TRAINER Derrick James cut a forlorn figure at Heathrow Airport on Tuesday afternoon when, days after his number one boxer, Errol Spence, lost for the first time against Terence Crawford, he could be seen waiting for his baggage at the reclaim carousel. Round and round it went, both the carousel and a cluttered mind, and James, while standing alone waiting for his bag, appeared understandably preoccupied. Perhaps, as he watched the suitcases come and go, he found himself thinking about the very concept of baggage and how, following what happened between Spence and Crawford in Las Vegas, he was now, by arriving in London to train Anthony Joshua, bringing some of his own with him. Or perhaps he was thinking how refreshing it would be to now focus on something else, another fighter, having been consumed by Spence vs. Crawford for so long.
Whichever of those was true, if James appeared forlorn that Tuesday, one can only imagine how he looked days later when, on the Saturday, it was announced Dillian Whyte, Joshua’s opponent, had once again posted an adverse analytical finding in a performance-enhancing drug test. Suddenly, all plans were once again out the window for the trainer, just as they were the second Crawford got a hold of Spence in round two. Suddenly, uncertainty was again James’ biggest enemy.
Indeed, it wasn’t until the following Tuesday – a week after James had landed – that we learned Joshua would be fighting Finland’s Robert Helenius, 32-4 (21), instead of Whyte on Saturday night (August 12). The contract for that fight was signed the night before, by all accounts, and Helenius, the chosen replacement, was deemed the best of what can only be described as a bad bunch. Included among this bunch were a host of other heavyweights who feature on the undercard, not one of whom, barring perhaps Filip Hrgovic, would be considered a worthy opponent for Joshua, even at short notice.
One of these men was Gerald Washington, a 41-year-old who has fought just twice in four years and lost both those fights; the first against Charles Martin, who stopped Washington in six rounds, and the second against Ali Eren Demirezen, who stopped him in eight. The fact Washington has been viewed and approved as a safe opponent for Derek Chisora on Saturday’s card says everything about his perceived threat level in 2023 and, moreover, goes some way to explaining why, as a potential Joshua opponent, the idea would have been frankly laughable.
Similarly, the idea of Chisora fighting Joshua, while no laughing matter, would have been every bit as ridiculous. Chisora, after all, has, like Washington, grown accustomed to losing these days and, worse than that, has started to wear the impact of these losses in a way that has many worried for him, not only in the ring but away from it.
That said, had it not been for the brutal nature of his last fight – an abomination of a fight against Tyson Fury last December – and the widespread concern that followed, Chisora would no doubt be fighting Anthony Joshua this weekend in London; if, that is, he was prepared to play ball financially, which, given Chisora’s recent embracing of the term “prizefighter”, is no guarantee of course. Still, if he had been both willing and reasonable with his terms, don’t for one minute think compassion would have got in the way of them pushing Chisora up the card and into the main event slot opposite Joshua. He is, aside from Joshua, the biggest name on the card, let’s not forget, and names are all that really matter in 2023, especially when staging a pay-per-view event (which this, Joshua vs. Helenius, no longer is, thankfully).
Most likely, Chisora’s loss to Fury has opened the door for Helenius, an old foe of Chisora’s who fought just last Saturday and should therefore still be in shape. In fact, given Whyte’s latest faux pas was announced that same day, there is a hope Helenius went into his most recent fight (a third-round stoppage of Mika Mielonen) knowing there was every chance he would get a phone call in the subsequent days. This, if nothing else, may have curbed the temptation to relax after the fight, feast on post-fight junk food, and take his foot well and truly off the gas pedal. Hopefully, with the prospect of a Joshua fight and a huge payday on the horizon, Helenius will have at least stopped short of eating the crusts.
Regardless, there won’t be much in the way of expectation or intrigue with this replacement fight. It’s solid enough, both opponent and fight, but the truth is, Helenius, now 39, is usually put in his place by better heavyweights and is often handed opportunities like this for that very reason.
Credit to him, you might say, for carrying on and getting his career going again, yet it is still hard for anyone who has seen it to erase from their memory the image of the giant Finn being momentarily sent back in time to connect with his Viking ancestors following that Deontay Wilder right hand 10 months ago. That, at the time, seemed to signal the end of Helenius’ run as a top 30 heavyweight, even if coming off the back of two decent wins against then-unbeaten Polish prospect Adam Kownacki. More than that, it left many concerned for the man’s wellbeing, so chilling was the finish and so soon into the fight did it arrive.
Yet, in fairness to Helenius, a first-round knockout by Deontay Wilder is not the same as a first-round knockout by any other heavyweight. One could even go so far as to say there is just as much chance that Wilder, should he land the same shot on Joshua in round one, would secure the exact same result against the man from Watford. That’s just the level of power he possesses, you see.
Which is to say, there is no shame in losing to Wilder in that way. It doesn’t reflect well on Helenius’ punch resistance at the tail end of his career, no, but, then again, that has never really been his forte as a heavyweight. Indeed, earlier stoppage losses against the likes of Johann Duhaupas and Gerald Washington – yes, that Gerald Washington – will have indicated this long before Wilder got around to switching off his lights in Brooklyn. These are heavyweights, remember. They can all punch and they are all one punch away from staring up at the lights.
As for recent form, we have to try to look at Helenius as a better option than both Chisora and Washington, despite Washington’s victory over him in 2019, and despite the controversial decision Helenius got against Chisora way back in 2011. There are recent wins on the Helenius record at least – meaningful ones, too – and there is a sense, unlike with Washington and Chisora, that Helenius, stylistically, will maybe give Joshua something to think about for a round or two on Saturday. That’s not to say Helenius will look to win these rounds, or even survive them, but he is 6’6, can whack a bit (21 knockouts from his 32 wins), and will surely do what all short-notice heavyweight opponents do when all of a sudden thrust beneath the spotlight of a main event: go for it early.
He will probably be buoyed, too, by the fact that the last time Anthony Joshua saw his plans wrecked by a drug cheat he went on to then lose the first fight of his pro career against Andy Ruiz, a replacement opponent for Jarrell Miller. The circumstances are different this time around, granted, but still, it is hard to know how Joshua himself will react to the drama of the last few days and also, on the night, adapt to a style completely different from that of Dillian Whyte.
Then again, Joshua, at 33, is nowhere near as vulnerable or retirement-bound as some would have you believe. There is an argument, yes, that the former heavyweight champion has achieved as much as he is ever going to achieve as a pro, and therefore it is hard to see the sense in carrying on at a level beneath where he previously operated, yet to make this argument is to admit to having never been in the shoes of a professional athlete. Rational thought, alas, does not come into it. Furthermore, when your entire belief system and sense of both routine and purpose is connected to the very thing you will one day have to stop, why would any fighter still physically capable choose to introduce into their life this challenging moment prematurely? It is the ultimate fight, after all, retirement. When it arrives, it hits harder than any opponent and, unlike a knockdown, there is, once it happens, only the faintest possibility that you will ever come back from it or be the same again. Some will always try, of course, by launching a ring return to avoid the irrelevance of civilian life, but rarely does this do anything other than make matters worse.
In terms of Joshua, retirement talk is rash and based solely on the fact he has been at the top and is now no longer there. Last time out, it’s true, he showed signs of reluctance and hesitation against Jermaine Franklin, a man more solid than scary, but that is to be expected given (a) the style of his opponent and (b) Joshua’s two losses to Oleksandr Usyk. Those setbacks, while perhaps not physically traumatic, were certainly mentally scarring, of which there was evidence in the aftermath of the pair’s rematch last August. What is more, when dealing with a fighter like Joshua, someone who is prone to self-doubt and introspection, there can be no defeat worse than one in which he discovered every move he made was bettered by a move of his opponent. In some ways, in fact, he might have been better off getting knocked out dramatically and suddenly (not unlike what Ruiz did to him in 2019) as opposed to being disrobed psychologically over a total of 24 rounds.
As a consequence, Joshua, 25-3 (22), now can’t help but be different in this latest phase of his career. He will doubtless need to be, too, for there is no question Usyk flagged up flaws in his style at the elite level. That, by the way, irrespective of the message pushed by Joshua’s backers, is not a level at which the Londoner has previously campaigned, much less excelled. Rather, of all Joshua’s opponents, it is still only Wladimir Klitschko, a man in his forties by the time Joshua defeated him, who can be considered as someone boasting that sort of pedigree. The other elite fighters in Joshua’s era – chiefly, Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder – he has so far managed to avoid fighting, which, again, begs the question: Was Usyk too good for Joshua in a battle of elite heavyweights, or, conversely, was Joshua never an elite heavyweight in the first place?
That may sound harsh, and there is certainly no arguing Joshua’s impact within British boxing, but it is on a fighter’s record the truth is often found. On Joshua’s, for instance, you are immediately drawn to wins against the likes of Alexander Povetkin, again past his best, and Kubrat Pulev, ditto. You also have that revenge win over Ruiz, which was safe rather than spectacular, and other wins against other so-so American contenders like Franklin, and Dominic Breazeale, and Charles Martin, from whom Joshua won his first heavyweight belt back in 2016. In other words, as good as Joshua is, and as thrilling as he has been to watch, it is very easy to fall into the trap of thinking he is elite by virtue of the image he presents as a heavyweight champion – seemingly perfect in every conceivable way – instead of actually taking notice of what is down there in black and white.
Unfortunately, thanks to Dillian Whyte’s inability to pass a drug test, Joshua will next be fighting a man in Helenius who does very little for either his legacy or, presumably, his motivation. Not only that, it is, this time thanks to Deontay Wilder, effectively a no-win situation for Joshua, for unless he is able to stop Helenius inside three minutes, and therefore finish the job quicker than Wilder, whatever happens on Saturday will naturally pale in comparison to what Wilder achieved.
Even so, Joshua, with so much at stake, can’t afford to think in those terms. For now, he must focus only on the fact he has in recent days accrued excess baggage and understand that in order to travel he must offload some of it as quickly as possible. This he will likely do between rounds four and six.
On the O2 Arena undercard, unbeaten Croatian heavyweight Filip Hrgovic, 15-0 (12), clashes with unbeaten Australian heavyweight Demsey McKean, 22-0 (14), over 12 rounds, and 39-year-old Derek Chisora, 33-13 (23), fights 41-year-old Gerald Washington, 20-5-1 (13), in what would appear to be the only fight deemed safe for either of them in 2023.
Meanwhile, also at heavyweight but a few levels below, Johnny Fisher, 9-0 (8), goes for his first professional title against Harry Armstrong, 5-1-1 (0). They fight over 10 rounds for the vacant Southern Area heavyweight belt.