'Day of Reckoning': Anthony Joshua fights Wallin, his doubters and his demons in Riyadh

Swedish southpaw stands between former heavyweight champion and another title run

Anthony Joshua faces Otto Wallin in Riyadh on Saturday night. Getty Images
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As fight week arrives in Saudi Arabia, so inevitably does the psychological warfare. For Anthony Joshua, the verbal daggers have become highly predictable – but no less cutting.

"Joshua is mentally fragile," says Otto Wallin, the man he faces in a make-or-break bout this Saturday night. "He's not sure of himself."

"I've always said Joshua is mentally weak," agreed Deontay Wilder, the American who takes on Joseph Parker as part of the same Saudi extravaganza, and will by all accounts be next for Joshua if both men are victorious.

Insults always sting the most when they contain an element of truth, and some would express sympathy for the view offered by Joshua's snippy heavyweight rivals.

In a recent BBC documentary, there was a revelatory moment shared between the unlikely trio of Joshua, his aunt, and the television presenter Louis Theroux. A fleeting intimacy between strangers, the type of which Theroux has made a career out of creating, where Joshua’s aunt prophesised her nephew reclaiming the heavyweight title for a third time.

Joshua half-heartedly parroted her words, eyes glazed, mind elsewhere, and in that moment it was hard to believe that anyone had ever felt such pressure or doubted themselves so profoundly.

You don’t need a degree in sports psychology to see that the mental toll of Joshua’s journey has outweighed the physical; and it says a lot about the difficult second act of his career that he is indulging in such PR exercises.

Once the poster boy of British sport with a fame envied even within the gilded elite of the Premier League, conversations about Joshua are now more sombre affairs, met with a wince, a rueful shrug, and invariably the phrase: “He’s not been the same since …”

It's a narrative that understandably irks the 34-year-old, and one he will seek to dispel once and for all in Riyadh when he faces the game Swede Wallin, a highly credible but hand-picked challenger with world title aspirations of his own.

Those in Joshua's camp will nervously hope the risk-reward calculus has been tallied accurately and that a convincing victory will revitalise a career derailed by defeats to Andy Ruiz and Oleksandr Usyk, and bogged down further by a perceived inability to bounce back from them.

That’s the conundrum with Joshua right now – is he damaged beyond repair, a spent force, or is this all part of an elaborate redemption arc, the type of which only boxing can deliver?

He is by no means the first heavyweight who has had to go back to the drawing board.

The greatest of them all, Muhammad Ali, was a stylistic chameleon who adapted to each and every setback he faced. In the modern era, Lennox Lewis reinvented himself with the help of the late, great Emanuel Steward after being knocked out by Oliver McCall. Steward repeated the trick with Wladimir Klitschko after the Ukrainian’s flaws were ruthlessly exposed by Corrie Sanders and Lamon Brewster.

In the cases of Lewis and Klitschko, Steward sought to tailor styles that accentuated their strengths and cloaked their vulnerabilities. With Klitschko, that made for some boring nights. It also made for the second longest heavyweight title reign in history, behind Joe Louis.

However, Joshua’s response to his setbacks has not been to mask his shortcomings, it has been to hold a magnifying glass to them, to try and identify and correct them in the hope of becoming a more technically sound, complete and rounded fighter.

It’s an admirable approach but one that has so far yielded a string of unconvincing performances.

It's also a tall order for a mature champion who only fights two or three times a year, with a modest amateur background – despite an Olympic gold medal – who only started boxing in his mid teens.

Contrast that with his conqueror Usyk, whose footwork and skill Joshua covets, but have been honed since childhood across hundreds of elite amateur bouts and carried into a stellar professional career.

Despite all his hard work, technical adjustments, and an improved performance on fight night, Joshua still couldn’t live with the Ukrainian’s skillset in their Jeddah rematch in August 2022. His exasperation at that fact clearly bled into his post-fight meltdown.

This approach has also led Joshua to vacillate between styles and training teams – he’s had four head trainers in as many fights – and has had try-outs with virtually every noteworthy mentor in the sport. He will work with compatriot Ben Davison for the first time this weekend.

Somewhere along the line Joshua has perhaps become too preoccupied with correcting his flaws and has neglected the prodigious gifts that once separated him from the competition – and often the competition from their senses.

It seems a long time since we have seen the breathtaking spectacle of Joshua uncorking those devastating mid-range combinations that earned him 20 knockout victories in his first 20 fights. The Joshua who kept it simple, took centre ring and reasoned that no heavyweight in the division could live with him for long. It's been a while since we've seen that trademark uppercut.

"Boxing is about fundamentals," he said in a recent interview with a YouTube channel before going on to explain that his new approach is based on improved defence, better footwork, more control and nullifying opponents, while boxing smarter and managing his gas tank.

"Why don't I fight like I used to? Because I am a better boxer now," he told Theroux.

If only there was a way to season the recipe with a little of the spitefulness of old. To imbue the 2023 version with the confidence and swagger of his irresistible rise. For all his technical tweaking, he enjoyed his best moments against Usyk when he imposed his raw physical advantages.

And you'd think he will need all of those against Wallin – a strong, fit, in-form southpaw, who has expressed surprise that he has been selected as an opponent.

Joshua's five best fights

Not far from the scene of Joshua’s Madison Square Garden hellscape against Ruiz, you’ll find the Mendez Boxing Gym and inside it Wallin and his trainer Joey Gamache.

Unlike Joshua, Wallin is able to sharpen his tools away from the media glare. He operates with barely a fraction of the pressure, coming from a country where professional boxing was banned until as recently as 2007. In New York he rides the subway to the gym with complete anonymity, even his burly frame and Scandinavian complexion garner little recognition in a city that takes all sorts.

Wallin's first big opportunity came in September 2019 when he was selected as a stay-busy opponent for Tyson Fury between his first and second fights with Wilder. His only crime that night was performing too well, inflicting a grotesque cut on Fury and pushing him all the way before losing a close decision.

Needless to say, the top heavyweights have hardly formed a queue since, but he has quietly put together a six-fight winning streak to cement his claim to be among the leading contenders in the division.

In Gamache he has a trainer little known outside of boxing but respected in the trade as an astute tactician. His fingerprints were all over Teofimo Lopez’s shock win over Vasyl Lomachenko in September 2020 – a victory secured thanks to a razor-sharp gameplan implemented to the letter.

Wallin and the team behind him are confident of victory, and he has frequently described Joshua as having peaked three years ago.

It is undoubtedly a risky assignment for the London 2012 Olympian, but the brain trust behind him have selected Wallin for a reason.

Namely, that Joshua holds two wins over him from the amateur ranks. He also tends to do well against larger heavyweights – Wallin and he are very similar dimensions – and particularly those with a European schooling.

Wallin also marks a step up in class from Joshua's recent opponents, Jermaine Franklin and Robert Helenius, something that will surely serve him well if fights with Wilder, Fury or even a third bout with Usyk are in his immediate future.

Victory in Riyadh is the gateway to all of that, and with Saudi Arabia now effectively bankrolling heavyweight boxing, there will never be a better or more lucrative time for Joshua to rediscover his edge, and just perhaps force some of his outspoken rivals to eat their words.

Updated: December 19, 2023, 8:09 PM