Anthony Joshua is not the same fighter that he was in 2017. This is an uncontroversial statement, something that everyone from Joshua’s loudest detractors and Joshua himself can absolutely agree upon. The version of Joshua that defeated Wladimir Klitschko, the one who relied on his athleticism and power more than rigid schooling, the one willing to bet on those attributes and take risks in pursuit of a knockout isn’t the same one we saw in the ring against Jermaine Franklin on Saturday night.
Where there is disagreement however, is in whether that indicates a decline in Joshua as a fighter, and regardless of that answer, whether it is necessarily a bad thing for Joshua to have adapted his game the way he has.
Coming into Saturday’s matchup against Franklin, there were calls for Joshua to not just look impressive in the outing, but more specifically, to score a knockout. These calls came not just from the media and contemporary fighters, but from his own promoter, Eddie Hearn, who predicted an “explosive knockout” and hinted that one could come early in the bout as well. The threshold had been set, and anything short of it was going to be a disappointment.
Joshua failed to live up to those standards in the bout, as he scored a wide unanimous decision victory over Franklin by scores of 118-111 and 117-111 twice. Joshua both never let Franklin in the fight, but also never took him out of it completely—certainly not literally, but figuratively as well. He was able to control almost every round without incident, meaning he was never in any danger in the bout, but also never seemed to have Franklin in peril either. Joshua landed some flush right hands and big uppercuts on the inside, but over twelve rounds, never put together a sustained flurry during which one got the sense that Franklin needed to “survive” it. As a result, Franklin was always there, landing the occasional left hook or, his specialty, a pull counter right hand, that would connect and make the audience gasp.
That vulnerability will always exist in the eyes of observers when it comes to a fighter they have seen hurt and stopped in the past. But in many cases, it also never leaves the mind of the fighter who has experienced it in the past.
“It's a situation you can find yourself in where you land one shot, and the fighter's looking like they're ready to go so you rush in for another shot, and they're just not there for the taking yet. If a fighter was there for the taking, believe me, if I see a wounded animal, I'm going to go in for the kill. If I could have, I would have. For me personally, I just didn't see that it was there,” said Joshua at the post-fight press conference. “When you say like, 'the old AJ,' for example. We can look back at times with Klitschko, we went in for the kill in round five, and the only reason he survived until the 11th was because I gassed. I blew a gasket in the ring. So then we fast forward to , for example, the Pulev fight. I was so close to taking this guy out, I probably threw about 200 punches in a round trying to take this guy out and he survived, he's a tough guy. So then I realized, I've got to get back to my boxing.”
Therein lies the debate that will continue regarding Joshua all the way until he steps into the ring for the next time. Joshua is indeed correct that he had a tricky, defensively sound operator in front of him on Saturday, one who was never in imminent danger, and one who was specifically hoping for a gaping opening to land a home run counter shot. Some observers will counter that while Joshua says he didn’t see any openings to go for a knockout, that they did, or at least, ones could have appeared if he’d tried harder to create them.
Neither party is wrong, in this case, as even Joshua admitted after the fight.
“Someone else would knock him out probably, from Britain, I reckon. But, Jermaine's got a good duck and dive style. There was opportunities there, but he knew how to tuck up. Respect to him, he done well,” Joshua told DAZN’s Ade Oladipo. “I should have knocked him out, but what can I say now? It's done, on to the next.”
A different fighter, perhaps a younger, more brash operator, very well could stop Franklin. It’s a situation we see arise quite often, where aversion to risk from either party—or an incredible will to survive--in a fight can create a result that looks more competitive on paper than it actually was. A look at Franklin’s recent resume provides a decent example of this. Three fights ago, he fought Czech heavyweight Pavel Sour and went the full ten round distance with him. In Sour’s next 20 fights, he went on to get stopped in exactly half of them. With the exception of perhaps Hughie Fury, Franklin is objectively better than all of the fighters who knocked Sour out after him, but on the night he fought him, it just didn’t happen.
Joshua’s failure to stop Franklin doesn’t mean he’s anything worse than the third or fourth best heavyweight on the planet, until proven otherwise. His former rival, Dillian Whyte, himself a top-10 heavyweight and one known particularly for his ferocity and hunger for knockouts, labored to a majority decision over Franklin last time out.
The crux of Joshua’s stance on his current form appears to be that the more cautious, technique-focused man we see in the ring is the one he wants to be, not a stand-in for a former version of himself he’s trying to wrangle. Rather, he seems to feel like he has a foundation he desperately wants to build upon and refine. In order to make improvements to his game, he took away all of the luxuries and frills that would have come with staining his camp in the United Kingdom again, and moved it to the converted metalworking shop his new trainer Derrick James operates out of in Texas. There, rather than being one of the continent’s biggest sporting stars who is hounded everywhere he goes, he can likely walk through the HEB gathering his groceries unnoticed, except for people who suspect he might be a new addition to the Dallas Cowboys they aren’t yet familiar with. When promoter Eddie Hearn arrived in an Uber at Joshua’s temporary abode in Texas, he had questions as to whether the humble pad was the correct address or not.
As he’s being labeled as a man who has lost his fighting instinct, Joshua insists he’s a man fighting to maintain it.
“This is the part that's driving me out of the game. I can't stand all the media outlets now, it's too much. And I understand, we have to drive all these different platforms and stuff, we've got to sell ourselves and stuff but, I've done that from the get-go,” Joshua told presenter Laura Woods during an interview published by IFL TV. “I wanted to be in the position where you can build up so much that you don't have to do so much. Less is more. That's what's taken the fun out of the game. It's just too much talking. I wish, turn up, have a fight, go home. I wish, in an ideal world, that would be the best thing ever.”
The hoards of media appearances and additional responsibilities aren’t going to disappear for Joshua. Even the most spartan and remote training setups will give way to press obligations upon a fight’s announcement and the week of its occurrence. Joshua, as a fighter who has reached heights in terms of status and wealth within his sport that precious few ever can, will be asked more of than almost any other active fighter would. Unfortunately for him, the expectations for his performances, then, are as bold as the demands for his time.
He didn’t live up to them this time, and it won’t inspire confidence in too many observers. What ultimately will matter however, is what did this performance inspire in him?
“I wish I could have knocked him out, 100%. But in the next 15 years, no one will remember that fight anyway,” said Joshua.
Corey Erdman is a boxing writer and commentator based in Toronto, ON, Canada. Follow him on Twitter @corey_erdman