Anthony Joshua will be in the fight of his life on Saturday night under the stars at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.
It has taken a cartoon suit, the testimony of survivors and a lonely ring slowly being erected in the middle of 70,000 seats to show people just how serious this fight is. It is not a “warm-up” for a fight with Tyson Fury and it is certainly not a mismatch.
Oleksandr Usyk with his bag of tricks, manic eyes, odd socks and crazy outfits, has tried to play the joker, but the fun-suit has started to look like uncomfortable camouflage for the fighting man underneath. No amount of zany can hide a fighting man’s desire.
On Thursday, they eyed each other up close and very personal; there was no drama, just tiny signs that the comic act from the unbeaten Ukrainian boxer had worn a bit thin and that Joshua had seen through the cracks. “He likes to play the joker,” said Joshua. “He’s not a joker.” He most certainly is not: Usyk is unbeaten in 18 fights, he won and unified the four cruiserweight belts with wins in the backyards of fighters and he has a gold medal from the London Olympics. He is smaller than Joshua, but then just about everybody is smaller than Joshua.
Usyk is tremendous at making his opponents forget about his boxing skills and concentrate on his eccentricities. In 2018, Tony Bellew tried to unsettle the towering Ukrainian, but failed before their bout; in the fight, Usyk exhausted Bellew before the end in round eight.
“He dictates the pace with his feet,” Bellew said, still a bit confused by the memory. “I was leading on the scorecards, but I was mentally exhausted. I knew I was in trouble at the end of the seventh.” Bellew has talked to Joshua; Bellew believes that Joshua is simply too big and, importantly, too fast.
On Thursday, Joshua took up residency in the late afternoon sun on the seats of a box high above the converted pitch. “I did the walk, to visualise the walk on the night,” he told me as he looked out and waved at the men building his ring. “I started inside, I walked out, stood, enjoyed it and then walked across the pitch to the middle.” He told me that he went down on one knee and prayed that all the fighters have a safe night. He was alone, it was not a publicity shot.
“The visualisation helped me,” he continued. “I have been in so many big fights (this is his fifth in a stadium with 65,000 fans or more) and I never get the chance to really enjoy it – I will enjoy this one. I will have some fun.”
No amount of pre-fight rituals will really help once the bell sounds and the roar of the adoring greets the first punches. Joshua has been told a zillion things to do and not to do; the onus is very much on his style and tactics on the night. It is, after all, the Joshua show.
However, it is a heavy burden that ignores Usyk’s own chameleon tendencies, his brilliance at deciding a game plan and sticking with it. In addition, all casual talk of Joshua’s power tends to ignore the simple fact that Usyk has not come to London to be a sacrifice. They are big men and anything – obviously – could happen, but for a heavy stoppage, Joshua will need to be smart and Usyk will need to be a proper fool.
There will be a lot of mutual respect and tactics, movement, slips and feints. Joshua does have to, as Eddie Hearn said this week, “put an early dent” in Usyk. That does not mean he will charge out; Joshua will look for openings, gaps, opportunities, just like Usyk. For all my cautionary words, I still believe it is a “don’t blink” fight. So, don’t blink.
Also lingering under Saturday night’s canopy of great expectation there is the dream fight against Fury for Joshua. It has to be on his mind. That is pressure and Joshua craves that pressure. He will have to be at his very best and he will be.
Joshua to hurt and win makes all the sense, but the bookies have started to sweat in dread at the Usyk threat late in the fight. It is a real threat, but I think Joshua will have beaten enough of that danger out of him – put enough dents in him, if you like. It is a sensational fight and there will be twists. Enjoy it.
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