Anthony Joshua ready to show world he has found his mojo again in Francis Ngannou fight

British heavyweight sounds like a man at ease ahead of win-or-bust bout with crossover MMA star in Saudi Arabia

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From the outside at least, Anthony Joshua appears to have rediscovered his mojo.

The engaging Briton, a two-time world heavyweight champion, has cut a contented figure in Saudi Arabia this week, as the build-up to his looming win-or-bust bout with crossover mixed martial arts star Francis Ngannou reaches its crescendo in Riyadh on Friday night.

“Knockout Chaos”, the catchy and captivating tagline for a clash that pits against one another two former heavyweight title-holders from different disciplines, feels an apt description. Both Joshua and Ngannou are physical specimens; both possess the power to put the other’s lights out.

However, it is the mental aspect that could decide the 10-round contest at Kingdom Arena. And while Joshua’s prodigious frame and physical prowess forged his resplendent rise to sporting superstardom, when it all began to unravel, it was the space between the ears that copped most of the criticism.

Those were the suspicions heading into last December dust-up with Otto Wallin, also in the Saudi capital, highlighted pre-fight by the dangerous Swedish southpaw, and parroted by Deontay Wilder, the former WBC champion at the time considered next in line to test Joshua’s fractured mettle.

The Englishman, for once, did not engage, his words brief, his responses curt. Given he came into the bout with questions still swirling regarding his resolve at the elite-end of professional boxing, it was deemed as further sign of a once-impenetrable force of nature slipping deeper into the darkness.

But Joshua’s performance that night pulled him back into the light. He eased to a fifth-round TKO in a performance full of the old bite, and, perhaps more crucially, spite.

Granted, Wallin was cherry-picked. Yes, he rode a six-fight win streak, and had given Tyson Fury a torrid night in his only other pro defeat, but as an old amateur foe of Joshua’s and former sparring partner, too, his rival knew intimately what he was getting into to.

Anthony Joshua and Francis Ngannou face off in Riyadh

Anthony Joshua and Francis Ngannou face off in Riyadh

Wallin represented an appropriate opponent, stylistically suited, a familiar challenge that could buttress dented belief.

That it marked also Joshua’s inaugural fight with Ben Davidson as trainer – the heavyweight’s fourth coach in as many fights, heavy evidence of a fallen talent searching for solutions – provided an amenable start to the pair’s relationship. Like Joshua’s display in dismantling Wallin, Davidson’s game-plan proved perfect.

Ngannou, though, shapes as an altogether different challenge. There’s a school of thought, educated even if the sample size is confined to a solitary pro fight, that Fury simply underestimated the African in that shock-inducing encounter last October.

Debuting in the pro game, Ngannou knocked down the WBC champion and, in losing to a contentious split decision, came staggering close to inflicting Fury’s first defeat in a 35-fight pro career that, for many, places him at the peak of this generation.

Ngannou, a relative novice despite his albeit-limited boxing background from the early years in Batie, showed that night that he carries considerable threat.

He was physically strong, hit hard and countered well. It is worth remembering that Ngannou is a natural fighter, measured and meticulous, able to adapt amid the white-hot heat of battle and capable of maintaining composure under pressure. To reiterate, he is a former UFC champion.

But has the surprise element gone? Where Fury was caught on his heels, Joshua has been forewarned. Armed by Davidson’s expert mind, the consensus is Joshua’s route to victory flows through his snapping jab and straight right. Piece Ngannou up, break him down. Ngannou himself concedes he could struggle with the pace through 10 rounds.

And, unlike a seemingly laser-focused Joshua on site this week, Ngannou has been distracted by Fury’s presence in Riyadh, even if the former won the war of words during Wednesday’s lively press conference.

Even the previous night, when the October opponents came face-to-face at the residence of Turki Alalshikh, the chairman of Saudi Arabia's general entertainment authority and arguably boxing's most pivotal protagonist at present, there was reportedly another tense exchange.

Also present, Joshua avoided any additional expenditure of energy.

“I just stood in the corner, held my ground and scanned the room,” he said. “It was proper. [Fury] refused his handshake and promised to knock him out. But that’s Fury, and Ngannou will have to get used to it on his boxing journey.”

For sure, Joshua is used to high-stakes scenarios like Friday night. Potentially, he has it all to lose. A defeat against a man contesting a second pro boxing bout would do substantially more damage than the upset loss to Andy Ruiz Jr, or the back-to-back reverses against the mightily slick Oleksandr Usyk.

Is this supposed third act in Joshua’s redemption arc, the resuscitation of an apparently careening career to being anointed a three-time world heavyweight champion, going to meet its conclusion on the end of a Ngannou left hook?

Yet Joshua, for the past few years apparently burdened by the weight of the world, appears finally liberated. Listen to the sound bites emanating from Saudi.

On Wednesday, he told the gathered press: “One of the main things I’m looking forward to is to show how good I am.”

Later, in conversation with the BBC, Joshua sounded like a man at genuine ease with what lay ahead.

“Taking it all in,” he said. “Right now, it’s all boxing. This is the best time of my life, and I’m going to enjoy it. These moments, these nights, these fights.

“I’m in a good place. I’m ready. Let’s go … let’s go. I can’t wait. It can’t come soon enough.”

Updated: March 08, 2024, 6:18 AM