Through the years, there are fighters who are never fully appreciated, who don’t get the recognition for their accomplishments or their skills.
Anthony Joshua has long been one of those. Note that he’s won a version of the heavyweight championship twice and there’s always a quick, “Yeah, but,” which will follow.
Joshua is by no means one of the 10 greatest heavyweights who’s ever lived, but he’s still only 32 years old and has several years to add to his résumé if he chooses to go on.
If he defeats unified champion Oleksandr Usyk on Saturday in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in their battle for the IBF, WBA and WBO heavyweight belts and then defeats WBC champion Tyson Fury after that to become the undisputed champion, opinions will change quickly.
But Joshua has lost twice as a huge favorite and that has dogged him as he’s strived to return to the top of the heap. He’s remembered as much for his losses at this stage as he is for any of his wins.
He’s hired not one but two new trainers to prepare him for what clearly is the fight of his life. He dismissed Rob McCracken, who trained him to the 2012 Olympic super heavyweight gold medal and to two stints as unified heavyweight champion in the pros, and hired Robert Garcia and Angel Fernandez.
Garcia is one of the elite trainers in the world and is particularly adept at working with veteran fighters who many feel have seen their best days. Garcia has a knack for squeezing another great performance, or three, out of guys in a similar situation to Joshua.
“Have I been chosen [to train veteran fighters who needed a career reset] before? Yes,” Garcia told Matt Macklin of Sky Sports. “I could go on with a list of fighters who have been toward the end of their careers but then they come to me and I kind of bring them back to good wins, good fights. Some have even become champions after everybody thought they were finished. I do like those challenges.”
It’s a significant challenge for Joshua, who for the first time in his career is an underdog. The line has dropped in Joshua’s favor at BetMGM in the last two days, but Usyk is still a -190 favorite. Joshua is +140. Usyk is +220 to win by decision. Joshua is +700 to win by decision and +225 to win by KO/TKO/DQ/Technical Decision.
But Usyk, widely perceived as the smaller man, is +175 to win by finish.
Usyk is an elite boxer with incredible footwork. But in his public appearances in Jeddah, he appears to have bulked up, which goes with manager Egis Klimas’ comments about his condition.
At the final news conference on Wednesday, Klimas marveled at what Usyk had done.
“I can tell you, I’ve never seen anybody in [113-degree Fahrenheit] heat ride a bicycle for [60 miles],” Klimas said. “I’ve never seen anybody swimming the day before a press conference in London for [6.2 miles] in the pool for five hours. I’ve never seen anybody hold their breath underwater for four minutes and forty seconds, almost passing away. I hope all of this is going to be helping him on Saturday night.”
If Usyk is in the kind of condition that Klimas suggests, and it certainly appears by looking at him and his added muscle that he is, it will most certainly help him.
That creates an interesting challenge for Garcia: He has been adamant about Joshua scoring a knockout, but by pressuring Usyk, who is quicker and with better footwork, he could open himself up to being countered.
Joshua undoubtedly has to impose his will on Usyk, but he can’t just wade in throwing right hands. He needs to jab often, and jabbing to the body and then the head would be a good way to start. Garcia, though, said a lot of it goes back to confidence. Joshua has been doubted by many and not given the credit he perhaps deserve because he hasn’t always believed fully in himself.
“That’s the main thing: He has to believe in himself,” Garcia told Sky. “He has to know he’s got everything it takes to beat Usyk. We’re not saying Usyk is an easy fighter. No. He’s very, very difficult, very awkward. He’s smart inside the ring.”
That’s perhaps the key to this fight. Usyk is not only quick, and agile, and a superb boxer who has a great sense of distance and timing. He’s also smart and can adjust on the fly.
He fought brilliantly the first time and believes he can do better in the rematch. His promoter, Alex Krassyuk of K2 Promotions, said “When we watched Usyk's videos from the training camp, we realized that he looks like a cyborg. He went through hell in the training camp in the last three months.”
So expect both to be fit. But that special trait that Usyk has is what should be the difference for him.
Joshua is an elite opponent with power, athleticism and terrific combinations. Usyk could be doing everything correctly and still lose because of one minor mistake that Joshua capitalizes on.
Usyk, though, has spent a lifetime detonating bombs and he’s ready again.
“We learned from each other in the first fight, but this is a continuation and the first round on Saturday will be Round 13,” Usyk said.
So while Joshua figures to be better, and perform closer to his peak, so, too, should Usyk.
Look for Usyk to win by decision, but don’t be shocked if he stops Joshua late.