THERE’S an argument doing the rounds that suggests Anthony Joshua, when taking on Jermaine Franklin this weekend, is embarking on the first make-or-break assignment of his career. That all the hard work he’s put in since he started taking the sport seriously 13 or so years ago hinges on the outcome of this fight. Therefore, the marketeers might say, he’s going into the ring with enough pressure on his shoulders to sink him.

The opposite might also be true. Because, if you think about it, this April 1 assignment comes with substantially less baggage than he’s been carrying since he agreed to fight Charles Martin for the IBF heavyweight strap in April 2016. Gone, for now, are any belts to defend, win, or – as Joshua used to say (and even did at the end of his last fight) – throw in the air. He’s under no pressure to sell out a football stadium. No pressure to generate record-breaking numbers on pay-per-view. And, frankly, no hugely threatening opponent to tie his brain in knots. Plenty of fans might have preferred a tougher rival than Franklin, but at least this isn’t a scenario where every single question he’s forced to answer will be about someone else he should be fighting instead. Though I don’t doubt for one second that Joshua, particularly after back-to-back losses to Oleksandr Usyk, will feel the heat, this is also the first time in years when he can base himself in the present, take stock, and focus only on the matter at hand.

Back on his old O2 Arena stomping ground for the first time since halting Dominic Breazeale two months after trouncing Martin, Joshua knows that only an impressive thumping of Franklin, a decent but unspectacular American fringe contender, will do. And in truth, it’s difficult to envision any other outcome.

Franklin is just about passable as a comeback opponent, however. From Saginaw, Michigan, and 21-1 (17), the 29-year-old comes with ambition and is known to British fight fans after giving Dillian Whyte a scare in November. With Joshua watching at ringside, Franklin had plenty of success, exhibiting heart, skill and counter-punching nous, before losing a contentious decision after 12 rounds. But Whyte, coming off a one-sided KO loss to Tyson Fury, wasn’t at his best as he attempted to showcase the techniques he’d been learning under new trainer, Buddy McGirt. There’s some synergy here and there, of course, as Joshua makes his first start under latest coach, Derrick James. Even so, when the underdog’s best performance is a defeat, making the case for the upset isn’t a straightforward process.

It’s not made any easier when watching Franklin’s efforts against the likes of Pavel Sour, Rydell Booker and Jerry Forrest. Though a unanimous 10-round victor over Sour and Booker, Franklin lost rounds to both and, against Forrest, only two of the three judges felt he’d done enough to win a close fight. Now imagine how Joshua, 24-3 (22), would get on against those three stalwarts and you get, perhaps, a better indication of the difference in levels here.

Joshua, after all, is unquestionably one of the best heavyweights in the world. It’s a concern that he’s lost two on the bounce but his performances against Usyk should only highlight how far he’s come. Once overly reliant on his brute strength and power, Joshua displayed nuances and maturity that were absent earlier in his career. Let’s not forget, either, that Usyk is arguably the best technician in the entire sport and Joshua – in the rematch – gave him a tremendously difficult scrap. To suggest that ‘AJ’ was merely ‘exposed’ is unfair. Those of a kinder mindset might conclude that Joshua proved his worth at the highest of levels in a way that he didn’t while outslugging an ageing Wladimir Klitschko or outboxing a woefully prepared Andy Ruiz Jnr.

But to suggest that the losses to Usyk were mere blips would not be true either. There’s still a lot of work to be done and his now infamous outburst in the aftermath of the return highlighted he’s aware of that too. Whether he’s managed to forgive himself for encountering a boxer who is undoubtedly his superior remains to be seen, but the fact that he, one, took that rematch in the first place and, two, is still so keen to progress and improve while a rich-beyond-his-wildest-dreams 33-year-old, suggests he’s far stronger psychologically than many give him credit for.

Those who call this a woeful mismatch may appear to have been proved right when Joshua scores his quickest victory since blowing away Eric Molina in three rounds in December 2016. But one suspects a rapid and uncomplicated triumph – as Joshua hurls those hurtful blows through the middle while Franklin dutifully scampers towards him – is exactly what he needs.

On the undercard, Italy’s Matteo Signani, 32-6-3 (12) defends his European middleweight title against Wokingham’s Felix Cash, 16-0 (10), in a bout that on paper looks like a vehicle for the latter.

Signani is seemingly a beneficiary of the EBU belt losing some lustre in recent years; to suggest he’s the best middleweight in his continent outside of the world belt-holders would be absurd. But he’s canny, durable, and well-schooled enough to give Cash plenty to think about. Standing 5ft 10ins and 43 years old, he will be the shorter and older man by three inches and 14 years respectively.

But Cash has struggled for form since he impressively halted Denzel Bentley in three rounds back in April 2021. He was dropped twice before squeaking past Magomed Madiev in February 2022 and the cut he suffered above the left eye was reopened when he outpointed Celso Neves over eight rounds 10 months later.

Cash will hope to start this one quickly. Signani takes a few rounds to get going as was evidenced in his last two bouts – a technical points loss after five and a TKO in the seventh, both against Frenchman, Anderson Prestot. Team Cash will no doubt be encouraged by both performances and their man can win this inside the distance while returning to form.

Matchroom’s Texan starlet, southpaw Austin ‘Ammo’ Williams, 13-0 (9), gets his latest test when he faces Coventry’s 29-year-old River Wilson-Bent, 14-2-1 (6), over 10 rounds. Williams, 26, is expected to get the job done before that final bell sounds.

It’s a shame that Fabio Wardley, 15-0 (14), isn’t getting the chance to defend his British heavyweight title on the card. Instead, he goes for the WBA continental bauble and victory over 36-year-old Florida-based New Yorker, Michael Polite Coffie, will no doubt see his current No.14 ranking with that organisation improve beyond logic.

Coffie, 13-3 (10), is wily, tough and limited. Wardley, still improving at 28, may not have things all his own way but anything less than a stoppage victory would be a surprise.

Hyde’s Campbell Hatton, 10-0 (3), won’t find it easy against Tamworth’s Louis Fielding, 10-7 (4), at lightweight while there’s also runouts for super-featherweight Jordan Flynn, 8-0 (1), and light-heavyweight John Hedges, 7-0 (2).

THE VERDICT: Expect Joshua to test Franklin’s durability early.