There was a time, not so long ago, that Anthony Joshua looked close to indestructible. He looked the part, obviously, but the ease at which he seemed to brush his opponents aside made defeat unthinkable. Joshua now looks back at those fights and just sees the flaws.
On Saturday night, Joshua defends his WBA, WBO and IBF heavyweight titles against Oleksandr Usyk, of Ukraine, in front of a crowd of more than 60,000 at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in North London. Some are seeing this as just one final hurdle before he finally boxes for the undisputed world title against his fellow Englishman Tyson Fury – who defends his WBC title against Deontay Wilder in Las Vegas on October 9. But it is a risky fight, and when it comes to Joshua these days, some people still need a bit of convincing.
Ever since his defeat to Andy Ruiz Jr in New York in 2019, there has been the feeling of potential vulnerability about Joshua. The safety-first way he approached the rematch in Saudi Arabia later that year was professional but did little to ease those worries. The delays caused by lockdown resulted in the straightforward task against Kubrat Pulev in December being his only appearance of the year.
Usyk should be a step up from both Ruiz and Pulev. A gold medallist at both the Olympic Games and World Championships as an amateur, he has never looked like being beaten in his 18-fight professional career, which included winning all four world title belts at cruiserweight.
But Joshua doesn’t seem to be worried. “I wouldn’t like to be him facing me,” Joshua said. “Good luck to him.”
At no time in his career has Joshua appeared to me more confident in his ability. Lockdown, he believes has been good for him, taking him away from the treadmill of preparing for defence after defence and allowing him to just work on getting better.
There is a solid logic to that theory. Joshua had not walked into a boxing gym before 2008, but just four years later he was an Olympic gold medallist and four years after that he won his first world title.
Joshua has been effectively learning his craft on the job, with each camp designed around preparing for one opponent and one fight. That would perhaps give some idea that when Ruiz replaced original opponent Jarell Miller at short notice, after Miller failed a drugs test, things did not go too well.
“Through the lockdown, that was the best time of my life,” Joshua said. “I was one way living a certain life and then I found boxing, my whole world flipped on its head, it happened so quick.
“Then during Covid, where the world flipped on its head, I got to poke my head back out and be like, ‘ah, back to normal again’. The sun was shining, it was just nice being normal as much as possible.
"The only difference is boxing takes up a lot of time, you’ve got to make certain sacrifices. But other than that, other than the sacrifices, the commitment I made to the sport, I’m just chilling.
“The best thing about fighting on Saturday is that I can get back to training in a week or two, so I can get my practice in. Because I can see myself getting better again.
“You’ll see a lot of improvements from the Pulev fight and then from this one to the next one you’ll see another mass improvement. And I’m actually looking forward to getting back, because when I’m in training I feel like I’m at my most, like that spiritual realm.”
Even when his usual training base in Sheffield was closed, there was no let-up, as he was given the keys to his old amateur club at Finchley, in North London, and call up Lawrence Okolie, the WBO cruiserweight champion, for a spar.
He has also cut down seeing his family during this training camp, staying in Sheffield at weekends rather than coming back to London and spending hours on the road.
“I didn’t really see my family, my boy, over that period,” he said. “But sparring partners do it, they are away from their family. So why shouldn’t I? I just made that commitment to kind of live an actual boxer’s life rather than going home every weekend.”
Whether Joshua or Fury is considered the world’s No 1 right now, there is no question who is the bigger star. No boxer in British history has performed in front of so many fans as he has in his career.
“It has come with a lot of hard work,” Joshua said. “In a way it is crazy but I do understand why there is 60,000 people coming out. I know how committed boxing fans are to the sport, so I made sure I made a commitment to them to try to repay them. I look back at fights and see how far I have come.
“This fight is going to be fun. It’s big-time boxing and I’m comfortable in this environment.”