By Damian Mannion
Anthony Joshua faces his biggest crossroads fight when he steps into the ring as an underdog for the first time against Oleksandr Usyk in Saudi Arabia with his career on a knife edge.
It’s true that every time a boxer reaches this elite level, winning or losing one fight has huge consequences. But this is an extreme example.
If AJ wins, he is right back at the top of the heavyweight standings, his stock never higher having handed a first pro defeat to one of the world’s best pound-for-pound boxers. Lose and Joshua will be facing calls to retire, his goal of being the best heavyweight of his generation in shreds.
But looking at Joshua’s options whether he wins or loses, one thing is clear: all roads lead back to the ring. If AJ is victorious, vindicating his decision to switch trainers and take on Usyk in an immediate rematch, he’s suddenly calling all of the shots once again.
With Tyson Fury apparently retired (although he may have unretired, hired Chris Eubank Sr as his trainer, challenged Jake Paul, then re-retired over the next 24 hours), a win makes Joshua the no.1 heavyweight on the planet.
He could have a trilogy fight with Usyk, if the rematch is thrilling – or controversial – enough to warrant it. Or the Brit could have a homecoming fight at the end of the year, taking on one of his mandatory title challengers as he did after the last time he avenged a defeat (stopping Kubrat Pulev in December 2020).
But really, everyone knows the fight to be made if Joshua can overcome Usyk on Saturday. Even AJ himself, while keen to avoid talking about his great UK rival, admitted this week: “Unless he’s 100 per cent retired, you’ve got to beat Fury as well.”
Because if Joshua gets revenge in Jeddah, Fury will stay retired about as long as it takes for the live coverage to go off air in Morecambe Bay. Fury vs Joshua was so close to happening once and with a 50/50 purse split already agreed, the only question really would be when and where the biggest showdown in British boxing history would take place.
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But if Joshua loses to Usyk once more, his position becomes trickier. Even his promoter, the silver-tongued Eddie Hearn, talked himself in circles on this topic this week, first saying Joshua “can’t afford to get it wrong – this may be his last chance to become world heavyweight champion again”. But in the very next sentence, adding: “If he doesn’t win here, there’s no thoughts of retiring – I’ve heard some rubbish about that… ridiculous.”
And Hearn is correct that if Joshua does lose, it appears unlikely that it will be the last time we see him fight. He signed a long-term deal with DAZN worth a reported £100million in June and while part of it is for AJ to become a ‘special advisor and brand ambassador’ for the streaming platform, nobody is paying him nine figures to sit in a boardroom. The expectation is Joshua will fight – and it would be bizarre if, having signed this deal, he never even fights on DAZN in the UK (the rematch with Usyk having been bought as a one-off by Sky Sports).
As crushing as it might feel to lose to the same fighter twice, AJ would have multiple options to return. He could admit his first bout with a new trainer being someone as challenging as Usyk was a mistake and rebuild with a few easier tune-ups. After all, it took both Lennox Lewis and Wladimir Klitschko time to gel with a new trainer – even one as great as Manny Steward – and Joshua would be following their lead.
When Klitschko lost his third pro fight (all by KO) to Lamon Brewster in 2004, his career as an elite heavyweight looked destroyed. In fact, it was just beginning, and he’d go unbeaten for the next 22 fights over 11 years. So a third defeat need not ruin AJ’s career.
A lot of that depends on how Usyk wins, of course. If Joshua looks even more out of sorts than he did in London in September – if he is in fact stopped by Usyk – a rebuild becomes vastly more difficult. But a valiant performance, where he shows aggression and intent, is not a disaster even if it ends in defeat.
Deontay Wilder lost his trilogy bout with Fury last year but in coming so close to stopping Fury in the fourth round – and putting up a far better display than the one-sided demolition he suffered in their second contest – ‘The Bronze Bomber’s stock actually rose in defeat.
Which brings us to Wilder. A bout between the two men – both with their flaws, but each with fight-ending power – has been a dream fight for boxing fans for many years. If Joshua decides he has no time for a slow and steady rebuild, he and Wilder could easily fight in a mega-showdown next year. The winner is right back in the heavyweight title picture; the loser really would be facing retirement – the stakes would be as big as their dynamite right hands.
Even at age 32, Joshua should be able to physically recover from a second defeat to Usyk (of his 26 pro fights so far, few have been gruelling and only three have gone the distance). But whether he can mentally recover from knowing that he has met a fighter who simply has his number is another matter.
Due to his skyrocket rise to fame and the expectations set for him, the goal was always that Joshua be remembered as the defining heavyweight of his era. However the losses to Andy Ruiz Jr and Usyk – as well as Fury’s astonishing success – have pushed that target further away.
Yet Joshua, unlike a certain Floyd Mayweather, has never defined himself by staying undefeated. Even before the defeat to Ruiz, he had a healthy acceptance that losing was part of boxing. In a strange way, defeat to Usyk might even free Joshua from the pressure that seems to have steadily worn him down and hindered his performances ever since that career-defining KO of Wladimir Klitschko in 2017.
Joshua has said before that his favourite fight of all time is George Foreman’s five-round war with Ron Lyle in 1976. Foreman himself struggled in the aftermath of his shock defeat by Muhammad Ali and, after his next loss to Jimmy Young, spent a decade away from boxing before returning to the ring older, slower but happier and more relaxed in himself, sensationally winning back the heavyweight world title at age 45.
Maybe if AJ loses to Usyk, he could copy ‘Big George’ and just disappear for several years before coming back not as the chiselled adonis we all know – but as a chubbier, balder, more chilled-out AJ, testing the chins of the next generation with his pulverising blows.
A tongue-in-cheek suggestion, but anything is possible for AJ’s future. So much depends on the outcome of Saturday’s fight in terms of his next step. Yet the feeling is that, no matter the result, we will likely see Joshua in a boxing ring again. After all – whether they are in their mid-thirties, late-thirties or the age of Mike Tyson and Roy Jones when they finally clashed – you get the feeling Joshua and Fury simply have to trade leather at some stage before their careers truly end.
Usyk vs Joshua 2 on talkSPORT
talkSPORT will be in Jeddah for the Oleksandr Usyk vs Anthony Joshua rematch on Saturday, August 20.
Join us – for FREE – for exclusive radio coverage of the huge heavyweight fight that has the WBA, WBO and IBF titles on the line.
Our expert team will be made up of presenters Adam Catterall, Gareth A Davies and Ade Oladipo, commentator Andy Clarke, former bantamweight champion Spencer Oliver and current heavyweight star Derek Chisora.
We’ll be ringside in Saudi Arabia from 8pm – don’t miss it!