AS an insight into Anthony Joshua’s fractured psyche, his laboured victory over Jermaine Franklin was perhaps even more revealing than anything Oleksandr Usyk had already exposed.
Towards the end of a week in which Matchroom had announced the significant signings of Jack Catterall and Sunny Edwards and later on an evening on which the rematch between Leigh Wood and Mauricio Lara had been confirmed, he had been presented with the platform to revive his career, and to finally start to conquer his growing doubts.
Instead New Dawn, as Joshua-Franklin was billed in recognition of not only his risky departure from Sky Sports to commit to DAZN but the appointment of his new trainer Derrick James, once again forced Joshua back into that harshest of glares and stripped him of any remaining sense of direction.
For the opening two rounds he appeared a settled fighter against a considerably smaller opponent and regularly succeeded with his authoritative jab. His nose started bleeding during the second, however, and if it wasn’t that and the difficulty it may have given him breathing, then his demeanour changed when, towards its conclusion, Franklin landed an accurate right hand.
Whether most scarred by the punishment he took against Wladimir Klitschko, the humiliation when losing to Andy Ruiz Jnr or the humblings inflicted by Usyk, Joshua became tense and uncertain, and at times even uncomfortable to watch.
The range at which they fought – not unlike the first time against Ruiz Jnr – was illogical and risky, and played to the strength of Franklin’s fast hands. At over 20lbs lighter than when his hands had also impressed against Dillian Whyte, Franklin, 29, was also faster on his feet. But Joshua’s considerable advantages in height and reach should have made it more difficult for Franklin to close the distance between them – which repeatedly reduced the power of Joshua’s punches – and seemed a secondary concern for Joshua, who was instead more occupied by the battle unfolding in his mind.
When at the end of the first round they exchanged words the 33-year-old Joshua betrayed an edge that has occasionally been a strength. Yet before the start of the sixth, when Franklin was the first off his stool, he magnified Joshua’s increasing hesitancy, and at the end of the 12th, when Joshua squared up to him, it highlighted how dejected and raw Joshua had become.
The final bell came after a 10th round in which Joshua had started to rediscover a sense of rhythm that was taken from him when he and Franklin were warned by the referee Marcus McDonnell about their escalating tempers, and the final two rounds in which he consistently convinced for the first time since the first two.
In the moments after he and Franklin were separated, Joshua, likely reminded of his conduct after the final bell when he lost for the second time to Usyk, recovered his composure and, fighting against his dissatisfaction and growing uncertainty, then proceeded to deliver his best elite professional athlete’s act.
He again engaged with the crowd at The O2 Arena in London in a way few others have ever appeared capable, and on his way out of the ring greeted Carl Froch – whose criticism he had days earlier addressed with a degree of attitude – like an old friend.
“Maybe I could have let my hands go a bit more; maybe this; maybe that,” he said with a smile at his post-fight press conference, attempting to control the narrative in the same way as so often seen by the man sat to his left, Eddie Hearn. “But that’s all in the past now. All we can look forward to is what’s going to happen in the future. It’s just good to be back and getting the ball rolling again, and we’re climbing – we’re climbing the ladder once again.”
Only he’s arguably not climbing at all. That Saturday night’s fight was at The O2 – a venue too small to host him during the previous seven years – was a reflection not only of the selection of Franklin as his opponent, but of his decreasing options and, potentially, appeal.
James was sat to his right and can’t be criticised on the basis of one performance and longer-term problems that preceded his appointment, but the reality is that after a significantly improved performance under Robert Garcia in the rematch with Usyk, Joshua has, at the very least mentally, regressed.
“Deep down, I’m not happy, because the ultimate goal is a knockout,” Joshua continued. “Anything short of that isn’t what I’m happy with. But it is what it is. I can’t look back on it – what’s done is done and I can only build on that. That’s the mindset.
“I can’t blame Franklin for anything that goes on in that ring because it’s all about me. Anything that happens in life is not to blame others. I gotta take accountability. If I didn’t want Franklin to hold me I had to move my feet and create space. That’s just down to me. If I would have created space I would have been able to get that knockout. It’s not him. It’s all me.
“In terms of getting under my skin I matched that energy. So no, he didn’t get under my skin, I just raised my game. You wanna trash talk? I’ll trash talk as well.”
After the first two defeats of his career Joshua could console himself with the knowledge that his naive tactics had contributed so much to what had unfolded, and after the third that he had lost to potentially the best fighter in the world. The fight with Franklin was intended as a building fight not only from a marketing perspective but for his confidence, and yet despite him winning – via scores of 118-111, 117-111 and 117-111 – his reputation, confidence and conviction will have been harmed.
“In the fight you’re downloading information at all times,” he said, having performed like that process never ceased. He then referenced two previous nights that no doubt continue to haunt him, unintentionally going some way to explaining what had just happened in the ring.
“When you say, ‘The old AJ’, we can look back at times, with Klitschko – we went in for the kill, round five, and the only reason he managed to survive until the 11th is because I gassed,” he said. “I blew a gasket in the ring. Then we fast forward to, for example, the [Kubrat] Pulev fight, where I thought I was so close to taking him out, I probably threw about 200 punches, trying to take this guy out, and he survived – he’s a tough guy. So then I realised, ‘I’ve got to get back to my boxing – be clever’.
“Mike Tyson went 12 rounds with Pinklon Thomas and Tony Tucker. What’s wrong with me going 12 rounds?
“You guys and outside pressures put so much pressure on this thing of winning. I’m going to stop putting that amount of pressure on myself and work hard and do my best.
“The game brings enough pressure. Through experience I’ve learned coping mechanisms, because the pressure can definitely have an effect on someone. A lot of people don’t see what fighters go through when they’re alone after a fight they’ve lost, in their own head – even after a fight that they’ve won.”
If that was the most honest Joshua had been, perhaps it was because it was the most honest he was capable of being with himself, and the showman within him then returned with another smile when his public relations manager Andy Bell said that it was time for their press conference to end. “Does anyone want to ask anything else?”, he said, before laughing, “Sorry about Andy”.
“Solid – not spectacular at all points,” Hearn – aware of the conclusions that by then had already been drawn and attempting to rescue what had previously felt a positive week for he and DAZN – answered when asked to assess his leading fighter’s performance before they were sat side by side.
“There was a huge amount of pressure on him. At times he boxed with the apprehension of what was on the line – pressure that was on the line as well. I liked his engine; I liked his jab early on. Jermaine Franklin came to survive after he got hurt, which made it difficult. But that’s his third trainer in three fights, so it was good to get the 12 rounds.”
When Deontay Wilder dramatically unravelled after the first of his two defeats by Tyson Fury he cut a permanently damaged fighter, and yet in his third fight with Fury he fought with some conviction and when he then stopped Robert Helenius inside a round he showed even more.
Joshua, against Franklin, fought like a fighter searching for the conviction and identity he had once had, conscious of the sacrifices he had made to recover them, and anxiously struggling to understand why both may be permanently gone.