Call off the search for the old Anthony Joshua

·4 min read

“No knockout, so no good,” said Anthony Joshua late on Saturday night at the O2.

Joshua had just been given a wide points decision over durable American Jermaine Franklin, and he was far from happy with his performance. He was raw and honest.

Franklin had survived through 12 rounds by holding, grappling and frustrating Joshua; it was often a repetitive watch, but the American’s tactics are legitimate and legal parts of the boxing game. Joshua had once again simply failed to let his hands flow with the necessary intent. Joshua lost his last two fights and was accused of the same things.

In the ring at the end, Joshua knew that he could have and should have done more, and the personal disappointment was clear in his voice. He was brutal in his appraisal of the fight. “There is no excuse,” he told me in the ring. There is, even in defeat, never an excuse with Joshua. His critics often fail to acknowledge that the boxer is his own harshest critic; his honesty is searing.

Franklin won two rounds at best but was a smart nuisance in every round, and he was able to survive the hardest moments with a mix of instinct and old-fashioned holding. Joshua struggled to land the right uppercut, which is the perfect punch for a shorter opponent, and needed to let his fists go in bunches of punches. It was an odd fight, in many ways; Joshua was in control but Franklin managed to last until the end without any real dramas. Joshua needed a stoppage, the capacity crowd wanted the old Joshua – they got, instead, a man caught between stations; smarter than the earlier version, but far more cautious. It is not an easy conflict to solve.

Perhaps, just perhaps, the search for the so-called vintage Joshua needs to be called off; perhaps this far more sensible version is now the permanent new Joshua. Joshua talked about building the foundation and, if there were any positives from Saturday night’s fight, it has to be said that he kept his shape, kept his head, controlled the fight’s pace and flow.

“It was the start,” said Derrick James, the new man in Joshua’s corner. James runs a gym of real champions in Dallas and he clearly considered the fight a step, a stage in the construction of a new Joshua; not a fight in search of the old swashbuckling fighter. The fight seen through his eyes is a very different fight to one most people wanted. In the post-fight interviews, his voice was the lone voice of celebration. And perhaps that is telling, perhaps we all expect too much of Joshua. And that includes the man himself.

Anthony Joshua with his new coach Derrick James (Getty Images)
Anthony Joshua with his new coach Derrick James (Getty Images)

It was Joshua’s first win in three fights, only his second win in three years and it has been a long, long time since the Joshua we crave dominated a fight and finished it early; in December 2016, Joshua stopped Eric Molina in three easy rounds. It was called a mismatch at the time, but on Saturday night it would have been celebrated. Boxing is never easy, it seldom makes sense.

The talk before the fight was that the Tyson Fury bout was on the horizon; there was a half-hearted attempt late on Saturday to begin the spin for that most reluctant of encounters. James, however, talked of “building”. Eddie Hearn, the promoter, talked of “looking at all the options”. It is clear that a Fury fight is an option, a genuine option, but in modern heavyweight boxing that is a flimsy proposal. Fury and Joshua has been on the agenda behind closed doors for about eight years and it has been close to signed and sealed three times. It is boxing’s sorry saga.

Joshua won 118-111, 117-111, 117-111 on the judges’ scorecards (Getty Images)
Joshua won 118-111, 117-111, 117-111 on the judges’ scorecards (Getty Images)

There is also the very real possibility of a belated rematch with Dillian Whyte, who was ringside. Whyte and Joshua met as amateurs, clashed in gyms, met as pros in the O2 ring in 2015 when Joshua got revenge. “I’ve been ignored ever since,” insisted Whyte. There was no pantomime from anybody at the end of Saturday’s fight. It was simply not that type of night and fight.

It will be too easy to be heavily critical of Joshua in the coming days, to highlight the cautious approach and ignore the boxer’s own raw assessment. It was, obviously, not his best, but perhaps it was the start of the new Joshua under the guidance of James. The hunt for the vintage bruiser is over; this is the 2023 version of Joshua, and it will not please everybody.

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