Oleksandr Usyk is about a difficult puzzle to solve as there is in boxing today. The kind of conundrum inside the ring that can make an opponent not just second guess what they’re doing in the moment, but rethink their approach entirely after having spent twelve rounds trying to figure him out.
Such is situation Anthony Joshua finds himself in as he prepares for the most meaningful fight of his career. After being outboxed by Usyk last September and losing his three major heavyweight titles, he will attempt to regain them in a rematch this weekend at the Jeddah Superdome in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. To heighten the stakes, with the recent announcement that Tyson Fury has retired from the sport—at least for the time being—the RING Magazine heavyweight title is now on the line as well.
In their first bout, Joshua often found himself at the behest of Usyk’s mesmerizing lead hand, dazzling footwork and non-stop head movement. Perhaps moreso than any other fighter in boxing, Usyk is able to cause panic and uncertainty in his opponents without throwing a punch. With his upper body rocking like a pendulum, feet bouncing and threatening to either bound in, out or around and a lead left hand constantly picking the lock of his opponent’s defense, Usyk forces his foe to be thinking for every second of their bout.
It’s that mental fatigue that Joshua says he’s preparing to alleviate in enlisting new trainer Robert Garcia. After spending 11 years with trainer Rob McCracken, the two had an amicable split and Joshua went on a global tour in search of a new trainer. He visited many gyms and sampled sessions with various trainers, primarily in the United States, before settling on Garcia. A former Trainer of the Year and one of the sport’s most visible coaches, Garcia’s fighters have historically had an aggressive bend to them—sometimes all-out pressure fighters, but at their most cautious, offense-first boxer-punchers.
It’s this brand of boxing—one Joshua employed to great success earlier in his career—that many prognosticators speculate would be necessary for him to solve Usyk this time around. Joshua has said that his gym environment had become too familiar, too comfortable, but a cascade of instructions on fight night didn’t assist him either. "There was a lot going on in the corner and that didn’t help," Joshua told Savage Dan of JD Sports in late July. "A corner is like a pitstop. You’ve got probably 55 seconds in total to calm down, hydrate, simple instructions. Too many voices at once is definitely not good for anybody, not just me." This time, he was looking for the inverse: A positive but high-pressure gym environment, but a less chaotic corner on fight night.
"Me and Rob would walk in and do skipping, shadow boxing, pads and the bag. He would obviously say things like ‘hands up’ or ‘slip there.' But Angel and Robert Garcia break things down more,” Joshua told Wally Downes Jr. of The Sun last week. “Now I might get told ‘in this round, perfect that f***ing jab. The goal in this round is to get that jab popping. The next goal is to tilt more when you throw the right hand.'"
“It’s more tactical like that, so there is reasoning behind the method. It’s a lot to remember, it can be a bit brain fatiguing but nothing will fatigue me more than being in that ring and going through it for 12 rounds, for real, so I have to go through it.”
Wholesale change of approach fight to fight is something Joshua is familiar with. After being shocked by Andy Ruiz in 2019, he returned as a reformed safety-first jabber to soundly outpoint Ruiz in their rematch. The plan this time around, to hear his new trainer tell is, is to take elements of the brazen power puncher he was during his first reign as champion, remove the aspects that got him into trouble against Ruiz in his first loss, and add in enough self-belief in his boxing ability to not make his strategy blatantly obvious to Usyk.
“Everybody around him is positive. Everybody around him is pushing him to his limits, to what he was doing before he lost his first fight,” said Garcia on a recent episode of his YouTube show. “He needs to know and believe that he’s still as good, or he’s gonna be even better than he was before he became champion for the first time, when he went out there and was knocking everybody out.”
Garcia has trained countless world champions in the past, and has seen the cycle of the former champion second-guessing their own abilities. Joshua has insisted that he “doesn’t need the (boost in) confidence,” but Garcia has spoken like someone who at the very least wants to make sure that is indeed the case.
“They might think, ‘I already lost a fight, so maybe I’m not as good?’ It gets to the head. It’s something that we have to change. Because he already did it. He already won the gold medal against the best fighters in the world, and then as a pro he also beat the best to become heavyweight champion of the world. We didn’t see that before he lost. After he lost is when we’ve seen that there’s more of a mental problem so we’re working on that,” said Garcia.
Joshua has reportedly enlisted a team of eight southpaw sparring partners, some of whom are young, high level amateurs, to mimic Usyk’s frenetic pace and elusiveness. But without enlarging Vasiliy Lomachenko, who learned under the same tree as Usyk (Vasiliy’s father Anatoly, who trains both of them), it is likely impossible to find someone who can accurately mimic Usyk even in sparring.
Usyk’s co-promoter Alex Krassyuk of K2 Promotions expressed doubt in the idea of Joshua’s ability to change his mentality heading into the rematch.
"The weak thing about AJ that we know is that he is a very thorough thinker, he likes to (overthink) everything,” said Krassyuk. “He likes to think a lot about how not to make a mistake. That takes time and energy and that’s something he should not do in the ring because in the ring a quarter second equals the result."
Joshua has already seen the puzzle he needs to solve this weekend. By all accounts and recent footage of a hulking Usyk, it may be an even bigger, stronger one. But as Erno Rubik, the inventor of the Rubik’s Cube once said, “a good puzzle, it's a fair thing. Nobody is lying. It's very clear, and the problem depends just on you.”
Corey Erdman is a boxing writer and commentator based in Toronto, ON, Canada. Follow him on Twitter @corey_erdman