This was scarcely the bolt of electricity that Anthony Joshua had been seeking to send through the heavyweight division. It was not that he came across as limited or tentative against little-fancied American Jermaine Franklin, merely that, at 33, he just looked leaden, as if age was at last catching up with him. A win on points was by no means a disgrace, especially given Franklin’s resilience. But for somebody of Joshua’s calibre, a former two-time heavyweight champion of the world, it was deeply underwhelming.
Most had predicted that Joshua would wrap this up within half the allotted 12 rounds or less. But in a reflection of his diminishing powers, he had to wait for the scorecards to confirm his win. It was a fractious, frustrating evening for Joshua, summed up in the seconds after the bell, when he became embroiled in a melee in Franklin’s corner.
He towered over Franklin as the two squared up, not hesitating to impose his alpha-male status. Restrained in his opening round, he doubled up with his jab whenever possible, unconcerned even as his trusty right hand too often fell short. He was controlling the space, sensing little overt danger from the American. A little blood emerged on his nose early in the second, but he was unpeturbed, not least when he detonated his first shot to the head.
The pattern shifted in the third, with Franklin discovering a surer footing and a more visible confidence. Whenever Joshua let fly, the underdog returned with interest. This was not the type of imperious performance he had delivered on this O2 stage in his younger days, dispatching all-comers with early-round wipe-outs. He appeared hesitant at times, unaccustomed not to be headlining a world title fight for once, drawn into grappling and defending as Franklin flew forward in the fourth.
— DAZN Boxing (@DAZNBoxing) April 1, 2023
Joshua desperately needed an injection of pace, an ignition point for his heavy artillery. But it was slow in coming, with Franklin adeptly countering every time he let his fists fly. Bouncing on the balls of his feet on starting the sixth, he tried to settle, to measure his jab more precisely. He was relying on the idea that the more Franklin tired, the more his own sharper instincts would make the difference. “Lead with the right hand,” his friend Tony Bellew pleaded from ringside.
Franklin, ominously, looked as if he was conserving energy, as if he was prepared to go the distance. But some damage was beginning to emerge under his right eye, inflicted by the sheer number of concussive blows he was taking from Joshua. Finally Joshua strung together the sequences in the eighth, bombarding Joshua at will. For the first time, he seemed the more organised fighter, as if his return to first principles at his training base in Dallas was paying dividends.
Surely there was only so long Franklin could soak up the onslaught? A fatigue was setting in, his initial nimbleness deserting him. The blood from Joshua’s nostrils was smearing his shorts, but he showed no sign of losing heart. He just needed the statement flourish, a way to convince his detractors that he had not lost his edge.
The problem was that whatever he tried, Franklin responded with a chin of iron. Trading punches on the ropes at the close of the tenth, 20,000 fans implored him to produce the coup de grace.
The capacity crowd indicated that while Joshua’s prestige in this most gilded division had dipped, his popularity remained as reliable as ever. Still, he faced so many imponderables. What would count as success? Would a points victory be dismissed as insufficient against such a little-known adversary? Did he have the appetite to rebuild his reputation at the age of 33?
For a long time, the Joshua dichotomy has been that for all his slick corporate appeal, he has sometimes seemed to lack the requisite ferocity and endurance at this level. It is a contradiction he has been anxious to correct of late, taking himself off to Texas to submit to a camp of intense self-denial and self-discipline under trainer Derrick James.
It felt an aeon since Joshua had fought in a mere arena on home soil. Aside from his pandemic-enforced bout with Kubrat Pulev in 2020, he had gone six years without competing indoors in front of a British crowd. But his lustre as a surefire stadium draw has dimmed in the wake of back-to-back defeats to Oleksandr Usyk, with Eddie Hearn’s golden goose suddenly caricatured as a lame duck. He did not even have Michael Buffer as his master of ceremonies this time.
The public image suffered, too, when he slung Usyk’s championship belts in a fit of pique in Jeddah last August. It was a dreadful look, Joshua resembling a petulant prima donna as he sabotaged the Ukrainian’s dedication of his victory to his war-torn nation. He has acknowledged, to his credit, that it was far from his finest hour, later returning to his former council estate in Finchley to relearn some humility.
— DAZN Boxing (@DAZNBoxing) April 1, 2023
Joshua’s dilemma was how best to script his comeback. This time, there was no obvious choice, with any route to an all-British blockbuster against Tyson Fury closed off by the perpetual bickering between the two camps. The only option was Franklin, an unheralded opponent who until last year was still working in a wool factory in Michigan. It was only after running Dillian Whyte close that he was considered for this match-up at all, giving up four inches to the poster-boy in height and five inches in reach. No wonder Joshua was 12-1 on to prevail, billing it as an all-or-nothing occasion in which he would retire if he lost.
Showing glimpses of the old braggadocio, he ridiculed any suggestions that Franklin could exploit the vulnerabilities of a fallen champion. “The more he talks, the bigger grave he digs for himself,” he scoffed. Realising that he had overstepped the mark with this language, he backtracked, saying: “I respect my opponent. It is for you to do all the talking and for me to do my job.”
Franklin had highlighted how Joshua seemed to struggle against smaller fighters, recalling his humiliation at the hands of the diminutive, borderline corpulent Andy Ruiz Jnr in 2018. He calculated that with an astute strategy, he could unsettle the overwhelming favourite. It was not came to be, but he succeeded in showing that how far Joshua had fallen from the peaks of old/