By George Gigney
IT IS often said that a fighter must give themselves over fully to the sport in order to succeed. That they must make sacrifices, push their body and their mind further than any reasonable person would consider doing just to even have a chance of making a living from boxing. That is the agreement fighters sign up for.
What is less spoken about is how, when a fighter reaches a certain level of fame, a new contract is written up, one in which they give themselves over to the general public, as well as the sport. How they act and what they say outside of the ring now becomes just as important as how they perform inside of it. Their behaviour, even the smallest off-hand comment, is put under a microscope and pored over by people who have never experienced the same kind of scrutiny.
That’s the reality Anthony Joshua has been living in for years. Ever since he won gold at the 2012 Olympics he was groomed for stardom, and thanks to his successes in the ring and the hands guiding him outside of it, he became a megastar here in the UK. Your mileage may vary on how much of a celebrity he is internationally, but there’s no denying that he has become one of the most recognisable athletes on these shores.
That stardom has brought an almost unprecedented amount of attention for a British boxer – almost every single interview Joshua has done over the past six or seven years has been pored over by boxing fans. Pseudo Psychologists have diagnosed him with countless mental ailments from delusions of grandeur to just plain cowardice. They’ve all been wrong.
To Joshua’s credit he has, for the most part, remained unfazed by the attention he gets. In recent years cracks have shown, most noticeably when he momentarily lost the plot in the ring after losing to Oleksandr Usyk for a second time. In an in-depth interview with Louis Theroux that aired on the BBC last week, Joshua fully reflected on both that night in Saudi Arabia and on the scrutiny he finds himself under in general. Unsurprisingly, it pisses him off a bit.
“Do you know what? I really do [enjoy boxing].” he said. “But can I be bothered with all the bullshit that comes with it? It turns me off massively.
“I just realised that it’s not all so important, you put so much pressure on yourself to come and be this big star and be perfect, and I’m telling you they’ll pull you down.
“The higher you are the bigger the drop, so that’s why I try not to put too much pressure on myself, because that pressure drives you away from your core values.
“I just want to be normal, I don’t want to put myself under pressure.
“Sometimes it leaves me speechless. Every little thing I say, are we going to dissect it? To make a narrative, to create a story?”
He spoke about how boxing, for him, is no longer “fun.” He even questioned whether he should walk away entirely (though it seems quite clear he has no intention of doing so right now).
And there was an edge to Joshua at times during the interview. He was visibly frustrated when Theroux quite rightly pointed out that the way he acted after losing to Usyk for the second time was not OK. However, Joshua also made a valid point in that he had just done 12 hard rounds of getting punched in the head – he probably could be cut some slack there. As shown by the quotes above, he has certainly become jaded with the spotlight that follows almost his every move. And he should be fed up with it; it’s a weird thing for us to focus so much on what a single person says or does.
The irony is not lost on me that the majority of this week’s column has, in fact, focused on a single interview with ‘AJ’. But the point of all this waffle is to say that Joshua has more than earned the right to complain about how he’s spoken about and perceived. For so much of his career one of the main criticisms levelled at him was how he is not “genuine” and only spoke in pre-approved media sound bites. But now people are moaning at him for speaking his mind and venting his frustration. He can’t win.
What is not receiving the criticism it should be is the fact that Joshua and Deontay Wilder are rumoured to be fighting on the same card on December 23, but in separate bouts. Reports have emerged that Joshua will fight Otto Wallin and Wilder will fight Joseph Parker on the Saudi Arabia bill originally planned for Tyson Fury-Oleksandr Usyk. With Fury-Usyk now pushed to 2024, the December 23 card needs saving and the Saudis want to stack it with heavyweights.
To put Joshua and Wilder on the same bill but not against each other is to spit in the faces of this sport’s loyal fans. Have we not learnt from our mistakes? What’s the point in not only putting this fight off even longer, but risking it going up in smoke again? It’s big enough already, just do it now! Why is there not more outrage over this? For the most part, coverage has just been articles gushing over how big this card is going to be and how many top heavyweights will be involved.
And yes, there’s not enough time for some big media tour around the world and all those bells and whistles, but would it hurt the sport so much to show some adaptability? Sticking “Joshua vs Wilder” on a poster is all you need, the fight sells itself.
Boxing on the Box
Shakur Stevenson-Edwin De Los Santos
Sky Sports Arena
Coverage begins at 1:30am
Nick Ball-Isaac Dogboe
TNT Sports 1
Coverage begins at 6pm
Adam Azim-Franck Petitjean
Sky Sports Arena
Coverage begins at 7pm
Diego Pacheco-Marcelo Esteban Coceres
Coverage begins at 1am