Ahead of Anthony Joshua’s comeback fight against Jermaine Franklin, promoter Eddie Hearn admitted that the 33-year-old former world heavyweight champion is embarking on one last run.

Hearn, who has worked with Joshua since AJ struck gold at the London 2012 Olympics, said, “Yes, [but] hopefully it’s a big run.”

Hearn cited Joshua’s lack of bruising fights as a reason why Joshua, who has linked up with Texan trainer Derrick James for the Franklin fight, is well preserved as he perhaps enters the end game of his career. 

“I said the [Andy] Ruiz fight was tough, obviously he got stopped, and then there was the [Wladimir] Klitschko fight, but nothing else has been overly taxing for him, so physically he feels great,” Hearn explained. “Mentally, I think now he’s in a good place. But he loves boxing, he loves competing. When he says, ‘Oh yeah, it’s the money [Joshua’s reason for fighting],’ I don’t buy that. I just think he loves competing, and I think he cares a lot more about legacy than maybe he lets on. Of course, he’s making a lot of money as well, but I think if he didn’t enjoy it or didn’t want to do it, he wouldn’t bother. I think mentally he’s in a good place and I think this fight will tell us a lot, because every time he fights, the opponent raises their game. Franklin, already, looks in better shape than for the Dillian Whyte fight, and you know he’s going to come in… better shorts… more confidence… and everyone says ‘AJ is this’ and ‘AJ is this,’ ‘all you’ve got to do is this and you’ll beat him.’ [Franklin’s promoter] Dmitry Salita is already trying to float the mind games about Andy Ruiz and the style and the size, and there is an element of that [similarities between the opponents] as well, but I think this fight will tell us everything that we need to know.”

There has long been a school of thought from some observers that Joshua’s boxing education was curtailed by winning the heavyweight title from Charles Martin before he fully developed and matured as a fighter. But Hearn has no regrets over how Joshua was matched. 

“That was the best thing we have ever done, getting him that fight,” Hearn continued. “But I remember the conversations with [Joshua’s former trainer] Rob McCracken… Rob felt like the fight had come too early, but we said, ‘Do you think you can beat Charles Martin?’ And they said ‘Yes, but once he’s beat Charles Martin, he’s world heavyweight champion and that’s the problem.’ But I said, ‘If you think you can win the fight, you have to take it.’ AJ took the fight and he beat him. But I feel like the only fight that came too early was Klitschko, really.”

After Martin, Joshua began the gauntlet of fights that Hearn is happy to reel off ad nauseum. Martin, Breazeale, Molina, Klitschko, Takam, Parker, Povetkin, Ruiz, Ruiz, Pulev, Usyk, Usyk… “That’s the run,” Hearn continued. “I feel like he never gets the credit for the run that he’s been on. There are so many times when he could have binned the belt and gone on and made the same money against a nobody in some random country, but he always wanted to defend his titles and the undisputed carat was always the key.”

Hearn felt that with Joshua’s comparative anonymity in his new Texas training base, Joshua would be frequenting coffee shops, the mall and so forth, but Joshua is training, he has a massage therapist living with him to help him recover and he’s living a spartan and mundane lifestyle.

Still, Joshua remains big box office, but there are elements of the UK boxing fanbase who do not support him. They see him as unrelatable and Hearn was asked whether the British public does know the real Anthony Joshua more than 10 years after he turned professional.

“What you see is what you get with him,” Hearn added. “I’ve never seen him slag anyone off, bad mouth anyone… He’s a good man. But sometimes… they said, ‘Do you regret what you did after the Usyk fight [throwing the belts out of the ring]?’ ‘No, I don’t regret it [Joshua said].’ Because that was him. At that moment, that was him. Right or wrong. You can’t really win, can you? On one hand, he’s this great role model, he gives time to people… ‘Oh, he’s fake.’ He ain’t doing that because we [Matchroom]’re saying, after your workout, do this.. we are saying, ‘After your workout, get in your car and go home.’ Rob McCracken would say to him, after every media workout, ‘no photos, no signings, straight home’ [but] he’d do an hour with the kids. But you never get the credit for that. That is apparently fake. And then what comes out after the Usyk fight is apparently the real AJ, no it’s not. It’s just a bloke that was desperate to win that was incredibly frustrated and all the pressure of the last years and years just got too much for him.”

While Hearn is keen not to look beyond Franklin, of course, there are grand plans for Joshua’s return. Two names mentioned as opponents in this latest incarnation of Joshua are old foe Dillian Whyte and long-time American rival Deontay Wilder. Whyte wasn’t seriously considered for the April 1 fight because Hearn sees it as a stadium event. Could Whyte or Wilder be next?

“Yes, I think so,” Hearn went on. “Look, I don’t know whether [Tyson] Fury is going to fight Usyk. And if he doesn’t, maybe we do the Fury fight.”

And that remains Hearn’s ultimate goal for Joshua. 

“Fury – love that fight, always wanted that fight, and one because it’s massive and two I think he [Joshua] can win,” Hearn said. “But April 1st will tell us more about that.”

During the Joshua-Franklin press conference, Hearn asked Joshua if the pressure was off without the titles and with expectations perhaps slightly lowered by the general public. Joshua said the pressure was not off, and Hearn doesn’t believe it for a minute, either. In fact, he thinks it’s never been so intense.

“More than ever,” Hearn continued. “Because [if] you lose now… When you lose for the world heavyweight title, you’ve got a rematch clause. Then, if you lose to Usyk again, you’ve still got the comeback fight. You lose the comeback fight… It’s like snakes and ladders and this is a risky fight. I know some people will say, ‘Oh, he’ll be too good for Franklin.’ Franklin’s not a mug. We looked at other guys and we would have been laughed out of town, and he didn’t want to fight them anyway. This is a real fight.” 

Hearn, then, discussed the double standards Joshua has faced, not just by those who condemn him as fake but by those detractors who are ready to pile on the negativity no matter what.

“When he wanted to fight Tyson Fury at the end of last year, some people said, ‘You shouldn’t fight Fury, it’s too early, you need a fight to come back to,’” Hearn explained. “And you take a fight to come back to…” Hearn by now is exasperated, signalling at the fallout of taking a comeback fight. 

“The classic example I use is, one of the names we looked at for this fight, which was public, was Zhilei Zhang. The stick I got for mentioning Zhilei Zhang’s name… being a 40-odd-year-old, ‘Oh, you can’t fight him…’ 

“Now Joe Joyce is fighting him and it’s an unbelievable heavyweight fight. The same critics think Joyce is better than AJ, so you can’t really win. They say that AJ is at the end of his career or finished, but that he’ll beat Franklin easy. Alright, they’re the same people that thought Franklin beat Dillian Whyte. You’ve just got to focus on what’s in front of you, but you know that everyone you fight, when you’re Anthony Joshua, will be in better shape and try harder than they would normally.”