By Nick Halling
Matt Skelton sounded like a man whistling in the graveyard to keep his spirits up when he described his opponent this weekend as another Audley Harrison. The only thing the frighteningly-talented Anthony Joshua has in common with Harrison is an Olympic super heavyweight gold medal, and for the comparison to be valid, it’s probably more accurate to say that he’s potentially another Lennox Lewis or Wladimir Klitschko.
The 47-year-old grizzled Bedford Bear is right when he says that Joshua hasn’t been tested yet, although that’s only a matter of time. But with six victories to his name to date, Joshua isnt being spoonfed hopeless chumps: he’s getting durable, hard working pros – and he’s destroying them.
Matchmaking problems are fast looming, and finding sparring partners isn’t getting any easier either. Local man Tom Dallas and the vastly experienced American Jason Gavern are the latest to find the going hard and painful. Gavern, in particular, has been round the block and knows how to look after himself, but he didn’t enjoy the experience of sparring with the Watford man earlier this month.
Joshua is on the fast track to somewhere special, and assuming Skelton doesn’t roll back the years and produce what would be the stunning upset of the decade, the speed of his development is only going to intensify.
There will be no summer of sunbathing for the 2012 Olympic gold medallist. The plan is to have him out again at the end of August – on the undercard of Matthew Macklin’s return to action in Dublin. The veteran Ukranian, Yaroslav Zavorotnyi could be the man in the opposite corner.
Zavorotnyi isn’t in the peak of his years, at 39, but he has always been durable – and that’s becoming a necessity for any prospective Joshua opponent. The Ukranian went the full 10 with Liverpool heavyweight David Price last month, and while Price is still in the rebuilding stage of his career, that’s a noteworthy achievement, because Price can certainly bang.
Three years ago, Zavorotnyi also went the full eight rounds with Kubrat Pulev, the unbeaten Bulgarian who is on deck to face Wladimir in September. He’s been stopped only twice. In an insane piece of matchmaking, the Ukranian was pitched in with the then 27-0 Nicolay Valuev in only his third fight, and was not surprisingly bombed out in three. His only other stoppage came in 2010, when Alexander Dimitrenko got rid of him in five in a European title fight.
On both occasions, Zavorotnyi was stopped on his feet, with the corner throwing in the towel. He is an extremely tough guy, and assuming he comes to Dublin, would represent exactly the kind of test that Joshua needs at this stage of his career.
There’s growing excitement amongst Joshua’s connections that he really could be something very special. He is watched closely for any deficiency – inside the ring or in his private life – which might suggest that he’s not the real thing. So far, observers have come up with nothing. Dont expect Matt Skelton to find anything on Saturday night either.
It seems certain that one-time two-weight world champion Ricky Burns is set to move up to light welterweight in a bid to kickstart a career which has been in freefall in recent months. Following his shock defeat at the hands of Dejan Zlaticanin last month, the Scot has decided to box on, and will be back in action on a bill in Manchester on 13 September.
Dont expect the opposition to be too demanding. Burns needs a win any way he can get it, and a hand-picked opponent will be put in place over eight or 10 rounds. Whichever way you look at it, it’s a massive step down for a man who had previously put together a streak of 10 consecutive world title fights. But it’s also a realistic reaction to what has been a dramatic and unexpectedly spectacular fall from grace.
It’s hard to identify exactly what is wrong with Burns. Those close to the Scot are scratching their heads in an attempt to identify the problem. One theory is that the Coatbridge man has simply been drained of confidence. There is no self-belief in his work whatsoever.
Another is that he has never fully recovered, physically or psychologically, from the broken jaw sustained in the draw with Ray Beltran last September. Burns showed extraordinary physical courage that night, but in his two fights since – Zlaticanin and the one-sided loss to Terence Crawford - the Scot has shown a marked reluctance to engage, and is quickly on the back foot at any sign of pressure.
Others are of the opinion that he is simply too hard a worker for his own good, and that what he really needs is a long rest away from the game. This might have some validity: Burns’ work-ethic is relentless, his dedication to a fitness regime eyewatering, and his love of sparring legendary.
There was a belief that a change of gym would do the trick. Burns parted company with long-term trainer Billy Nelson following the loss to Crawford, relocating to Essex to work under Tony Sims. He soon proved a popular and likeable member of the gym, and seemed to have rediscovered his fire for the game in his new surroundings.
So the Zlaticanin debacle came as a total shock. Burns was on the floor inside the first 15 seconds, put down by a crude, clubbing left hand, and never really recovered. The Montenegrin was basic and one-dimensional, yet nobody argued when Burns found himself on the wrong end of a split decision.
That made it three fights without a win, and you have to go back to September 2012 for his last solid performance, when he stopped Kevin Mitchell in a defence of his WBO lightweight crown.
And now it’s also possible that Burns might not want to continue working in Essex. The newly-minted father spends a lot of time away from his family during camp, and the sacrifice would be worthwhile if the benefits were being reaped in the ring. After Zlaticanin, will he want to continue living so far from his young family? It’s just another question is a series of puzzling scenarios.
So is he simply a shot fighter? Has the broken jaw had more of an effect on him that anybody realises? Is he just short on confidence? Is another change of trainer on the horizon? Does he need a break? Nobody knows for sure. Equally, nobody is rushing to write the immensely likeable and professional 31-year-old off either. There are whispers in some quarters that he should retire. If he fails to look good in Manchester in September, then frankly, Burns will have no other choice.
Kell Brook is likely to have plenty of familiar faces in the vicinity when he challenges Shawn Porter for the IBF welterweight title at LA’s StubHub Center next month. There’s a chance that in total, a quartet of Brits could be on the bill.
You can pencil in middleweight Anthony Ogogo as one name almost certainly on the show. The Olympic bronze medallist is promoted by Golden Boy, and as the StubHub bill is a Golden Boy show, it’s not hard to join up the dots. Ogogo is unbeaten, improving, and already a veteran transatlantic traveller.
Fellow medallist Luke Campbell is also expected to make his US debut on the Brook-Porter undercard. The Hull lightweight returns this weekend from a five month absence, the result of illness within the family. The southpaw looks a special, elite-level talent, and the thinking is that exposure to a big American show can only broaden his professional experience.
And the same applies to super middle prospect Callum Smith. Like Campbell, there’s a strong belief that Smith is a serious world title contender, and the chance of putting a big West Coast bill on his resume is too good to turn down. If he comes through unscathed against Vladine Biosse this weekend, Smith might want to dig out his passport.
Of the four, only Smith is considered a possible at this stage. The other three look guaranteed to be California Dreaming.
Nick Halling is a commentator for Sky Sports.