Anthony Joshua's place in history at stake in do-or-die Saudi showdown

·5-min read
Anthony Joshua - Anthony Joshua's place in history at stake in do-or-die Saudi showdown - GETTY IMAGES
Anthony Joshua - Anthony Joshua's place in history at stake in do-or-die Saudi showdown - GETTY IMAGES

It is the rarest moment of vulnerability. Anthony Joshua, for 10 years the swaggering poster-boy of British boxing, admits he is nervous.

“Definitely,” he says, when asked if any anxiety was stirring ahead of a monumental, reputation-defining rematch with Oleksandr Usyk here in the sands of Saudi Arabia. “This one, I want to win it, and I want to perform well. So, it’s about understanding the nerves.”

Disclosing inner stress might appear counterintuitive for a heavyweight boxer, whose natural currency is bravado. And yet you can understand why this is an unsettling occasion for Joshua, who risks his decade of dominance becoming a historical footnote with defeat by Usyk, the most awkward and elusive of southpaws. Victory would elevate him, at 32, to a rarefied realm, placing him alongside Muhammad Ali, Lennox Lewis, Evander Holyfield and Vitali Klitschko as one of just four men to have won a world title in this division three times. But a third professional loss would relegate him, perhaps permanently, to the ranks of the nearly men.

“This fight, it is all that matters,” Joshua said. “That’s where my head’s at. Take away all the politics and it’s an important fight for me personally, I can’t deny it. Still, nerves can be good if you understand them. Cus D’Amato, Mike Tyson’s trainer, would talk about how you could use nerves. I think now that I recognise what nerves are, how you can manipulate them and turn them to your advantage.”

Joshua’s tactic at the weigh-in was to stare down Usyk for two minutes. But the risks of a reunion with this devilishly slippery Ukrainian can scarcely be overstated. At the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium last September, Usyk dismantled Joshua’s defences, with the home favourite struggling to land a single telling punch. Little has changed in the 11 months since to suggest a different outcome in Jeddah.

While Joshua is battling to restore wounded pride, Usyk is fortified by messages of solidarity from his war-ravaged homeland, including a call from President Volodymyr Zelensky to affirm the honour and dignity of the Ukrainian people.

The odds are overwhelmingly against the challenger. But Joshua is adamant that his finest performances are delivered under the greatest strain. “I refuse to lose. I refuse to be hurt, to be knocked down, to be knocked out. I just refuse any negative situation in the ring. I have looked back at history and seen how Joe Louis, John L Sullivan, Jack Demspey all took losses. Ali is considered the greatest of all time and he lost, too. So, I thought I might take a loss one day. And when it did happen, I knew how to deal with it,” he said.

Joshua, for so long Eddie Hearn’s golden goose, saw his lustre fade with his shock 2019 defeat by Andy Ruiz Jnr, avenging that result only when the Mexican-American admitted he was out of condition. The naive, leaden display against Usyk seemed to confirm suspicions that he was a one-dimensional fighter, blessed with thunderous punching power but a brittleness when the bombardment was reversed. Saturday night's encore, the portentously-titled “Rage by the Red Sea”, represents perhaps his last chance to convince the British public that he has not been over-promoted.

But he scoffs at talk that a second humbling by Usyk would usher him into early retirement. “It’s a pressure to sharpen me,” he argued. “It’s a motivation. My mind is in the right place. I want to do things in the ring that will make me believe in myself. If I follow that thinking, I should be victorious.”

Joshua at least has the perspective to realise that his career has seldom turned out as he intended. “I was never really a child boxer,” he reflected. “It was all sprung upon me and I just had to manage it. Some kids have everything set up for them, people telling them, ‘You’re going to be a future champion’. But as an amateur, at the gym with my cousin Ben, we were never thinking about going on to be world champions. We were just boxing. We would have a fight on a Saturday night and then go straight down the pub.”

Even today, it is barely credible to Joshua that he stands to earn £50million for one night’s work here at King Abdullah Sports City, in the desert scrub on the outskirts of Jeddah. In 2009, he was on remand at Reading Prison, facing a potential 15-year sentence for what he has called “fighting and other crazy stuff”. Only when he was bailed did he start teaching himself how to box.

“I was on a tag when I started boxing,” he recalled. “But 2½ years later, I was competing at the world championships in Baku, thinking, ‘What the f--- is this?’ It’s unheard of, such a quick transition. It definitely made me nervous. But I reached the point when I would walk out smiling, saying ‘what’s happening?’ to the crowd. Perhaps I became too relaxed. But ultimately, I believe pressure is good.”

Anthony Joshua of Britain looks on after he lost against Medzhidov of Azerbaijan fight during their AIBA +91kg World Championships final boxing match in Baku - REUTERS
Anthony Joshua of Britain looks on after he lost against Medzhidov of Azerbaijan fight during their AIBA +91kg World Championships final boxing match in Baku - REUTERS

It is a watershed evening for Joshua, where glory would propel him towards a likely unification bout against Tyson Fury and defeat would leave him scrambling for the scraps with Dillian Whyte.

Usyk looks eerily confident, regaling his audiences with Ukrainian folk hymns, but his would-be usurper remains undeterred. “In that ring, I don’t care if you’re the champion – it’s just me versus you,” Joshua declared. “The belt does not define you. All that baggage of being the champion, that’s another pressure. On the night, I have my own pressure to deal with.”

For once, it is no throwaway piece of pre-fight hyperbole. This time, Joshua’s very credibility is at stake.