‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’- Anthony Joshua’s Search Continues
As Anthony Joshua stole glances toward his corner, blood seeping from his nose and his arms wrapped around the heaving shoulders of Jermaine Franklin, it was easy to see the familiar signs of confusion and anxiety. The fighter within Joshua, the one with grit and innocence who deployed his physical gifts and youthful vigour to climb the heavyweight mountain, is gone. He was drowned in the deep waters of fights he won and the crashing waves of the fights he lost.
The selection of Franklin was deliberate. Conspicuously so. Famous only for a narrow loss, lacking in single punch power and with modest mobility, Jermaine Franklin was booked to huff and puff, present manageable offence and provide a sellable knockout to the growing crowd of doubters.
It was an unkind assessment of Franklin. Sturdier than his fleshy physique suggests and with self-belief manifestly encouraged by a spirited performance versus Whyte in late 2022, Franklin arrived lighter and ever more motivated. However superficial the matchmaker’s assessment may have been, Franklin was as far down the heavyweight roster as Joshua, a man with Klitschko, Povetkin, Whyte and Parker victories to look back on, could reasonably stoop.
A return to an Arena, as opposed to a stadium, was another luminous benchmark of the step-down Joshua had needed to take to galvanise his career and to try to ensure risk was mitigated for his first fight with new trainer Derrick James. Shopkeeper Eddie Hearn needed weeks, not the familiar minutes, to hang the ‘Sold Out’ banner on the door. This was very much the bounce point. There was no further for Joshua to sink as a wealthy man and heading toward 34 in October. Win or retire. Speaking at the post-fight press conference, Hearn confirmed: “There was a lot of pressure on AJ tonight, his career was on the line, a defeat tonight would’ve been the end of the road.”
The fight posed questions and some answers. The ‘New Dawn’ proved fanciful. A lot of the old neurosis remained. Under attack Joshua appeared uncomfortable and in attack himself he was cautious. Cautious of the counter punches Franklin launched and between the two any fluidity off the jab was frozen. His pre-fight talk of a USB of fight knowledge in his brain from the tutelage of James proved a little optimistic. Predictably caught between styles, instincts and stifled by the fear of coming unstuck.
I wrote in preview that there would be a point in this fight where the solitude of the ring will ask Joshua the questions all wealthy fighters must face – ‘do I really want this any more?’. In those glances to the corner in clinches, in the childlike expression between rounds there was a search for answers, for reassurance, for trust because this was another fight not following the narrative Joshua wanted.
The truth, unpalatable though it may be, is that Joshua no longer wants to have a fight. He wants to box, opponents to comply and to keep the pay rolling. In the quest to box tactically, elevate himself to a technical plane that has proven beyond him he has lost much of that which made him successful and in doing so lost the trust in himself, in his instinct, in his own resilience and in the words of those who encourage him. The mistakes of the Ruiz fight snapped his belief in his own invincibility, the mistakes by Robert McCracken in his corner in the first Usyk fight undermined his whole belief system and now he searches for that certainty in the voice of Derrick James.
Appointing high profile American trainers is a common tactic among British fighters accustomed to winning who begin to lose. Joshua isn’t the first and he won’t be the last. Their recruitment always comes with talk of renewed dedication and discovering new insight, skills and purpose. Chopping trees and hammering tyres a familiar vagary of the Emperor’s new clothes falling fighters like Anthony Joshua insist they are wearing.
I was reminded of a fight I attended twenty-one years ago at London Arena. 28-year-old Prince Naseem Hamed boxed for the first time since a humbling loss to Marco Antonio Barrera. He faced the competent but unspectacular Spanish Featherweight Manuel Calvo. There was no Brendan. Emmanuel Steward had been and gone. Hamed won every round. Swung and missed, tried hard to tie together the memories of the reflexes he once had and the gurning arrogance of his pomp.
He was the Prince no more. The crowd booed. The show was over and the multi-millionaire from Sheffield knew it.
Hamed never boxed again.
Joshua’s career at this point, feels like the box-set version of a similar story. There will be no untold plot twist.