Anthony Joshua

Anthony Joshua illustrates the pressure cooker of top level sport in defeat to Oleksandr Usyk

It was as uncomfortable to watch as the fight that proceeded it had been enthralling.

Anthony Joshua’s four-minute tirade after his split decision defeat to Oleksandr Usyk in Jeddah was met with ridicule and scorn from most.

It was simply an emotional outburst from a man who knew he had been beaten and whose world was collapsing around him in front of over 10,000 people in the King Abdullah Sport City and millions watching around the world.

“You’re not strong, how did you beat me?” Joshua near-enough shouted in the face of his opponent, having earlier dropped two of the belts he used to own out of the ring in disgust and almost scuffled with his opponent’s corner.

Then, worryingly, he had the ring microphone in his hand.

Production staff frantically gestured from the ring apron trying to find someone, anyone, to take it off him.

Joshua though was allowed to ramble through a potted history of his personal life and the emotion he was feeling in an explosion of muddled feelings.

Boxer Oleksandr Usyk holds a Ukrainian flag of blue and yellow behind him as he smiles in victory after a world title fight.

Heartbreakingly, we were watching the unravelling of a man’s dreams in real-time.

“If you knew my story, you would understand my passion,” he said.

“I ain’t no f***ing amateur boxer from five years old that was an elite prospect … I was going to jail.

“The f***ing passion we put into this s***, man.

“This guy, to beat me tonight, maybe I could have done better, but it shows the levels of hard work he must have put in.

“I’m not a 12-round fighter. Look at me. I’m the new breed of heavyweight.

“‘You don’t throw combinations like Rocky Marciano’, That’s cause I ain’t f***ing 14 stone. I’m 18 stone and I’m heavy.”

Anthony Joshua talks down a microphone with his arm around an unimpressed Oleksandr Usyk
Anthony Joshua said he came back to the ring to do the right thing, but really he stole Oleksandr Usyk’s moment.(Getty Images: Khalid Alhaj/MB Media)

Joshua was, all at once, trying to justify his style, explain what he had gone through in the lead-up to the fight and pay credit to a man he could not believe was better than him. 

Olympic bronze medallist in Tokyo, Frazer Clarke, said on Sky Sports in the UK that Joshua’s team left him out to dry and that someone should have “saved him”.

“To the people who was around him, where was you?” Clarke said.

“Someone should have jumped in then, someone should have stopped him and saved him from himself.”

WBO cruiserweight champion Lawrence Okolie though hit the nail on the head when he gave his opinion immediately after Clarke.

“We can only imagine the pressure he is under, exploding like that.”

In this almost uniquely gladiatorial sport — one of the most uncivilised pursuits known that is still sanctioned as a form of entertainment — Joshua was pouring out everything he felt since being thrust into stardom as a gold medallist at his home Olympics a decade ago.

Anthony Joshua speaks to a large number of cameras and microphones
Anthony Joshua was under enormous pressure before the fight.(Getty Images: Francois Nel)

The usually affable Brit has spoken at times of how a boxer needs to become “uncivilised” in fight week — there’s surely no other way to condition oneself to attempt to brutalise someone standing in front of you.

Yet as British boxing’s golden boy, he has always had to present a veneer of civility that is, by all accounts, as genuine as his talent in the ring. 

Shortly afterwards, Joshua sobbed through a press conference, saying, “it’s really, really hard for me to say I’m proud of myself.”.

“I’m upset, really, deep down in my heart.”

After the adrenaline of the fight wore off and the reality of his circumstances took over, Joshua took to social media to explain himself.

“Yesterday I had to mentally take myself into a dark place to compete for the championship belts!” Joshua wrote on Twitter.

“I had two fights, one with Usyk and one with my emotions and both got the better of me.

“I’ll be the first to admit, I let myself down.

“I acted out of pure passion and emotion and when not controlled it ain’t great.”

Mountainous pressure takes its toll

Anthony Joshua walks past Oleksandr Usyk, who is looking at him out of the corner of his eye while draped in a Ukraine flag
Anthony Joshua lost on two of the three judges’ scorecards.(Getty Images: Francois Nel)

In the aftermath, those who were closest to Joshua were able to contextualise his reaction.

“He was devastated … when boxing is your absolute life, like it’s his life … sadly, it’s the only thing in his life,” promoter Eddie Hearn told the BBC after the fight.

“He lives in a bubble, he goes from home to Loughborough, lives in a little apartment, can’t go for a coffee, can’t go to the shops, can’t go to the park … just trains and watches tapes.

“When something you love comes crumbling down, it’s very difficult to take, and you saw that.

“[It was] just emotion … AJ wasn’t being himself.”

The thing is, a singular focus with little to engage them outside their sport is the reality for most top athletes.

Anthony Joshua speaks on a microphone as men look on
An increasingly awkward crowd sat through Joshua’s unplanned speech.(Getty Images: Khalid Alhaj/MB Media)

In an individual sport, there is often nowhere else to look but in the mirror for an individual’s failings — although as we’ve seen in team sports this week, the heightened emotional state of the participants on the wrong side of a flogging can result in them lashing out at figures of authority.

Regardless of it being a team or an individual, the emotional release that comes with any gut-wrenching defeat manifests itself in various different ways.

And, at the highest level at least, it always plays out in the public eye.

The anguish so many athletes face as they struggle to come to terms with their respective failures hits us as forcefully as an Usyk uppercut multiple times a year.

The fact is, there’s nowhere to hide as the camera lights blaze and the witnesses cast their judgements. 

In the immediate minutes after Michael Buffer announced that Usyk had won, Joshua congratulated his opponent and their corner, picked up two of the belts, dropped them out of the ring and then briefly argued with Usyk’s team.

He then beat a hasty retreat to the dressing room — perhaps he should have kept walking — but instead returned for his no infamous ill-advised soliloquy.

He explained at the press conference that he did this out of a perhaps misguided opinion that he should “do the right thing”.

“It was just from the heart. I knew I was mad at myself. Not at anyone, just myself. I was like, I got to get out of here because I’m mad,” he said at the 4am presser.

Anthony Joshua holds two boxing belts while draped with a white towel as a line of men look on
In his frustration, Anthony Joshua dropped two belts out of the ring after he failed to regain them.(Getty Images: Nick Potts/PA Images)

“When you’re angry you might do stupid things. Then I realised this is sport. I came back and did the right thing.”

History will tell us that coming back into the ring was far from the right thing.

But, if not for that speech, perhaps we’d be left talking about Joshua the sore loser who picked a fight with his opponent’s corner before throwing his spoils of victory away.

Instead, we’re left with the pained heavyweight who’s seen his hopes shattered on the biggest stage, left questioning a legacy that has been so hard earned.

All indications are that Joshua will not retire — there is a litany of fights for him in an increasingly interesting heavyweight division, both internationally against the likes of Deontay Wilder or Andy Ruiz Jr, or domestically against Dillian Whyte, Joe Joyce, WBO (regular) champ Daniel Dubois or perhaps even Tyson Fury. 

Regardless of who, we can be certain Joshua will be back, because if nothing else, that outpouring of emotion, far from a weakness, in fact should be taken as a strength.

It shows that the fire still burns as bright now as it ever has.

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