Anthony Joshua: ‘Boxing is an unforgiving world. The hardest battles are outside the ring’

The WBA, WBO, and IBF champion returns to the ring in what may prove to be the toughest test of his career against Oleksandr Usyk on Saturday

Declan Taylor
Tuesday 21 September 2021 13:24
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Joshua to fight Usyk on September 25 in defence of three heavyweight titles

After a year in which he watched a £200m superfight with Tyson Fury come and go, Anthony Joshua insists he has stepped back from the “unforgiving world” of boxing business in order to focus on nothing but perfecting his own craft.

Joshua returns to the ring for the first time in 2021 on Saturday night when he faces the brilliant Ukrainian Oleksandr Usyk at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in front of a crowd in excess of 50,000 – by far the biggest boxing gate since Covid-19 arrived on these shores.

The undefeated former cruiserweight champion Usyk represents arguably the toughest test of Joshua’s career to date and the north Londoner believes he has left nothing to chance in his preparation. And for one of the most marketable and in-demand athletes on the planet, that has resulted in retreat.

“What I’ve done, I’ve stepped back,” Joshua says. “I need to focus on winning. I need to focus on boxing because it’s very difficult. Honestly to improve one or two per cent you have to spend like six to eight months working tirelessly at your craft to make improvements as a fighter. To do that at the highest level is really difficult.

“I look at a lot of these Olympians that have come out of Tokyo about to embark on their professional career and I feel sorry for them, because honestly, it’s like a gift and a curse. They’ve got so much potential, they’ve done so well, but now they have to embark into the world of business.

Joshua parades his world championship belts at Joshua the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium

“Boxing is an unforgiving world when it comes to making the right decisions. A lot of these guys are going through what I went through and my battle as a fighter wasn’t only to win in the ring – I found that easier than the battle outside of the ring.

“Early on I spent a lot of time understanding the climate and at the start it was so, so difficult. What I’ve done, I’ve got a trusted team around me. If they f*** me they won’t wake up the next morning, so good luck to them. But so far so good, they’re still breathing, I’m still breathing. I’m not in jail. So we’re all happy. Everything is fine.”

Since regaining his IBF, WBA and WBO world heavyweight titles by defeating Andy Ruiz Jr on a rainy Saudi Arabian night in December 2019, Joshua has had the least active 21 months of his professional career. He has boxed just once, stopping mandatory challenger Kubrat Pulev in nine rounds at Wembley last December.

It looked as though that unification showdown with WBC champion Tyson Fury was finally about to happen earlier this year, only for an arbitrator to rule that the “Gypsy King” must face Deontay Wilder for a third time or risk huge financial penalties, said to be around £80m. The pair clash on 9 October. It has, therefore, been a hugely frustrating time for Joshua who will now face his WBO mandatory challenger Usyk for a much smaller sum.

“I was wondering about legacy and where boxing was years ago,” Joshua continues. “In the 1950s and stuff – the difference with those guys was that they actually fought each other. That’s what made them great. In this day and age, it’s who speaks the most who generates the most interest.

“It’s a different era of boxing – speaking is just as important as fighting these days. For me, I just fight these guys, no problem and they get a lot out of it as well. They come into our world, everything we try to build, and they benefit massively out of it. It’s annoying because all these opponents come for a week or two, speak a good game, generate big social media followings, generate prizefighting money and then disappear and you don’t hear from them again.

“Yeah, boxing is in a different place now. What can I do about it, except the responsibility of fighting? That’s all I can do – I can just play my part.”

For now that means overcoming the ominous figure of Usyk, a fellow gold medallist at London 2012, who is now campaigning at heavyweight after unifying the cruiserweight division as a result of one of the great runs in the history of the 200lb division. Now he is vying to follow in the footsteps of the likes of Evander Holyfield and David Haye by winning a world title in the land of the big men too.

Joshua adds: “The difference is, though, when Holyfield came up to heavyweight I think he had six fights at heavyweight before he fought for the championship belt. But Usyk has fought two heavyweights. He’s jumping in deeper there. Good luck to him. He must believe in himself. He wants to go to the top end. It’s fair to swim deep; get in there, get on with it, rather than tread water. And you can still end up drowning anyway, you can still get caught in a current and drown anyway. So you might as well just jump in the deep end and try and survive.

“Good luck to him. He’s coming up at the deep end, but it’s heavyweight boxing, I’m the heavyweight champion of the world, I don’t play games. He’s confident, his team are confident but I feel like it’s easy to watch on YouTube and watch from the outside. When you are in front of someone it’s a completely different ball game. So 25 September, we’ll get to see what my spirit’s about, what my lineage is and where I’ve come from is about. What a true Joshua is.”

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