Anthony Joshua focused on his boxing skill development, which slowed after his ascent to champion

Kevin IoleCombat columnist

Only three boxers have ever won three consecutive gold medals. Two of them, Cuban heavyweights Teofilo Stevenson (1972, 1976 and 1980) and Felix Savon (1992, 1996 and 2000) did it over a span of eight Olympiads. Hungary’s Laszlo Papp was the other, who won gold at middleweight in 1948 and at light middleweight in 1952 and 1956.

The only time that either Stevenson or Savon did not win the Olympic gold medal at heavyweight from 1972 through 2000 came in 1984 in Los Angeles and in 1988 in Seoul, South Korea, when the Cubans boycotted.

Stevenson and Savon were products of the elite Cuban amateur boxing system that dominated the game for much of the latter half of the 20th century. And in typical Cuban style, they fought a tremendous amount of matches.

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Neither ever turned pro because of Cuba’s prohibition at the time against professional sports. Stevenson finished his career with a 302-22-8 record, while Savon was 362-21.

In 1984, what was previously known as the heavyweight division became known as the super heavyweights. Anthony Joshua won the 2012 Olympic gold medal at super heavyweight, so in one sense, he put himself alongside Olympic legends such as Stevenson and Savon.

But he was so far different from them in one important regard: He had precious little experience when he did it. When Joshua won his gold medal match in 2012, defeating reigning gold medalist Roberto Cammarelle of Italy in the finals, he ended his amateur career with a 48-3 record. And of those 48 wins, only 40 came in fights. He won eight times by walkover, meaning Joshua only had 43 total fights before turning pro.

His ascent was remarkable considering how little experience he had when he began. He took his first amateur fight in November 2008, three months after Cammarelle had won the gold medal.

Now, Joshua is days away from a rematch with Andy Ruiz Jr. for the IBF, WBA and WBO heavyweight championship, which Ruiz snatched from him in New York on June 1 with a shocking seventh-round knockout.

It was the first defeat of Joshua’s pro career and came against a replacement fighter who was a massive underdog.

British heavyweight boxing challenger Anthony Joshua works out in the Saudi capital Riyadh on Dec. 3, 2019. (Photo by Fayez Nureldine/AFP via Getty Images)
British heavyweight boxing challenger Anthony Joshua works out in the Saudi capital Riyadh on Dec. 3, 2019. (Photo by Fayez Nureldine/AFP via Getty Images)

Joshua, now 22-1 with 21 KOs, remains a slight favorite despite the result of the first bout. At the MGM Grand Sports Book, Joshua is a -220 favorite to win the bout on Saturday in Saudi Arabia, while the champion is a +170 underdog.

Joshua told Yahoo Sports he’ll be better this time around because he’s focused hard on his skill development. He hasn’t fought in the six months since, and fighting so infrequently as champion is one of the issues he cited that slowed his development.

He looked at the time between fights as lab time and tried to hone the skills that he had.

“When I first turned pro, I was fighting almost every month and so I was in the gym and I was learning and I was getting experience,” Joshua told Yahoo Sports. “But I fought for the title in my 16th fight. After that, I went from fighting every month or two to twice a year and it was a big adjustment.”

The rematch is Joshua’s second fight of 2019 and it comes six months and six days after the stunning defeat in which he was dropped four times in six-plus rounds and stopped by an upstart few gave a chance to win when the bout was signed.

A one-time rival, former heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko, advised Joshua to put the time in on his boxing game.

It resonated with Joshua, who is noticeably less bulky, which he says is not by design but by virtue of being in the gym so frequently since the first fight and working on boxing and boxing-related skills.

He also shrugged off analysis by some that he didn’t really care for the sport and wasn’t committed to it.

“I watch a lot of boxing and I talk about boxing and I box a lot and I’m around the gym all the time,” Joshua said. “Anyone who says that thing doesn’t really know what is going on with me and isn’t worth being concerned about. I am serious about what I’m doing and my goal has always been, and not just for this fight, to be better in this fight than I was in the previous one.”

Despite being the challenger this time, he’s the star of the show and he’s the guy the promotion has been built around. A reason a group in Saudi Arabia reportedly offered $100 million as a fee to land the fight is because of Joshua’s tremendous worldwide popularity.

There is pressure on his shoulders because of the enormous expectations that have surrounded him since he made his Olympic run at home in London. But he eschews the notion that he’s tight or that he feels pressure to do anything but what he’s always done.

“I’m a winner and I’m about winning,” he said. “That’s all this is about. I am not feeling pressure or anything else. I know how to win and I plan to win and I will win.”

He said that in a calm, almost matter-of-fact voice. He remains a neophyte in this boxing business but he’s one of its biggest stars. It’s almost incongruous, but it’s where Joshua stands as he prepares for the most important bout of his career.

He’s a young guy who turned 30 in October and doesn’t have a lot of mileage on him. As hard as it is to understand his loss to Ruiz, it’s not hard to look ahead and see him being vastly improved in six months, a year and three years from now.

But it only matters if he’s improved on Saturday. In that sense, it’s a do-or-die situation for one of the most talented, if not accomplished, big men in recent heavyweight history.

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