Anthony Joshua: ‘My legacy should be about the type of character I am’

Susannah Butter
·9-min read
BOSS T-shirt, part of multi-pack, £39; BOSS X AJBXNG tracksuit, £169 (both boss.com) (Elliot James Kennedy)
BOSS T-shirt, part of multi-pack, £39; BOSS X AJBXNG tracksuit, £169 (both boss.com) (Elliot James Kennedy)

It’s hard to keep up with Anthony Joshua.

The world heavyweight champion boxer is showing ES Magazine’s photographer how to outwit opponents in the ring, darting nimbly from side to side ‘because you can unnerve them with fast footwork’, he says, before punching the air with all the force of his nearly 6ft 6in frame, grinning triumphantly.

Joshua is savouring this day off from training, even breaking his strict protein-heavy diet with a bag of usually forbidden ready salted crisps. When the photographer asks him his favourite colour, he doesn’t skip a beat: ‘Gold.’

He laughs but it is clear that winning is never far from his mind. The 31-year-old north Londoner is the first British heavyweight to win both a gold medal at the Olympics (in 2012) and a world title (he keeps his medals and trophies in the garage).

In his next fight he will face Tyson Fury, fellow heavyweight champion and bad boy of boxing, for the undisputed title (and £100 million each). The date and location are still being finalised but the world has been waiting to see them square up since 2017, when Joshua said he craved a fight against a ‘real villain’ and Fury fit the bill. Fury has been goading Joshua ever since, accusing him of being too ‘chicken’ to fight and last week putting a poll on his Twitter feed titled, ‘Does AJ have the balls to fight me?’

But it takes more than a few tweets to ruffle Joshua’s feathers. He says he’s feeling ‘mentally strong’ about the fight and laughs in the face of Fury’s braggadocio. ‘Interestingly he is completely different in person to how he is on social media. He’s so much more polite in real life. When we bumped into each other he told me, “I’m a big fan of you, champ,”’ says Joshua, before pausing to gauge my reaction.

This is his conversational style: he deflects questions and dances around them with funny one-liners, almost as if he is verbally boxing. ‘I’m joking. He said, “Do well in your fight and me and you will get it on.” I am sure he is a big fan.’

Would he like to have a pint with Fury then? ‘No. He would try and steal my show. I will leave him to have a pint by himself, I am the star of the show.’

Joshua says he’s ready for a fight whenever it happens, thanks to his mental resilience. ‘This past year in lockdown has given me a chance to show how mentally strong I am,’ he says. ‘It’s all about having a structure. That’s a massive part of mental health, waking up and having something to get ready for and put your mind to even if it is just a Zoom call.’

He’s taken up cycling (‘I’ve never done it before but I enjoyed it so much I sometimes went over my government-prescribed one hour’s exercise limit’), downloaded Deliveroo (‘I’m addicted to Oreo milkshakes — it’s protein. I’m on a diet where it sounds weird but I have steak for breakfast’) and built a lot of Lego with his five-year-old son, Joseph, known as JJ. He is not with JJ’s mother, yoga instructor Nicole Osbourne, telling me he is ‘married to the gym’ instead.

He adds: ‘This fight with Fury might happen, it might not, but I have to go with the possibility that it will. If I don’t think like that I will slack, which I can’t afford to. I have a chance at life so I am taking it with both hands. It could be a lot worse.’

Anthony Joshua wins the heavyweight title in 2017Getty Images
Anthony Joshua wins the heavyweight title in 2017Getty Images

Joshua is wearing Hugo Boss from head to toe, having collaborated with the brand on Boss x AJBXNG, a capsule collection of athleisure wear in navy, grey and of course, gold. He enjoys experimenting with fashion, accepting that not all looks will go to plan. ‘When I was younger, I dressed like an idiot but at the time I thought it was cool,’ he says. ‘But it’s about exploring, I am not set in my ways.’

He likes that Boss designed clothes for the Rocky films. ‘I watched Rocky V a few weeks ago and they are all looking good in their Boss uniforms.’ The film made Joshua think about how boxing ‘is a sport where men labour, trying to provide for their family and how no matter what background you are from people love boxing.’ Does he identify with Rocky? ‘Well, I was on a rocky path,’ he chuckles.

Elliot James Kennedy
Elliot James Kennedy

Joshua was born in Watford. His parents divorced when he was five and when he was 11, he and his mother (who is now a social worker) moved to Nigeria for six months while she tried to start a business there. When he returned to London, he says he was self-conscious about his Nigerian accent at school. He was always good at sport, doing the 100m at sports day in 11.6 seconds at secondary school, but was naughty. Aged 18, he was arrested for being in a fight and put on remand for two weeks. When he came out, his cousin suggested he try boxing. He was spotted at Finchley & District ABC, a club to which he remains loyal; he made a donation to it last December and ‘respectfully asked the Government to rethink its stance’ on not including boxing in its £300 million bailout fund for British sports struggling with the impact of the coronavirus.

In 2011, he was selected for the British Olympic team but nearly lost it all after he was caught speeding. The police found cannabis on him and charged him with intent to supply. He pleaded guilty and was given a non-custodial sentence of 100 hours of unpaid work and a 12-month community order. These brushes with the law are ‘experiences I learned positively from’, he says. ‘People are in prison to serve their time, you have to pay your punishment for the wrongs that have been done, although there are people there who shouldn’t be there and I hope they get their freedom’.

His advice for children facing challenges? ‘Stand by your family and do them proud. I have a close relationship with my mum and have learnt now it is so important.’

He currently lives with his mother, Yeta Odusanya, and says she will ‘probably’ get the vaccine soon. ‘The Government has to build trust in communities if they want them to get the vaccine, that’s all it is. And to listen. A lot of people in African, Caribbean, Asian, Latino backgrounds use natural remedies,’ he says. His father is in Nigeria, where they ‘didn’t have as strict a lockdown as us’. Joshua doesn’t know if the country has managed the pandemic better. ‘The whole world has struggled to manage it, we are learning as we go.’

BOSS X AJBXNG vest, £29; tracksuit bottoms, £169; BOSS sneakers, £279 (both boss.com)Elliot James Kennedy
BOSS X AJBXNG vest, £29; tracksuit bottoms, £169; BOSS sneakers, £279 (both boss.com)Elliot James Kennedy

Joshua sees himself as ‘a local north London boy’ who wants to help his community, whether that is recording a video to encourage people to support shops in Golders Green and Temple Fortune near where he lives, or reading out a speech on behalf of a campaigner at a Black Lives Matter event last year.

‘We need a conscious effort to come together and to fight for positive change and we should keep up that fight as a community,’ he says. ‘It is our duty to help others in need and if you can do that, the world will be a better place. Things are only going to get better. People are passing their intelligence down to the next generation.’ It is this, rather than boxing and any fight against Fury, for which he wants to be remembered.

‘If you look back at the great boxers, like Muhammad Ali, there is not much people can remember about their fights but they can probably remember their characters,’ he says. ‘Ultimately, no one is going to remember everything about my boxing unless they are a hardcore fan; my legacy should be about the type of character I am.’

The campaign by footballer Marcus Rashford for free school meals has been phenomenal, he says. ‘Not many sports people come from political backgrounds but they are voices of the community. I will fight for Black Lives Matter and for a better ecosystem.’

Joshua is fascinated by the next generation and would like ‘loads’ more children. ‘You can learn so much from them, they are amazing at being themselves,’ he says. ‘I like the creative side of my son’s brain. I want him to be free and explore.’ JJ is yet to show an interest in boxing and Joshua doesn’t want to pressure him, although he does want him to play a sport when he is older ‘because sport unites you. It doesn’t matter what background you are from, your size, your shape. I would definitely push him to play a sport when he is older because of the benefits in terms of interactions with different people.’

Elliot James Kennedy
Elliot James Kennedy

His competitive nature extends to reading with JJ. ‘Crazily enough we have set a target: he has to read 250 books,’ he says. ‘He is on it. He’s read 169 so far, he’s dedicated. I can’t remember what they are — I just go on Amazon and order books for five-year-olds.’

The last book Joshua read was Fake: Fake Money, Fake Teachers, Fake Assets, by Robert Kiyosaki: ‘It’s interesting in this climate with Bitcoin and stuff.’ Non-fiction appeals because he is ‘very logic focused. ‘That’s my problem: I don’t look at the emotion, which isn’t always good.’ He can’t remember the last time he cried and the closest he comes to feeling nervous is boxing in small venues. ‘The first time I boxed it was a small hall in north London and I couldn’t hide. You look around and you see people’s eyes — your teammates, your aunties. It is quite intense. I feel more confident in a big hall because you get lost in the event. In big stadiums my focus goes to the top of the stadium and I can’t see people except for their hands waving. I wave back.’

He evades details of my questions about pre-match rituals: any certain foods, certain clothes, does he avoid sex? ‘I just go in there and win. That is my main focus.’

And if he doesn’t win? ‘It has happened before,’ he says, before reeling out some mantras. ‘Don’t let success get to your head and failure get to your heart. The first letter of loss is L. So I say you took an L, like lol, lmao.’ I am slightly lost, feeling more ‘wtf’ than ‘lol’, so he explains. ‘I use it as a learning experience, I move with the times, using the loss as a positive affirmation.’

Tyson Fury had better watch out.

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