It’d be hard to find a bigger Anthony Joshua fan than I was.
Though wiping out the worst title claimant of a generation (Charles Martin, blech!) wasn’t exactly the most compelling way to win a heavyweight title, I remember sitting in the press room at the MGM Grand Garden Arena that spring night in 2016 thinking, “OK, this guy’s going to be a big star.”
And I don’t think too many at the venue in Las Vegas – in town to cover Manny Pacquiao’s third match with Tim Bradley – would have strayed much from that party line.
My belief got even stronger when he got off the deck to finish off Wlad Klitschko a year later, to the point where I’d have believed Joshua would handle any heavyweight in front of him for several years.
Further review reveals that I was obviously a bit off.
I’m not entirely sure where things began to go sideways, but the loss to Andy Ruiz in 2019 was both surprising because of the opponent and troubling because of the dire optics it presented.
Was he just an athlete in a boxing ring? Did he have the mettle to pull through dire straits?
After Klitschko I’d have sworn yes. Ever since, it seems a definitive no.
Saturday’s post-fight tantrum doesn’t help things at all, but he’s hardly the first athlete to lose his cool when put within range of a microphone mere moments after a career-altering defeat.
Would I have preferred he act differently? Certainly.
Do I think his post-fight demeanor is his biggest issue? No.
The reality is he’s simply not the fighter I thought he was.
I never envisioned a second Ali in terms of skill, but I did think he’d advance to the point where he’d not be so comprehensively flummoxed by a guy like Usyk – who’s certainly a terrific talent but still far shorter and lighter and nowhere near as powerful with his shots.
A difficult foe? Yes. A guy who should take 16 of 24 rounds in two fights? No.
I thought Joshua would win the first one. I stuck with him for the second one.
But I guess I should have known better.
“Utterly predictable defeat through he performed better than in the first fight,” ex-HBO blow-by-blow man Jim Lampley said. “Motivation is a giant factor in individual sports and Usyk just has so much more to fight for, a deeper well to draw from. AJ knows that and couldn’t overcome it in a fight that technically favored Usyk. Frustrating that (his) crossroads comes against an elusive southpaw mover, a difficult target for a larger power puncher.”
And a remarkable unraveling of a guy once pegged for global stardom.
Though nine title-fight wins across two championship reigns still place Joshua well past the sport’s flotsam and jetsam, it’s no less true that consecutive losses to a blown-up cruiserweight indicate he’s something less than the supernova his hype men claimed as the wave crested.
Avenging the loss would have rekindled the fire for a Tyson Fury showdown, but it was Usyk fielding those questions Saturday evening as Team Joshua ducked for PR cover as soon as it left the ring.
And soon, it’ll transition from recovery back to rebuild.
The good news: There’s clearly some worthwhile material to work with.
Joshua maintained before the rematch he’d continue to fight no matter the result, and it’s surely within reason to suggest he remains among the world’s elite heavyweights even with the loss.
He’s beaten three of the fighters in The Ring’s latest top-10 rankings, which had him second behind Usyk with no mention of Fury, who’d relinquished the magazine’s title belt earlier this month.
A match with fellow ex-champ Deontay Wilder – who’s 0-2-1 against Fury with two KO losses – would still be a windfall even as a prerequisite to another title chance with Fury or Usyk.
Here’s an idea: Put Joshua-Wilder on the Fury-Usyk undercard and sell out any stadium on Earth.
Though they’re a combined 0-4-1 against the division’s best, put me down as an interested viewer.
Randy Gordon agrees.
“Joshua has only lost three fights – two to the best pure boxer in the heavyweight division,” the SiriusXM host and ex-NYSAC commissioner said.
“There is no reason he cannot return to the top of the division. We may yet see him against Tyson Fury or in a fight which should have happened five years ago – Deontay Wilder.”
Given the perpetual cycle of sanctioning body silliness, it’s a matter of time before at least one of the trinkets now possessed by the two unbeaten champions is vacated or stripped from its current owner, leaving Joshua perpetually within range of a third, albeit slightly devalued, championship run.
So, while Saturday’s channeling of Kanye West made him a villain this news cycle, Joshua retains “buy” status with Lampley.
“Good news is that he has made lifetime generational money,” Lampley said. “The meltdown came from how circumstances have conspired against him. But at the same time, respect for Usyk is quite apparent, and hoisting the (Ukrainian) flag was classy. A Fury fight would be another epic payday I do not believe he could win. But if he can make the deal, he ought to do it.”
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This week’s title-fight schedule:
No title fights scheduled.
Last week's picks: 2-2 (WIN: Garcia, Navarrete; LOSS: Joshua, Akhmedov)
2022 picks record: 24-12 (66.7 percent)
Overall picks record: 1,233-404 (75.3 percent)
NOTE: Fights previewed are only those involving a sanctioning body's full-fledged title-holder – no interim, diamond, silver, etc. Fights for WBA "world championships" are only included if no "super champion" exists in the weight class.
Lyle Fitzsimmons has covered professional boxing since 1995 and written a weekly column for Boxing Scene since 2008. He is a full voting member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter – @fitzbitz.