Anthony Joshua on the brink
Anthony Joshua is in no position to lose tonight’s fight against Oleksandr Usyk. But the odds are stacked against him, and almost all the pundits expect him to lose the battle.
Joshua came out of Wednesday’s presser ahead of the battle looking like a guy who knows that his career, going forward, depends on today’s outcome and is determined to ensure he succeeds. But he also looks like a guy who knows that the obstacle against him is tough.
Beyond the tough talk and the play at being confident, observers say that Joshua is extremely worried.
In the build-up to today’s fight, the talk among boxing followers is that Joshua’s career will never be the same again if he comes out of it with anything other than victory.
To give himself a better chance of success, Joshua brought in a new trainer, American Robert Garcia, once it was agreed that he would have a chance at retrieving his titles from Usyk. And so, Garcia is expected to have prepared Joshua to be in his best possible physical, mental and tactical state to retrieve his belts from the Ukrainian.
However, some experts say the Nigerian-born British fighter is destined to lose the battle no matter what he thinks and/or trains for the fight.
Former World Boxing Heavyweight Champion, Deontay Wilder, who, himself, has been, almost, in Joshua’s shoes, believes the fight might even be easier for Usyk than the last battle in London.
Wilder fought two fierce battles with Tyson Fury for the WBA crown, with the second in which he lost his crown rated as one of the most brutal bouts ever in boxing. Prior to that fight in Las Vegas, Wilder, just like Joshua, was rated as the underdog even though he was the champion and had come out of their second battle with his crown intact.
“A lot of time has passed and there’s been a lot of time to strategise for the second time around. They say when you fight a person you know him a little bit better the second time, even a little bit more the third,” Wilder told punditarena.com.
“It’s all going to be up to those guys. My heart says Usyk easily, he’s got the momentum now and how he was able to do it the last time around.
“But this is boxing at the end of the day and you just never know how it’s going to pan out until the end of it. At the end of the day, I wish them all the best of luck and I hope they get out of the ring just like they came in, safe and sound.”
This is the second time Joshua will be the challenger to titles he held before he met his current foe.
In the first instance against Mexico’s Andy Ruiz, Joshua fought a tactical fight that kept Ruiz, who sent him to the canvas the first time, at bay. He won on points.
Today again, he is not only the underdog, Usyk’s shadow seems to loom too much over him.
Pundits still have the picture of Joshua trying to stand on his feet in the 12th round of a fight that Usyk out-thought, out-fought and outboxed him.
Some have even suggested that Joshua would be forced to retire after losing a second time to the Ukrainian.
But Joshua has different ideas, he said during a presser on Thursday: “I’m not thinking about retirement. I’ve got one of the biggest fights of my life coming up and if you were thinking about retiring, it would be a massive doubt in your mind. People will always ask questions. Me, I still want to continue. I love it.
“I’m competing with pound-for-pound fighters. If I was losing to some has-been, then, yes.
“But it’s crazy to talk about retiring when I lost to one of the best fighters in the world. What sort of nonsense is that? I respect people’s opinions, but I don’t want to retire.”
This battle has been tagged by some keen boxing followers as Team Joshua against the world.
The simple explanation is that Usyk ‘is a better boxer, who will once again capitalize on Joshua’s inability to make his numerous advantages count against the Ukrainian.’
What are these advantages: Longer reach and heavier punching power.
Beneath Joshua’s touted weaknesses is the willingness for fans and even the media to fall for Usyk’s drift to pity-party mode, using Ukraine’s battle to survive Russia’s ‘unjust’ onslaught to woe the boxing world.
At the media parley on Wednesday, Usyk revved to the patriotic mood, belting out a Ukrainian song to the bemusement of Joshua’s camp. It worked, as the crowd was swayed by that sentiment.
In the face of everything, Joshua still says he is unfazed. He wants his followers to believe he has the power to neutralize whatever Usyk will bring to the ring in Jeddah today.
“I’ve been a month in the desert, training, acclimatising and getting ready for a fight that will go down in boxing history,” Joshua said.
“It’s playing out in 190 countries all over the planet and the eyes of the world will be on me. It’s the ultimate heavyweight championship fight with a lot on the line.
“It’s my second time-fighting in Saudi Arabia and all I can really say is that I’ve been made to feel at home. Already, you can see the impact that boxing is having here as a force for good. Since my last fight here against Andy Ruiz Jr, they’ve opened up 49 new boxing gyms.
“The local people have embraced me and looked after me, whether that be in my hotel or the local gym where I’ve been training day in, day out. It has been an amazing experience and the perfect preparation for this fight.”
Joshua said the turnout and reception at the public workout this week have been great, adding that his regime in the last month and the months before that has been very intense.
“It helps the people around me. I’ve surrounded myself with most of the same people from the very start, they know me, they know what makes me tick and that helps to create the perfect training camp environment,” he said.
Joshua believes bringing Garcia to the training team has rejuvenated his camp. “It felt right to make a change but I took my time to find the right match that would work for me and the rest of the coaches around me.”
He said he has learnt from his mistakes and has trained harder than he has ever done.
“It has not been about drastically changing my style when it comes to the fight but, as a trainer and a fighter before that, he has so much experience of big championship fights. That’s just further experience and expertise to my armoury.
“But, it is also a change of mentality helping to get that aggression out. After all, this is the Rage on the Red Sea. And Usyk will see the full force of that in Jeddah.
“Straight after the last Usyk fight, I remember saying to my team in the changing room that we’d lost the fight but not the war. I’ve picked myself up and those around me, too. We all believe in a different destiny this time around.”
He acknowledges that there would be critics, which he added that he has had his entire career, adding, however, “I know that I fight best after a loss. That defeat sticks in your gut and pushes you to get better and work that much harder.”
Despite the lopsided nature of the latter rounds of the first fight, Joshua’s punches inflicted plenty of damage on Usyk.
The champion emerged from the fight with his face badly marked up.
“We threw a lot of punches and it was challenging,” he said. “I’m looking forward to now putting some power behind them shots as well. I definitely think I can hurt him. One hundred per cent I can knock him out.”
Some pundits refer to Joshua’s 1th-round knockout victory over Wladimir Klitschko to show that a focused and well-trained Joshua can move mountains.
Joshua, then, displayed tremendous courage in front of 90,000-plus fans at London’s Wembley Stadium, that he has the staying power when he rallied from a sixth-round knockdown to score the emphatic victory.
Apart from the fighter, himself, everybody around Joshua also feels he has a bright chance against Usyk.
Chief among the optimists is his promoter, Eddie Hearn, who told ESPN that AJ has a great mindset going into this fight.
“He was stubborn the first time around. When people told him he couldn’t outbox Oleksandr Usyk, he wanted to prove them wrong. Terrible idea, but that’s over.
“You’re going to see a more aggressive Joshua in this fight, a more ruthless Anthony Joshua in this fight, and I also believe the addition of Robert Garcia in his corner will lead to that aggression, but also importantly, lead to the ability to change direction in the fight if needed as we know that Usyk is very clever.
“By the time the bell rings at the end of the sixth round, I want this fight to be over, or for Usyk to be tired and damaged to be in a place he really doesn’t want to be. He can’t let this guy get into a rhythm, and that’s what he did too easily in the first fight. I do not think this fight goes the distance, and I believe Anthony Joshua wins this fight by knockout.”
Hearn is confident that Joshua will rebound from the loss and become a three-time heavyweight champion of the world in Saudi Arabia.
“I had conversations with AJ on Thursday and Friday of the first fight that I didn’t really like, just about the tactics of the fight – what he thought he could do in the fight and obviously now there is a real trickery with Oleksandr Usyk about getting in the ring with him, the unexpected,” Hearn told Boxing Social.
“You know when someone talks about how good someone is and what a genius someone is and what magic they’ve got up their sleeve? You’re almost drained before you’ve even experienced it. ‘Oh yeah, everybody says he does that, oh yeah his feet are so good. It happened to Bellew a little bit in that fight.
“When you’ve shared the ring with him, at least you’ve had that experience, at least you know what to expect. It doesn’t mean you can overcome it, but I feel like it’s a lot easier to fight Oleksandr Usyk the second time around.
“Because of the whole image of ‘Usyk’, you can out-think yourself and that’s what ‘AJ’ did in the first fight. You have an idea of what someone is going to do and you’re standing off, waiting and second-guessing yourself, but he’s experienced it now.
Every fighter knows that to win a battle, he must be seen to be better than his opponent in several areas of the contest. Knocking out the opponent makes judgment much easier.
In that light, former world champion, Evander Holyfield, says Joshua must fight Usyk like he is the Ukrainian’s ‘big brother’ in today’s world title rematch.
Holyfield wants the former champion to make his natural size and power felt on the night.
“He has to fight like a big guy. He can’t sit there and tag with this guy, he’s got to hit him with big shots,” Holyfield told Sky Sports.
“If you got a little brother. If you try to keep up, he moves too much, you’ve got to grab him and put all that weight on him and let him feel that you’re the stronger one and this is a big guy fight and there isn’t any way he can beat you in a big guy fight.
“I know both of the guys are capable of winning, it’s just who does it that night when the pressure happens. The fact of the matter is how a person thinks. I knew what my thinking was going to be in there.
“I always said that every guy that got the best of me was a guy lighter than me with fast hands, I sat there watching. But that’s what big guys used to do when they were in front of me, I was so good they sat there watching and then the fight is over.”
“It isn’t impossible [for Joshua], all it takes is one shot with him. The point of the matter – is he going to be aggressive enough to go out and do it?”
Usyk exudes confidence. The fighter, who left the rings to fight in the war against Russia, knows his countrymen are with him.
An undisputed champion at cruiserweight, he says his ambition is to become the world’s best boxer. After Joshua, he said he would go for Tyson Fury’s crown to make him the reference point in the sport.
“I don’t think it’s going to be a new bout,” Usyk said. “The last bout will be continued, round 13, round 14, round 15, however long the fight will last.
“We learnt about each other in the first fight. He learnt about me and I learnt about him. We have had enough time to study each other and on Saturday it will be a great fight.”
Usyk left Ukraine in March for a training camp in Poland and more recently in Dubai. He has had to spend so much time away from his family — he has a wife, Yekaterina, and three kids — and that has not been easy.
Usyk said of his sojourn in Ukraine’s battlefront in the build-up to tonight’s bout, “at one point, I went to the hospital where soldiers were wounded and getting rehabilitation, and they asked me to go, to fight (Joshua), to fight for the country.
“They said if you go there, you’re going to help our country even more instead of fighting inside Ukraine.”
Usyk’s promoter, Alexander Krassyuk is counting on the good wishes for his fighter to carry the day.
He said Usyk “was in touch with high-ranking military officers and he visited the hospitals with injured soldiers. In every conversation, he heard words of blessing and support to take the rematch.
“People wanted him to fight. People still want him to win. People want the Ukrainian flag to rise, people want the Ukrainian anthem to be heard throughout the whole planet. Not many men in the world can deliver this to millions of people.”
At the weigh-in, yesterday, Usyk was only marginally heavier than his previous weight, while Joshua was only four pounds heavier, despite rumours of a sizeable weight gain.
The Ukrainian came in at 15th, 11lb and 10oz having weighed a then career heaviest 15th 11lbs (221lbs) when he beat Joshua to clinch the IBF, WBA and WBO belts at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in September.
Joshua, who had entered the first meeting 17st 2lbs (240lbs), also built on his previous weight as he came in 17th, 6lbs and 8oz.
The fight will hold at the Jeddah Superdome in Saudi Arabia starting from around 10.00 p.m. Nigerian time.
Although it will not be broadcast live by any of Nigeria’s big networks, boxing lovers can stream the fight on DAZN, a global multi-sport streaming service that can be accessed through paid subscription.
Hesgoal.com, an Internet-based sports broadcast outfit is another option open to fight lovers.