TOs Anthony Joshua walks to the ring at 02 in London on Saturday night, to face the relatively limited American Jermaine Franklin, it will be more than two years and three months since he last raised his hand in victory. In December 2020, on a bleak winter night amid Covid and in front of a sparse crowd of a thousand socially distanced fans, Joshua pummeled Kubrat Pulev to win. a win by ninth-round stoppage.

Despite the lockdown restrictions, Joshua left Wembley Arena on a high by retaining his IBF, WBA and WBO world heavyweight titles. He seemed certain, then, that he would soon be fighting Tyson Fury, the WBC belt holder, for the undisputed heavyweight championship of the world.

However, boxing politics derailed that wildly lucrative matchup and instead of facing Fury, Joshua was clearly hit by the much smaller but much more skilled Oleksandr Usyk in September 2021. In only his third fight as a heavyweight, having dominated the cruiserweight division, Usyk’s victory wasn’t really a shock to hardcore boxing. But it was a sign of the chaos in his corner that Joshua initially seemed surprised when the scorecards went against him.

In the rematch in Jeddah last August, Joshua produced a much better performance and was ahead on points when he rocked Usyk in the ninth round. But the hugely impressive Ukrainian showed his most natural aptitude for fighting as he outpointed Joshua comprehensively in the last three championship rounds to retain his titles.

A distraught and shaken Joshua reacted unusually. He tossed two of Usyk’s belts out of the ring and ran to his dressing room, only to do a sudden U-turn and climb between the ropes again. Just as Usyk should have been celebrating his justified victory, on behalf of UkraineJoshua launched into a rambling monologue. It was embarrassing and sad to see a former champion reduced to such inconsistency.

Since then, Joshua has displayed his most typical decency. He’s been as accessible as ever this week, even if his front office is still trying to stop interviewing him, but Joshua knows he can’t afford another loss on Saturday. There would be no coming back from a third loss in a row, especially against an inferior opponent, so a small advantage has also been evident.

When it was suggested that Franklin might consider this the best time to take on a vulnerable fallen champion, Joshua said: “It’s the worst time. The more he talks, the bigger the grave he digs for himself.” He quickly reverted to the old AJ mode: “But I respect my opponent. It’s up to you to talk all the time and to me to do my work on Saturday.”

Joshua was more contemplative in considering how the contrasting ups and downs of his career have impacted him. He has earned an astronomical amount of money and his corporate brilliance often got in the way of his progress in the ring. The contrast between the wealthy limelight and the grittier need to improve as a boxer, who began boxing as an amateur much later than his contemporaries, has always been at the complicated heart of Joshua’s story.

“Boxing helped me develop, but at a rate I wasn’t ready for,” he admitted. “I have never been prepared for this pressure or these situations and sacrifices. I am standing in front of the Queen, for example, reading a speech in Westminster Abbey that I was never really prepared for. I don’t come from that walk of life, and the sacrifice is getting there and presenting yourself to the public. After that concert, I will return to the farm with my companions. So you’re opening yourself up to higher expectations.”

Joshua was also thoughtful when he said: “I’ve always tried to behave, with or without the seatbelts, just like me. Regardless, always be cheerful, love life, because life is more vibrant than any championship belt. I have to look in the mirror, with or without belts. Losing teaches you to ask questions and tune out the noise. I learned about mind control, self-improvement, and that’s how I found myself in Dallas.”

Oleksandr Usyk punches Anthony Joshua during their fight in Jeddah.
Anthony Joshua’s career has been marred by back-to-back losses to Oleksandr Usyk. Photography: François Nel/Getty Images

In a quest to rebuild his career, Joshua moved his training base to Texas. This will be his first fight under the starks and Derrick James Abrasive Tutelage – who, in Dallas, also trains the great welterweight world champion Errol Spence. In public, James is a man of few words, and none of them are flowery, but Joshua said: “When I talk to Derrick and ask him certain questions, the knowledge he spits out is phenomenal. I appreciate the fact that he hired me and I’m looking forward to showing him that he hasn’t wasted any time.”

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Upon moving to Dallas, Joshua said, “I thought, ‘How can I get better? Where should I go? Whom should I contact? How am I going to set up the next phase of my career? Do I want to follow the same trajectory or go up a level?’ Asking myself all these questions is how I found myself in Texas. What I discovered through failure, even if it’s not a failure because I got to a certain level but stuck there, is that if I want to make it again, I have to go to another level. I found out that what I thought was good enough wasn’t.”

Franklin, who lost for the first time in his 22-fight career as a surpassed by Dillian Whyte in London last November, he didn’t seem this week as if he really believed he was good enough to surprise Joshua. But the American was encouraged to say: “If I can put it on his butt, then that’s what I’m going to try to do. I come from a place [Saginaw in Michigan] without much chance, and I got here, so anything is possible.”

Joshua’s future in boxing will be defined when he faces either Fury or Deontay Wilder later this year. But first, at home again, he hopes for a decisive win against Franklin to get back on track amid the heavyweight division’s enduring chaos, with a planned unification showdown between Fury and Usyk. predictably collapsing last week.

“I think we’re going to see blood and I’m looking forward to getting back in it,” he said of his fight against Franklin. “I’m so happy to be fighting again because when you look at the champions now it’s a mess trying to compete with mandates and negotiations. Honestly I can’t believe I don’t [unification] fights have been made [in the heavyweight division].”

But, as he searches for the sweet taste of victory after such a long and bitter period, Joshua emphasized that he is now boxing for himself. “I am wiser and more insensitive to the expectations of others,” he said quietly. “I just do it for me now.”

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