The man Anthony Joshua credits with putting him on the path to boxing superstardom has backed his former protege to beat Wladimir Klitschko in one of the most eagerly anticipated heavyweight fights of recent years.
Sean Murphy, a coach at Finchley and District Amateur Boxing Club in north London, where Joshua first learnt to box, believes the 27-year-old will be the fresher of the two fighters when they meet on Saturday night before 90,000 fans at Wembley in a contest that will be watched by millions around the world.
With only 18 professional bouts under his belt, Joshua lacks the 41-year-old Ukrainian’s wealth of experience in the ring, but he is unbeaten and Murphy suggested the momentum was with him. Joshua grew up in Watford and joined Finchley when he was 18.
“Klitschko was the world champion for four, five years, he dominated it,” Murphy said. “But he hasn’t boxed for 18 months. Josh is the new kid on the block. He’s got bags of enthusiasm. He’s won his last 18 fights and he’s been busy. He’s been boxing regular, and that’s what I think will make the difference. All the amount of sparring you do in the gym ain’t the same as getting in the ring and fighting, and I think that’s going to be a big advantage for Josh because his timing is going to be that bit better.”
Murphy, who has been with Finchley and District ABC for 17 years, said Joshua, the IBF heavyweight title-holder, who will add the WBA and IBO titles to his tally if he wins on Saturday night, was an intelligent boxer who would learn from previous mistakes.
“The one fight in his professional career he didn’t box to instruction was against Dillian White because he had a score to settle. The next day I spoke to him on the phone. I said: ‘you took too many punches.’ He said: ‘I know but I wanted to go out there and have a fight with him. I wanted to beat him up and beat him at his own game.’
“He’s clever, he’s not stupid. He went to spar Klitschko. His reckoning was ‘one day I’m going to have to fight him, see what he does.’ All the time he’s got an ulterior motive.”
Speaking to the Observer in his small office, a few yards from where scores of children – some as young as nine and many of them girls – were sparring furiously, Murphy, a former professional boxer, said Joshua did not immediately strike him as a future world heavyweight champion.
“Not right away, but with him progressing, going right through the novices, I thought there was something there. When you’re a coach you’ve got to gel with your boxer. I’ve had 200 boxers in here, some who I haven’t got on with and have made it. It’s that personality where you click. I done that with Joshua. He asked me questions. I took him sparring to the professional gyms to bring him on quicker.”
Murphy recalls a young man who was “always happy, always smiling”. He said: “He got on with everyone, he was very inquisitive, asking ‘why am I doing this, why am I doing that?’ He picked it up very quickly. In about two months he was ready to box. A lot of the other coaches thought he wasn’t. When I said he was getting ready, they were like ‘oh he’s not ready,’ but I said ‘no, no, no I think he’s going to be alright.’ He won his first couple of bouts and then everyone was like ‘oh, he’s not a bad lad.’”
Compared with many boxers Murphy has taken on, Joshua was relatively old when he took up the sport. “He was 18 when he walked in here,” Murphy said. “He was getting in a little trouble on the streets. He wouldn’t answer you back. Some kids give you a bit of cheek.
What marked Joshua out was his desire to learn, Murphy said. “He come back from the Europeans and said: ‘I want to work on my left hook.’ I said: ‘why’s that?’ And he smiled and said: ‘this geezer, he done about three people with left hooks, knocked them out.’
“So we were doing half-hour, an hour sessions, working left hooks, using his legs. That’s where his power is. Working on the technical side of it. He’s very much a perfectionist, keeps going over the same move again and again. I trained Josh to his strengths, to stand up, to throw nice long punches because he’s a big fella.”
Klitschko has 68 fights under his belt, 64 of them wins, 53 of them by knockouts, but Murphy said people needed to look beyond Joshua’s 18 professional bouts. “He had 40 odd bouts in the amateurs, he’s been to the Europeans, the World Championships, the Olympics. He’s handled all that well, took it in his stride. Then he’s turned pro and he’s done everything that’s been asked of him. This is just another step on the ladder to greatness for him.”
Murphy will be at Wembley on Saturday night, along with 23 others from Finchley ABC, who have all been given tickets by Joshua. The 6ft 6in giant, who weighs in at almost 18 stone, still comes back to the club to give out prizes. Last year he paid for it to be kitted it out with new punchbags, spar bars and ropes. The other week he surprised Murphy by handing him the keys to a £70,000 BMW by way of a thank you for helping him find his true vocation.
The two men are clearly still very close. So does Murphy experience any anguish at the prospect of Joshua being on the receiving end of a punch from a hard-hitting fighter known to his fans as Dr Steelhammer?
Murphy laughs at the idea. “Nah I love it,” he says. “I get a buzz out of it. I’ve been to a lot of Josh’s fights at the O2 and the atmosphere is unbelievable.”
And his prediction for Saturday?
“I think Josh is going to stop him in round eight or nine.”