshua. “I boxed on my own game plan, trusted my own process and now I’m the champion. So I’m just going to follow my own instincts while I’m boxing.”

If Joshua's defeat against Ruiz felt like a freak one-off, his loss against Usyk at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in September 2021 had been more predictable. This time he was simply outclassed.

The Ukrainian had given Joshua a boxing lesson in London, coasting to a unanimous points verdict that had nearly been a knockout performance at several points during a one-sided bout.

Again, a rematch clause was activated and Joshua, now 31, would be heading back to the kingdom to try to reclaim the WBA, WBO and IBF titles from Usyk, who was 19-0 in his pro career as a cruiserweight before moving up to heavyweight.

This time, the King Abdullah Sports City in Jeddah would be the venue and the August 2022 clash would be billed as the "Rage on the Red Sea".

“If you’re fighting people at world level, you’re meeting people of world level quality," insisted Joshua. “I took a loss and I’ve come back … I believe 100 per cent that I can knock him out.”

As it turned out there would be no knockout or even victory for Joshua as Usyk again took the honours, although this time by a split 113-115, 115-113, 116-112 decision.

After a bizarre rant inside the ring immediately after the verdict, Joshua then broke down in his post-fight press conference as he tried to explain his behaviour. “It was just from the heart. I knew I was mad at myself. Not at anyone, just myself … when you're angry you might do stupid things.”

But despite the pain of a third career defeat, Joshua made clear that this was not the end: “I'm a fighter for life. That hunger never dies. Fighter for life.”

Updated: December 19, 2023, 8:47 AM