Opportunity Knocks: Inside the neighbouring dressing rooms of Deontay Wilder and Anthony Joshua

By Declan Taylor

THERE were no more than six yards between the door to Deontay Wilder’s dressing room and that of Anthony Joshua on Wednesday night.

Although the Saudi money did not manage to finally put the two fallen heavyweight champions together in the ring, they did at least get them in the same venue and seemingly on a path to what is now the most long-awaited fight in world boxing.

With Wilder facing Joseph Parker and Joshua set to take on Otto Wallin in Riyadh on December 23, the pair were both at the Wembley Arena for the launch press conference and they ended up with adjacent rooms in which to prepare down one of the arena’s many back tunnels.

Wilder, with trainer Malik Scott to his left, sat on a sofa in the middle of his and laughed when it was pointed out how close the pair had finally become. The Bronze Bomber was asked what he would say if he walked across the hallway and knocked on his door.

“At this moment in time I’d tell him it’s good to see him,” Wilder said. “It has been a long time coming and I wish him nothing but the best. Hopefully soon we’ll be facing each other and looking each other eye to eye.

“It would be the second time I have met him, the first was around his Klitschko fight, Sky Sports hired me to commentate on the fight. I thought he would call me out after that fight but he didn’t. He never ever had my name in his mouth.”

Some 20 minutes later, as he sat down in a scruffier room across the hall, filled with the usual faces from his entourage, Joshua was asked the same question.

“I’d probably do more listening than talking,” the Watford man said. “I don’t have much to say to these guys.”

Joshua was then told by one reporter that Wilder had suggested he has suffered a loss of identity. Joshua did not like that.

“Who the fuck is he? He’s a boxer not a psychologist. And Otto says ‘I’ve peaked’, Wilder says, ‘I’ve lost my identity’, Wallin has never seen a peak, so who is he to say what a peak is?

“I’ve stood 10 toes on what I represent, I’ve been two-time champion of the world, defended, fought X amount of world champions, the boy has had 50 fights and he probably fought Jason Gavern in his 30-something fight, I probably fought him in my 12th or whatever. We are different, my identity is strong, if they’re looking for weaknesses and gaps, then they need to stop looking over here because I’m solid. I don’t know what he’s talking about if I’m honest.”

The response was in keeping with Joshua’s seemingly tetchy mood. Over the years, the London 2012 Olympic champion has maintained a reasonably friendly relationship with the press but on Wednesday he spoke like a man with little interest in filling column inches or making friends.

He even declined to comment when asked directly about the involvement of new coach Ben Davison, who will take care of Joshua’s camp this time in the absence of Derrick James. “I don’t want to talk about trainers,” he said. Later his promoter Eddie Hearn suggested that, with only six weeks to prepare, it would be logistically difficult for James to take charge this time around.

Across the hall, during a 20-minute conversation which was primarily based on the big Londoner in the opposite dressing room, Wilder admitted he had fallen out of love with the sport at one point. He has had just one round of action in the two years since the end of his punishing trilogy with Tyson Fury which culminated in defeat via 11th-round stoppage more than two years ago.

But, given the ups and downs Joshua has also been through during a decade as a pro, has he ever felt a similar disassociation? “No. It is consistent,” AJ replied.

“I never had a year out, never had too much time off, I stood up to every opportunity, I fought back to back world champions, defended my titles. I’m a different breed. Who am I to compare myself to others? I am a different breed.”

Later, on the top table of the presser, with only a few seats dividing them, the pair addressed each other directly. Given it is now nearly six years since Wilder’s team famously offered Joshua $50m to fight, it is vaguely absurd that they have still never crossed paths.

But in boxing’s Riyadh Season era, however long it lasts, even the most stubborn deadlocks can be broken.

“The money plays a big part,” Joshua said. “There’s a shift happening in boxing, in sports in general, big players want to get involved. Matchroom isn’t just a UK company now, they want to go global. Boxing is looking to become one global entity, not different territories, so this is all part of the bigger picture.

“We’ve stayed around long enough to see the changes happen and just the timing factor. It was either going to happen now or ten years from now. We were just lucky enough to be in the driving seat at this present time.

“Me and Wilder, we’re fighters, we were going to fight each other one day. It was either going to be on his card or someone else’s card. To have us all working together. It’s unbelievable.”

Wilder, however, had a slightly more critical view of the situation.

“They ran out of options,” he said. “Who is he going to fight? Who? Otto Wallin three more times? What’s knucklehead’s name? Dillian Whyte? How many times is he going to fight him?

“But what can I say? The time is near and he better get ready because management and promoters are not going to be able to stop this.”

After handshakes and thankyous, the Alabama fighter and his trainer left the room. Scott knocked on Joshua’s door with a grin but did not wait for the answer before he walked away down the tiny hall.

For Wilder and Joshua, opportunity finally knocks, but there can be no mistakes on December 23.

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