Anthony Joshua has for most of his glittering career been the overwhelming favourite to win all his heavyweight clashes. Until now. He is in the unfamiliar position of being a firm underdog in a rematch with Oleksandr Usyk on Saturday in Saudi Arabia.
When this fight was initially touted almost a year ago after Joshua was easily outpointed by Usyk, even AJ’s promotor Eddie Hearn made a faux pas when stating the winner would fight Tyson Fury. Such was the comprehensive manner of Usyk’s win, Hearn misspoke by claiming he expected Fury to face the 35-year-old Ukrainian.
Neither fighter has boxed since that September bout in London but it’s AJ whose mental state is most in question.
“I don’t care how good he is - my competitive spirit will overcome all obstacles,” Joshua insisted, pledging to bring back the aggression of old after a cagey, stuttering performance last time.
Joshua was embarrassed in front of a partisan crowd against the smaller but quicker and cleverer southpaw. Now a 32-year-old multimillionaire, he’s endured heavy criticism in recent years for losing to Usyk and the lardy Andy Ruiz Jr before avenging the loss to the Mexican-American, albeit in unconvincing fashion.
Joshua has changed trainers and his training base but many believe it will make little or no difference. Social media and even face-to-face interaction has not been kind to him. “I try not to focus on criticism,” he insisted. “There are a lot of positive vibes out there as well. This time I’ll smash through him.”
Victory would see Joshua (24-2) recover the WBO, WBA and IBF titles. But even then he would not consider himself the best heavyweight in the world, not without fighting Fury.
“Unless he’s 100 per cent retired, you’ve got to beat Fury as well,” he admitted.
Despite the widespread predictions, Usyk (19-0) is taking nothing for granted. “The difference is that I’m going to have the belts with me,” he said. “I will be walking second, people are going to be waiting for me. When I walk into the ring in the position of a champion, it doesn’t make me feel like it’ll be easier and it won’t be easier in the ring.
“I realise that I have to do my job properly and it’s not going to be an easy assignment for me.”
Joshua is taller, heavier and a serious puncher. Usyk admits he’ll be heavier this time. That could be taken as a sign he intends to stand his ground looking for a knockout.
“I’m not a big forecaster,” he added. “You’ll see Saturday night, I’ll just do my job, what I have to do.”
He goes into this fight with a message for the world. As Ukraine resists Russia’s invasion, Usyk wants to represent his country on a global stage. He has his own foundation supporting civilians during the war.
“I want to help my people and my country and Saturday night is going to be a small party for them, maybe a big party.”