ANTHONY JOSHUA won a fight at the weekend. He even scored a spectacular knockout against an opponent he didn’t know he was facing until five days before.
But the result of the fight, a seventh round KO of Robert Helenius, is not the story. It rarely is these days with Joshua. It’s all about analysing every last dreg of the performance and predicting what comes next. With talk of Deontay Wilder atop the agenda and January 13 already pencilled in as the date, the widespread feeling – at least on social media – seems to be that Joshua does not stand a chance against an opponent with only one win in more than three years, and barely three minutes’ worth of match practice in the last two. Wilder, written off by almost everyone back in 2020 after being thrashed by Tyson Fury in their rematch, must only tickle Joshua on the chin with his right hand and it will, so say those in the know, be game over.
What a fickle world we live in. Three years ago, Wilder was supposedly done. His excuses were plentiful back then. He wore a suit on his walk to the ring that was so heavy he was exhausted by the time he got there, Fury’s gloves had been tampered with, his water had been spiked, his trainer acted too hastily to pull him out. How the wise guys laughed. They could have told us years ago that Wilder was overrated all along. And those same guys are so wise today that they’re certain that the soon-to-be 38-year-old Wilder flattens Joshua without even breaking sweat.
I couldn’t say for sure whether he does or not because I’m not blessed with the ability to see into the future. But I can see into the past and pinpoint the moment when Wilder went from being on the way out, to on the way back. It came when he caught a careless and over-confident Fury in the fourth round of their third contest. Tyson did well to survive a round made more thrilling because it followed three sessions in which Fury had dominated and dropped the Bronze Bomber. With one swing of his right hand, however, Wilder was once again the most dangerous man in boxing.
It apparently doesn’t matter that he barely won another round of that last encounter with Fury, nor that he’s hardly fought since. It doesn’t matter, either, that it’s difficult to identify a single contest in which he faced a live opponent when he didn’t encounter problems. Fury and Luis Ortiz gave him a lot of trouble and even Eric Molina, Johann Duhaupass, Artur Szpilka and Gerald Washington made the then-WBC belt-holder look ordinary.
However, it’s certainly easy to see why so many believe that he’ll get the better of Joshua. Wilder does indeed only need that one moment to make his presence known. But I’d argue the view has been formed almost exclusively on being disappointed by Joshua’s recent efforts rather than having any real understanding of what Wilder has left, or, in fact, what he had in the first place.
One can go back to every fight since Joshua emerged from a humdinger with Wladimir Klitschko in 2017 and you’ll find Joshua’s performance being dissected, ad nauseam, to the point that, today, there’s almost nothing left to say. Without doubt, that Klitschko bout took Joshua to a place he openly admits he didn’t enjoy. It’s understandable, then, that his approach has changed. Telling him just to be the destroyer of old, however, is like telling someone who has grown anxious from a series of bad experiences on the road to get back on the motorway and just put their foot down. And one should not forget the near miss he survived against Klitschko, the size of the crash he endured when Andy Ruiz beat him in New York, nor the scale of the mission to get past Oleksandr Usyk in consecutive bouts. The brain is a complex piece of kit. It stores certain memories that can come back and haunt at precisely the worst time. Yet it quite naturally evolves with each passing experience. Joshua is not the man, or boxer, he used to be in his mid-twenties. Very few thirty-somethings are. The jury must remain out on whether his advancing years ultimately prove a help or hindrance.
Joshua is not scared, however. He’s simply acutely aware of the consequences of failing. He’s always tried too hard to be perfect, both inside the ring and out. That brings its own pressure, because trying to achieve perfection is a fruitless endeavour. And a temporary release from that pressure, I suspect, manifested itself when he stormed from the ring mere seconds after turning out Helenius’ lights on Saturday night. Only then, with a knockout secured, did the voices in his head quieten. That pressure may also have been evident when he urged the media not to ask him any negative questions at the post-fight press conference. Every brain has its limits.
Don’t forget that Joshua has long faced the same old criticism. Imagine going to work every day and encountering people, ones who not so along ago adored you, now constantly inferring that you’re not as good at that job as you used to be. Or suggesting you’re making a mistake by pursuing your chosen career. Such is the world we live in today, no British fighter, particularly one so successful, has been forced to endure so much criticism before.
That Joshua continues to put himself in this position is testament to his mental fortitude. His life would undoubtedly be easier if he chose to leave this sport, and the critics, behind. He does not want to quit, though. He chooses to fight and, not only that, he’s still trying to improve. And there is evidence of improvement if you look closely enough; the right hand finish, and how it was orchestrated, was among the finest moves of his entire career. But waiting for him to combine the Joshua of old with the Joshua of today, to create the fighting machine he yearns to be, is likely too much of an expectation. And it’s an expectation that only Joshua himself can manage.
What we can hope for, at last, is that Joshua and Wilder do now actually fight. It remains a tantalising matchup regardless of what fighters they are today. How much is left of yesterday’s knockout artists, nobody really knows. And who wins, despite what plenty will tell you, is also still in the balance.