Anthony Joshua’s likeness was plastered on the exterior walls of New York’s Madison Square Garden in larger-than-life form ahead of his hotly anticipated U.S. debut in June 2019.
Joshua, of Watford, England, then one of the sport’s top-two global stars alongside Canelo Alvarez, already had conquered Europe and now was coming to make his mark stateside like so many great British boxers before him.
The American coronation turned into disaster. Joshua was TKO’d by late replacement Andy Ruiz Jr. in one of the biggest upsets in the history of heavyweight championship boxing. Joshua regained his three titles from Ruiz six months later, but he now finds himself in uncharted waters following back-to-back decision defeats to Oleksandr Usyk.
For the first time in seven years — and 13 fights — Joshua isn’t competing with a heavyweight title on the line. Once the fighter to beat in the heavyweight division, Joshua is now No. 4 in ESPN’s rankings behind Tyson Fury, Usyk and Deontay Wilder. The 33-year-old meets American contender Jermaine Franklin on Saturday in London in what could be considered a rebuilding fight for a boxer looking to rediscover his form.
However, Joshua’s longtime promoter doesn’t quite view it that way.
“People talk about the rebuild of Anthony Joshua — I really don’t,” Matchroom Boxing’s Eddie Hearn told ESPN. “I see a guy who’s coming off a tight defeat to the pound-for-pound No. 1 [Oleksandr Usyk, who is No. 3 in ESPN’s P4P rankings] … and is still an elite heavyweight in the glamour landscape. I think what we need more than anything is momentum, and that’s what we are looking to achieve in 2023.”
EVEN IF HE never wins another world title, Joshua has accomplished a tremendous amount. He’s earned hundreds of millions of dollars, fought in sold-out soccer stadiums all over the U.K., captured an Olympic gold medal, became a two-time heavyweight champion, and even rose off the canvas to knock out Hall of Famer Wladimir Klitschko in 2017 in one of the greatest fights in the storied history of the heavyweight division.
Joshua (24-3, 22 KOs) performed all those feats under the guidance of British trainer Robert McCracken, but following the first decision setback against Usyk in September 2021, he parted ways with the only head trainer he’s ever known.
In McCracken’s place arrived Robert Garcia, an American regarded as one of the game’s best trainers and a former champion in his own right. That partnership lasted only one fight. Joshua performed better in the August rematch with Usyk in Saudi Arabia, but again left the ring searching for answers.
Surely, there’s no shame in losing to a fighter the caliber of Usyk — even twice. Usyk, too, won an Olympic gold medal, is a former undisputed cruiserweight champion and is considered a generational talent with a brilliant ring IQ, power and an exceptional jab. But for the third time in three fights, Joshua will have a different person manning his corner.
In January, Joshua commenced his first American training camp after he joined forces with Derrick James in Dallas. ESPN’s reigning trainer of the year, James is well regarded for his work with unified welterweight champion Errol Spence Jr. and undisputed junior middleweight champion Jermell Charlo.
“I can tell I’m definitely more knowledgeable, definitely more relaxed, definitely more experienced,” Joshua said last week. “But that’s also down to the trainer I’m with as well. He’s experienced at [the] top level, and he’s got a certain standard that I was looking for.”
JAMES IS KNOWN for perfecting power punchers. Spence and Charlo are among the most damaging punchers in boxing, but neither packs the sort of punch Joshua possesses. Joshua has somehow drifted away from what carried him to the top: his devastating right hand.
In his two fights against Usyk, Joshua never truly imposed his immense size and strength on the smaller man despite his hulking 6-foot-6, 240-pound frame. Instead, he tried to outbox a master boxer.
With an emphasis on returning to what made him great, Joshua looked at the others that transcended the sport.
“I was researching a lot of the heaviest punches in the heavyweight division and how they trained and stuff like that,” Joshua said.
He began chopping wood during this training camp, an activity that Earnie Shavers, widely regarded as the biggest puncher in the history of the heavyweight division, used to employ.
Joshua attributed the losses to Usyk, in part, to conditioning. He ditched the weights during this camp altogether, and instead focused on jumping rope, shadow boxing, hitting the pads, bag work and road work. And sparring — lots and lots of sparring.
Joshua estimated he’s sparred between 250 and 300 rounds during this camp, and said his muscles are far more dense now, which he believed would aid him in to stay fresh in the late rounds.
“I feel I’m going to be punch drunk by the time I leave America,” Joshua said with a laugh. “Now I can see why a lot of Americans are punch drunk. … What’s good with the amount of sparring I’m doing is … it gives me an opportunity to work on different things, especially over a 12-round period where I’m in there for like four, seven minutes [straight].
“I can get a lot of good work done. And especially the fact that it’s like back-to-back sparring. It’s not like you spar on a Wednesday and then you’re waiting Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday before you spar again.”
James wanted to find Joshua’s roots once again, and practice in the ring was of the utmost importance.
“How you put the playbook to practice is by sparring,” James said. “We can work the mitts forever. You get into a fight — damn, that’s different. You have to be able to find a way to implement everything that we work on strategically.”
WHILE JOSHUA AND James are confident the ferocious power that eradicated Klitschko, Kubrat Pulev, Dillian Whyte and so many others will be on display this weekend, they both maintain the focus is on the basics.
For James, it’s about Joshua rotating and turning his punches over.
“The more technical he becomes and the more technique that he displays, the more power you’ll see,” he said. “I don’t think he ever really displayed his true power.”
Joshua appeared to stun Usyk on a few occasions but never planted him on the canvas. He floored Ruiz in the first bout, but couldn’t finish him. In the rematch, he boxed and moved from the outside rather than jump into the spaces necessary to deliver the knockout blow.
“There’s the basic foundations: balance, defense and your [jab], that is the most important punch in boxing,” Joshua said. “Even though we look at a lot of the great athletes around the world, you never, ever see them not doing the basics properly. So I really like the fact that he’s focusing on the basics.”
Franklin (21-1, 14 KOs) is no pushover, but he’s levels below Usyk, perhaps the perfect opponent for Joshua to work out the wrinkles in his game and regain his confidence. After all, Joshua hasn’t had his hand raised since December 2020, when he detonated Pulev in Round 9.
Franklin, the 29-year-old from Saginaw, Michigan, entered the ESPN heavyweight rankings at No. 10 following a disputed majority-decision defeat to Whyte in November. Franklin should test Joshua, and if the former champion isn’t on his game, could be in for a surprising night.
But if Joshua is still the same fighter who rose to the top of boxing’s glamor division, he should be able to return to his knockout ways and remind everyone the sort of threat he possesses.
Joshua is a 12-1 favorite to push past Franklin, and perhaps most of all, the immense pressure he faced through 12 consecutive title fights.
“There is definitely not as much nerves,” Joshua said. “I think that the pressure cooker’s off a bit. The pressure was a lot, I can’t lie to you. But it’s when you want something so bad. I was really pushing that undisputed narrative for so long. We’re looking forward and I see a bright future and that kind of keeps me in good spirits.
That future could even include, at long last, a super all-England showdown with Fury that’s been discussed for years. But first, Joshua needs to remind the world — and perhaps even himself — just who he is.
“Starting on Saturday night with Jermaine Franklin, a devastating performance can make a statement to the world of boxing and show that he’s ready to take on all comers this year,” Hearn said. “I really feel like a fight with Tyson Fury is makeable.
“If he can get through Franklin on Saturday, both men will be without any mandatory obligations, or will not have a listed opponent. So everything’s on the line Saturday night. A defeat would mean that his world title ambitions are in tatters, and that’s the aim for Anthony Joshua. So this may be the most important fight of his career so far.”
Can Anthony Joshua change his style, regain his confidence and become a champion again?