Anthony Joshua’s second consecutive defeat to Oleksandr Usyk was a soul-destroying experience for the Brit – but even at his lowest ebb, there is still a route back up to the top of the heavyweight mountain.
AJ boldly risked it all by fighting Usyk in an immediate rematch, ignoring those who suggested he rebuild against lesser foes before challenging the brilliant Ukrainian. His emotional outpouring in the aftermath, and the tears in his post-fight press conference, showed how much the setback hurt him.
But Joshua is only 32, far from ancient by heavyweight standards, is in terrific condition and has few draining wars on his CV.
There’s still plenty of time to come again if he follows a simple six-point plan – involving a total change in his training camp, a mouthwatering fight with Deontay Wilder and, perhaps, that long-awaited showdown with Tyson Fury.
1. Stay away from the ring
Most boxers plan to double down on their training after a defeat but what Joshua needs is a lengthy break from boxing. Manny Steward, the great American trainer, used to say that after a boxer suffered a brutal knockout he would advise them to take up to a year away from the sport to mentally and physically recuperate.
AJ was not stopped by Usyk but the crushing nature of the back-to-back losses have caused real anguish. Even Joshua’s harshest critic would never question his commitment to training, but he has allowed boxing to become all-consuming. Obsession can drive an athlete to success or it can drive them over the edge. It’s time for AJ to take a long holiday, eat a few cheeseburgers, hang out with friends and family and not even think about boxing for at least three months.
2. New training camp
One of the few positives of Joshua’s second defeat by Usyk is that he was implementing parts of his new Robert Garcia gameplan. Some thumping body shots were evident and there was a real show of attacking aggression in round nine. Even if it was too little too late, it was the best round he had in either contest.
However it’s obvious that simply replacing one highly experienced head coach in Rob McCracken with another in Garcia was not enough. Joshua kept largely the same team, the same setup he always has. It is now time to escape that bubble.
When Joshua is ready to resume training, rather than bringing Garcia back to the UK, he should strongly consider following his coach to California, with Garcia admitting as much.
Some time in a fully professional boxing gym in the US, where the glare of publicity and attention will inevitably be less intense than in Britain, sparring with fresh opponents and developing new ideas is exactly the change AJ requires.
3. Get mentally ready
Wilder is not someone to regularly turn to for sound advice (no offence, Deontay) but the American had a point when he brought up Joshua’s mental health. Memes aside, Joshua’s in-ring meltdown in Saudi Arabia was a worrying sight when it came to his mental wellbeing.
Plenty of fighters react badly in the immediate aftermath of a career-defining defeat but, as Joshua’s promoter Eddie Hearn hinted, perhaps the pressure Joshua has been carrying since he became a British boxing superstar is beginning to show. It is clear that Joshua almost cares too much about boxing.
Hearn spoke about just wanting to see Joshua happy, adding: “He’s given his whole life to the sport of boxing.” Any elite-level athlete should be looking after their mental health. How Joshua does that is entirely down to him. But speaking with a professional to help him overcome the defeats to Usyk and perhaps get some perspective on boxing – which is his profession, not something that defines who he is – would be a smart first step.
4. Crush some tomato cans
Joshua’s bout with Charles Martin was a matchmaking masterstroke in that it allowed him to pick up a recognised world title by bludgeoning one of the weakest heavyweight world champions the sport has seen. But it immediately put Joshua on the schedule most elite fighters take in the modern era: fighting once or twice a year, always against top opponents.
This was never enough for a boxer who, despite the medals he won, had only 43 amateur bouts and came to the sport at age 18. Joshua has looked increasingly cagey in the ring, as if he is overthinking every action. He may never entirely eliminate this but some time against weaker opponents, away from the stadium super-fights, is vital in his rebuilding.
Even Tyson Fury, who is a lot more natural in the ring than his British rival, has pummelled the likes of Sefer Seferi, Francesco Pianeta and Tom Schwarz over the past five years. When Joshua does come back, he will be fighting without a world title on the line for the first time since 2015. It’s time to embrace that and start by blasting out a few no-hopers, every couple of months, perhaps even in the US away from the UK spotlight. Vital for both AJ’s confidence and getting him more regular in-ring time.
5. Line-up Wilder for 2023
After he’s done squashing a few journeymen, there is one obvious bout Joshua needs to build towards: Wilder. ‘The Bronze Bomber’ returns against Robert Helenius in October and, if he comes through that, the Alabama banger – who turns 37 later this year – will be on the hunt for a marquee fight in 2023.
There’s no need for AJ to rush into it, as time is on the younger man’s side, but Joshua vs Wilder makes a lot of sense for both men. It would be a huge box-office draw and the winner instantly becomes relevant again – skipping to the front of the queue for a heavyweight world title challenge – while the loser should consider retirement.
Assuming Wilder has come through his slugfest with Fury unscathed, he will always be a freakishly dangerous puncher – and Joshua’s chin has sometimes been an issue. But AJ will also know he has the power to hurt Wilder and a better set of boxing skills. It would be an intriguing, must-see contest that would restore one boxer’s reputation in an instant.
6. Fight Fury before retirement
We came so close to this fight happening in 2021 before Wilder won his case to have a third fight with Fury, Joshua took on the mandatory challenge in Usyk and now the contest looks further away than it has in years. But that does not have to be the case.
The fight has been discussed for so long and the profile of the pair is so sky-high that, frankly, if they suddenly announced Fury vs Joshua was happening at Wembley this autumn, it would sell out 90,000 tickets instantly. That won’t happen, but the rivalry between the two Brits is so long-standing – and there is so much money on the table for the contest – that it is hard to imagine that it simply won’t ever happen.
Fury would be an overwhelming favourite. But that just might work to Joshua’s advantage. For a fighter who has looked weighed down by pressure and expectation in recent years, it might be freeing to know that very few people expect him to win. Fury is a master boxer but he is not so slick as to be unhittable – as his four trips to the canvas in three fights with Wilder shows. Styles make fights and there will always be a chance Joshua just finds a way to trouble Fury.
Whatever actually happens in the ring, Fury vs AJ is – even now – too big not to happen. We want to see these two giants trade blows – and, if we’re lucky, perform an ‘American Pie’ duet post-fight – before they both slip into genuine retirement.