Anthony Joshua opens up on his ‘nightmare’ wait to avenge his loss to Oleksandr Usyk
Anthony Joshua has been putting himself through mental torture before trying next weekend to physically brutalise the Ukrainian genius who mesmerised him into surrendering his world heavyweight titles.
It is not easy to decipher, at the beginning of a big fight week in a desert full of mirages, which of these processes is the more problematic for him.
Joshua is striving to extricate himself from the psychological maze in which he completely lost his way against the smaller but quicker and cleverer Oleksandr Usyk in Tottenham 11 self-flagellating months ago is so complex that he struggles to articulate it clearly.
Anthony Joshua has gone through mental torture before his rematch against Oleksandr Usyk
When he sat in a small huddle in London shortly before taking flight to Saudi Arabia he did his best to explain his state of mind but contradictions were still so rife that it was hard to follow his reasoning.
At times he sounded more like a philosopher than a fighter.
Does he worry about the defeats on his record? Will it be different as he treads what for him are the uncharted waters of bidding to become a three-time world champion?
Was his glad-handing, fan-greeting, broad-smiling ring-walk in September a mistake not to be repeated? How much more attention is he really paying to his new trainer than he did to the predecessor?
Will he be more Iron Mike Tyson this time rather than a pale impersonation of fancy Floyd Mayweather? Is he even confident of winning this rematch?
The 32-year-old is burdened by criticism from some quarters, mockery by a cruel minority
As a 32-year-old multi-millionaire self-made by sporting triumphs, AJ is not a man to feel sorry for. But there still can be sympathy for his inner turmoil as he pursues greatness in the prize-ring. Not least because he is burdened now by criticism from some quarters, mockery by a cruel minority.
A psychologist is a key member of Joshua’s sizeable team. Wish the good doctor well as he works to unravel some of these Joshua musings.
Starting with all those barbs: ‘I try not to focus on criticism. There are a lot of positive vibes out there as well. Especially inside the four walls of my home and the environment I shape around me. Should I shape that environment around having had a couple of defeats?
‘Records matter now because people forget quickly these days. But I study the win-loss records of the famous endlessly – and boxers who consistently fight the best rarely go undefeated through their career. Annoying as it is, I know I have to cope with losing. I fight the best.’
Joshua says his training camps have been ‘so challenging, so draining and so brain-fatiguing’
How about the widespread speculation that he would not have the desire to box on after being humiliated by Usyk in the first fight and whether he will hang up the gloves if he loses to him again.
‘Right after, in the changing room, I knew I would fight again. I was telling everyone: Come on. What the f***. We are warriors. We lost a fight but not the war. This is an ongoing battle. It’s not over ’til it’s over. That’s how I remotivated my team. Nothing should dishearten you. I have to keep that mentality. For the rest of my life. Even if I stumble privately or publicly.
‘But it has been a nightmare just sitting on this loss for so many months. The time-frame does change every day. I have dedicated a lot of my life to a very tough sport. I will do this for as long as I can but I think I’m quite smart at business now. I will be 33 shortly and a lot will come down to how long my body can hang on.’
Crucially, is he fully resolved to using his advantages in height, weight and punching power in the desert heat – instead of the unbelievable autumnal folly of trying to prove himself as good a boxer as one of the master technicians in the ring today.
‘It sounds crazy but I’m not going to lie. My objective was never to hurt him, to land damaging punches. My aim was to go the full 12 rounds and prove I could box as well as he does. To land scoring punches.
‘But I didn’t work hard enough to prepare for a 12 round fight at that pace. I wasn’t in the right mind-set. That of wanting to go in there and smash him. Using my size and power this time is evident, isn’t it? But to work on it is easier said than done.
‘Training camps are so challenging. So draining. So brain-fatiguing. I need to be better conditioned (an admission there of taking the smaller Usyk for granted).
‘I need adjustments to deal with a southpaw because to me these lefties are a nightmare. I swear that if Oleksandr wasn’t a lefty I would have smoked him. One hundred per cent.’
That assertion takes some swallowing but Joshua has made changes. Rob McCracken, boss of the UK’s successful Olympic squads and AJ’s trainer throughout his pro career to date, has been stood down in favour of renowned Mexican-American guru to champions Robert Garcia.
Renowned Mexican-American guru Robert Garcia was hired as Joshua’s new trainer in June
Joshua comes close to blaming McCracken for the debacle in fight one in which his corner were not heard telling him he was losing: ‘With Rob at Uni (his camp at Loughborough) we would walk into the gym and do skipping, shadow boxing, pads and the bags. He would say things like hands up, or slip there.
‘Robert breaks things down more. In one round of sparring I’m told to perfect that f****** jab. In another round, to tilt more when throwing the big right hand. It’s more tactical (to deal with a southpaw). Reasoning to the method. It’s a lot to remember.
‘So I’ve handed over control. I used to spell out the two or three things I wanted to work on. Now I listen. Soak up information like a sponge. Let my guys make the decisions.’
And that fan-friendly ring-walk to professional suicide in September?
‘It was normal to me.’ he says. ‘Maybe too normal. I saw lots of people I knew in the crowd. Tottenham is local for me. I remembered driving to Wembley to fight Alexander Povetkin and seeing all my family on the North Circular. Me waving at a car and shouting Yo Auntie out the window.
Joshua surrendered his world titles after being outclassed by Usyk in London last September
‘That’s just how it usually is with me. Calm. A lot of people understand the physical side of boxing. But what about the psychological element? A fighter has to be trained to keep his head screwed on as he goes into the ring. Not drift away mentally because someone’s shouting abuse, or even being positive, or seeing your mum on the ring-walk. Now I need tunnel vision.’
So what about the psychology? Has Garcia restored his self-belief for the formidable challenge at hand?
‘It’s not so much about me being confident,’ says Joshua. ‘That’s up to my team. I respect Robert highly but I can only gain confidence from my preparation and my sparring. A coach can tell a fighter a million good things but if he doesn’t do them on the night then it’s pointless.’
Not exactly a ringing endorsement. There is another hint of confusion when he describes Floyd Mayweather as ‘the Messi or Ronaldo of boxing’ but goes on to say that in Tottenham he wanted to score points ‘in the boxing art of Mike Tyson….pap, pap, pap.’
Hold on, wasn’t Iron Mike the KO King? ‘Mike was sent from heaven to grace us with his talent. Although I can learn from him I can never be like him. He was a unique specimen.’
Joshua’s ring walk before his defeat in the first fight was branded as too fan-friendly
But has any of Joshua’s education gone far enough for him to do what most in boxing are begging of him – go on the offensive from the first bell in Jeddah and try to swamp the Usyk genie under his size and power?
He says: ‘I do want to do him harm this time, despite all my respect for what he has done in the war in Ukraine. I do know that if I use my elements of height and strength I will have a better chance of winning.’
For that, our prayerful thanks to the Lords of the Ring. While somewhat limited in optimism, that mercifully simple statement of the obvious represents the best chance of our AJ overturning the heavy betting odds being quoted against him. That and a clear head.
Usyk v Joshua for the WBA, IBF, WBO and IBO world heavyweight titles will be televised live this Saturday night on Sky Sports Box Office, at £26.95 pay-per-view.
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