Humility, respect: the rare boxer qualities that won the fight for Joshua

Jamie Doward and James Tapper
Anthony Joshua, right, knocks Wladimir Klitschko back during their bout at Wembley on 29 April 29. Photograph: Nick Potts/PA

Anthony Joshua mounted one of the great comebacks in boxing history to defeat Wladimir Klitschko last night and claim three heavyweight world titles.

It had seemed all over for Joshua in the sixth round. He was out on his feet, barely able to defend himself after Klitschko had knocked him to the floor.

But the 2012 Olympic champion, who had breezed through his earlier fights, somehow survived while Klitschko danced around him.

By the 11th round, Joshua had recovered and unleashed flurry after flurry of punches to knock down his opponent once, then twice.

As Klitschko staggered and bounced against the ropes, the referee stopped the fight, sealing Joshua’s place in sporting history.

Afterwards, Joshua said: “I’m not perfect but I’m trying and, if you don’t take part, you’re going to fail.

“As boxing states, you leave your ego at the door and you respect your opponent. So a massive shout out to Wladimir Klitschko. In terms of the boxing hall of fame, he’s a role model in and out of the ring and I’ve got massive love and respect to anyone who steps in the ring.”

Klitschko was equally gracious in defeat. “Two gentleman fought each other,” he said. “Anthony was better today. He got up, he fought back and he won the title.”

For the 90,000 Joshua fans who had filled Wembley Stadium with chants of his name, the fight was just a taste of glory to come, and the 27-year-old fed that desire.

“Tyson Fury, where you at baby? Come on,” he roared to the crowd. “Is that what you want to see?” They roared back, and Fury obliged via his Twitter feed: “Welldone @anthonyfjoshua good fight, you had life & death with @klitschko & I played with the guy, let’s dance”

The victory means that Joshua has won all of his 19 professional fights by stoppage and is now IBF, WBA and IBO heavyweight champion.

Anthony Joshua celebrates with his trainer, Robert McCracken, after winning the fight. Photograph: Andrew Couldridge/Reuters

Joshua seems to be a different sort of boxer to Fury, although at first glance he is a champion straight out of central casting. Troubled early years? Tick. Joshua, who grew up on a high-rise estate in Watford, was regularly in street fights. In 2011, the year before he won gold at the London Olympics, he received a conviction for possessing cannabis. Luckily for him, a charge of intent to supply – something that could have done for his Olympic aspirations – was dropped and he received a community order instead, put to work on his local allotments.

Found salvation through boxing? Tick. At school he was a natural athlete who could run 100m in under 11 seconds. But it was only when he discovered what he could do with his fists in the ring that he found his true calling.

“But for boxing, I would be behind bars,” he has said.

Astonishing physique? Tick. Joshua stands just 1cm shy of 2m tall and weighs 108 kilos.

Financial ambition to rival that of Floyd Mayweather, worth a reputed $600m? Tick. He has talked about becoming boxing’s first billionaire. A search with Companies House reveals that Joshua is the director of seven companies set up to further his interests.

But further scrutiny suggests the 27-year-old, who has a brother and two sisters and spent some of his formative years in Nigeria, is not your typical boxer.

Indeed, one criticism levelled against him before last night’s victory is that he dared to defy boxing’s conventions. In the build-up, he refused to “trashtalk” his Ukrainian opponent, while conceding the prospect of defeat, something that is almost heresy in boxing.

“If I take a loss, I will do what great fighters have done before – look and learn why it happened, how it happened and make the adjustments,” he vowed.

He was equally philosophical after a picture he posted of himself praying at a mosque sparked a Twitter storm.

“If I want to be in a mosque, if I want to be in a Catholic church or a normal church, it’s all down to my decision,” declared the now triple heavyweight champion of the world.

Throw in a professed love of chess and reading and Joshua – known as Femi by his friends, a shortening of one of his middle names, Oluwafemi – is an enigma. And his path to the top is curious.

After the Olympics he turned down £50,000 to turn professional, preferring to bide his time. Now worth an estimated £15m, he still lives in the council home in Golders Green he bought for his mother, Yeta, a social worker.

Some of this is undoubtedly an airbrushed narrative pushed by his entourage. Nevertheless, it is striking that a man who took just two-and-a-half years – a year less than Muhammad Ali – to become World Heavyweight Champion seems, at least for now, more Steve Davis than Tyson Fury.

“He comes across like he’s sincere, honest, and I think that’s what the public see in him and that’s what they go with,” said Sean Murphy, his first trainer. “He’s a-down-to-earth person, no airs or graces about him.”

Indeed, there was little swagger about the man who boasts Dr Dre and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as superfans, when he joined Finchley boxing club in north London at 18.

“With some kids there’s a little bit of ‘afterwards’,” Murphy said. “After sparring they want to take it outside, but there was nothing like that with Josh. He got on with everyone, didn’t take liberties. He’s very respectful.”

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