THEY say a boxer learns more in defeat than in victory, which, if true, suggests Anthony Joshua will continue being influenced more by two defeats to Oleksandr Usyk than by the routine and somewhat dull decision victory over Jermaine Franklin he secured tonight (April 1) in London.
For while Joshua got back in the win column tonight, and worked on some of the things he had been rehearsing in Dallas with his new trainer Derrick James, to say he learned anything new from the experience of outboxing Franklin would be an exaggeration in the extreme. He must have known beforehand his size would be an issue for the squat and short-armed American, and so too must Joshua have known his jab, a punch he has often used to immobilise smaller men, would be the key to victory.
He also neither solved nor proved a thing by beating Franklin the way he did. He got through 12 rounds, and appeared more than happy to fight another round beyond that, but one could argue Joshua’s comfort in going 12 rounds was as much to do with the pace of each of those 12 rounds (sluggish in the extreme) than anything else. Combinations, alas, were few and far between and both men, whenever a fight threatened to break out, were apparently content to hold until the moment passed.
Equally, just as Joshua will have learned very little from beating Franklin, a man previously beaten by Dillian Whyte (a man once beaten by Joshua), those watching either from ringside or at home will have gone away at the conclusion of 12 rounds no more educated on Joshua than they were before. In other words, it is clear now the spectre of Usyk remains, both in his mind and in ours, and all the signs, if you are familiar with them, are visible on nights like tonight.
Because, after all, the reason why a defeat teaches you more about yourself than a victory is because it is in the process of a defeat you are changed, sometimes irrevocably. You know more about yourself as a boxer and as a man than you ever hoped to know and much of what you learn, due to both the nature of a defeat and the fickleness of ego, is negative. You now know, for instance, your weaknesses, and your soft points, and the degree to which you are willing to go in order to claim victory. These are all things you can lie about and play down when questioned after the fight, or before subsequent fights, but to yourself you are never afforded that luxury, unfortunately.
With Joshua, there is clearly a feeling that he is still processing the lessons he has learned, not only from Usyk but even before that, some four years ago now, when he lost for the first time against Andy Ruiz in New York. For since then we have witnessed a change in style and mentality in Joshua, one that began the night he avenged that loss against Ruiz in Saudi Arabia, and continues, it seems, to this day.
Against Franklin, for example, while he remained in control throughout, his actions contradicted all the pre-fight talk of coming in heavy (he was a career-heaviest 255 ¼ lbs) in order to make a quick statement. Indeed, many said the only way this fight made any sort of sense for Joshua, given Franklin had already been outpointed by Whyte, was for Joshua to break out of the gates quickly and assert his size and power on Franklin early, forcing a stoppage before the halfway mark. At least in that scenario there would be something to shout about. At least in that scenario we would have learned Joshua’s instinct for a finish has stuck around and his desire to take the necessary risks to deliver that finish is unchanged despite recent setbacks.
As it happened, Joshua showed few signs of wanting the finish during the actual fight, then reacted with disappointment when the final bell rang and he realised he had run out of time. It was another contradiction, or simply an example of cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, Joshua was upset not to get the stoppage. But, on the other hand, he never really seemed that bothered about it during the fight itself.
The fight, as a spectacle, failed to ignite as a result. Following a circumspect start, during which Joshua was touched by a right hand which bloodied his nose, he controlled much of the action behind his admittedly strong left jab, all the while Franklin, 21-2 (14) and the much smaller man, tried to circle and figure out how to get inside the Londoner’s reach. Seemingly, the thing that was required at The O2 was patience, both on the part of Franklin and also the fans.
Told at some point a fight would break out, they waited and waited. As did Joshua. He waited for Franklin to punch and, when he did, rather than explode back with a counter, as was his tendency in earlier years, Joshua would instead almost pre-empt the attack and prepare himself to either cover up or cower from it. At times, this made for a quite bizarre sight, with a look of agitation across the former champion’s face; some will attribute this to Joshua’s desperate need to be in control at all times, whereas others will describe these reactions as being those of a man who knows what it is like to be hit by a shot they didn’t see coming.
Either way, Joshua, now 25-3 (22), had nothing to fear. The fast hands of Franklin, coupled with his fidgety style, plainly unsettled the one-time Olympic champion for four rounds, but, crucially, there was not enough behind his punches, in terms of power, for Franklin to ever really ask serious questions of Joshua’s punch resistance and willingness to fight through the fire. It was, because of this, more a high-class sparring session than the make-or-break litmus test those selling the fight beforehand wanted us to believe. Every decent shot led to a clinch, and every clinch led to Joshua looking over his opponent towards someone outside the ring. Whether what he was searching for in those moments was guidance or merely approval, Joshua would receive it only from those situated in his corner and, again, depending on your viewpoint, this can be interpreted one of two ways. It can, on the one hand, be seen as a fighter completely in tune with his training team and the game plan they had constructed pre-fight. Or, on the other hand, it can be seen as the actions of a fighter who suddenly questions everything, even his own ability to stop a man he had convinced everybody but himself was there to be stopped.
“Jermaine’s got a good duck-and-dive style,” Joshua said afterwards, having heard all three scorecards were in his favour (118-111, 117-111, 117-111). “There were opportunities there. You know they were prepared for the fight. I should have knocked him out, but what can I say now? It’s done. On to the next.
“When people come to fight me, I think they [muster] up a different kind of energy. I feel like he had a lot of pride. He’s here to prove himself. He ain’t here to roll over. I wish I could have knocked him out, 100 per cent. But in the next 15 years no one will remember that fight anyway.”
One would be surprised if it took that long, in all honesty.
Even so, next for Joshua could be a far more memorable and meaningful fight against fellow Brit Tyson Fury, whose planned April 29 fight against Oleksandr Usyk, two-time conqueror of Joshua, fell apart, in a sense, because of too many unknowns: date, location, money split, rematch clauses, opponent’s style.
It’s true, as much as Fury and his team will refer you to the more tangible reasons as to why the fight collapsed, it would be foolish of anyone not to also take into account the fact that Usyk, someone unbeaten in 20 pro fights, represents a style Fury has never before seen and therefore has no idea how it will match up against his own.
Anthony Joshua, meanwhile, presents no such issues for the so-called “Gypsy King”. He presents not only a style Fury has seen and sussed out before, but has also been defeated enough times by now for Fury to take confidence from the work of other men.
It is for that reason this fight which should have taken place years ago, back when both were on top of the world and complete mysteries to one another, will likely find its way into a Middle East boxing ring later this year. It is for that reason, too, tonight’s fight against Franklin, a win in which Joshua did what he had to do but scared nobody, was so important in terms of the dethroned heavyweight champion securing the fights that, as heavyweight champion, eluded him.