Anthony Joshua has taken his eye off the ball before. When he faced Andy Ruiz Jr in New York 18 months ago, all the questions were about Deontay Wilder. As Kubrat Pulev stands in front of him this weekend, the presence of Tyson Fury is looming over events.
Ruiz knocked him down four times on the way to a stoppage win. If Joshua slips up again, he will wave goodbye to more than just a big payday against Fury.
Joshua puts the WBA, WBO and IBF titles that he won back from Ruiz in Saudi Arabia on the line on Saturday night against Pulev, a 39-year-old Bulgarian, who seems to have been around the heavyweight top ten for a lifetime.
“I took my eye off the ball with Ruiz in New York,” Joshua said. “For me in New York I knew I had a fight in front of me with a big media presence.
“It's good to talk about Fury, Wilder, [Daniel] Dubois, [Joe] Joyce and even the [Alen] Babics of the world. My main focus is always Pulev.
“We're painting the bigger picture. That's what I'm trying to create. It's tempting to look at what's beyond me, but it's motivation rather than a distraction – get through this and move on to the bigger fights.”
With just 1,000 fans in attendance at the SSE Arena, it will be a long way from a regular Joshua fight – 60,000 were expected when the fight was originally announced.
The last time he boxed in front of such a small crowd, he was an amateur learning his craft with dreams of competing at an Olympic Games.
These are unusual times, but what doesn’t change in boxing is an endless look ahead to other fights that might or might not take place.
If Joshua gets past Pulev – something he is an overwhelming favourite to do – a fight with Fury, who claimed the WBC crown from Wilder in February, for the undisputed world heavyweight title awaits.
A vague agreement has been reached for both to take a 50-50 split of all takings, with a late May date in the Middle East the most likely time and place – coronavirus permitting.
It is the very nature of boxing that you are judged as much by your defeats as your victories.
The last man to have a claim to be undisputed world heavyweight champion was Lennox Lewis (although he never held the WBO title), but even though he avenged both his defeats to Oliver McCall and Hasim Rahman, they are still pointed too when discussing Lewis’s legacy.
Pulev’s previous world title bid came against Wladimir Klitschko. He spurned defence to engage in a swinging match and was knocked down three times, Klitschko finishing the job with a huge left hook. It was the final knockout of the Ukrainian’s career.
Gallery: Joshua beats Ruiz in rematch
By 2017, the Bulgarian had worked his way back to the top of the IBF rankings and was due to face Joshua in Cardiff, only to withdraw at 12 days’ notice with a pectoral muscle injury. It has taken him three years to get another chance.
Pulev was widely written off in 2017, against the fast-rising Joshua, but the loss to Ruiz showed signs of vulnerability that will take a long time to go away. While Joshua reversed the Ruiz defeat in December, he did by staying light on his feet and keeping Ruiz at arm's length.
Against Pulev, who is taller and more upright than Ruiz, Joshua is unlikely to be as safety-first, but the long-term legacy of the Ruiz loss could be a fighter who is more circumspect, he would say smarter.
“I went through a lot of my career not even knowing what I was doing,” Joshua said. “I was just fighting. Experience is the best teacher and I’m gaining so much experience every day I step in the gym.
“I’m more polished because I am more experienced. I was adapting a style I'd never used before, but I have more confidence now, knowing it’s in my locker and knowing I’ve got the punching power too.
"Through lockdown I trained to merge all these different dynamics – good feet, hand positioning, combination punching, the art of the jab. Now I am looking forward to putting on a great performance.
“Pulev is not going to be like someone in my tenth fight where they’re waiting to be hit, but it will be a clinical performance where I break him down and then. when the time is right. I am going to go in there and knock him out in devastating fashion.”