ALTHOUGH the turnout at Friday’s weigh-in at the Westfield shopping centre in west London was sizeable, there was a time when Anthony Joshua would have caused a total roadblock on Shepherd’s Bush Green by stepping on the scales.
He was once, without much semblance of doubt, the biggest star in British sport and arguably in the entire world of boxing. You could locate the apex of his journey so far at around April 2017, when he boxed Wladimir Klitschko at Wembley Stadium.
Incidentally it was a photo from that night that Joshua made his iphone background when he needed to replace the existing image of Dillian Whyte. “I had to change the script, change the screensaver on my phone,” Joshua said of his mindset once the news of Whyte’s failed VADA test came through last weekend.
“It’s me and Klitschko now. Before it was me and Dillian at the weigh-in. I just wanted to visualise what my life’s focussed on at the minute.
“I was listening to a Jarrell Miller press conference when I was fighting him in New York and he was saying ‘I’ve got Anthony’s picture in my bedroom, on my phone’. When you are psyched up about fighting someone you want them on your mind. When you are slacking I want to think about Dillian, when I eat a piece of chocolate I want to think about Dillian. Now I have had to flip the script.
“I made myself committed until August 12 and even if I was not fighting I was going to stay committed to training this week.”
On Saturday night against late replacement Robert Helenius, in an arena for the second successive fight, the London 2012 Olympic champion has the chance to continue the rebuild of his relationship with the British public.
That fight against Klitschko was the start of a run of four fights that were all held in stadiums – two at Wembley and two at the Principality, Cardiff. Over the course of those, around 300,000 paying customers turned up to watch him. It is a run of attendances we might never see again in this country.
He’s been the golden boy since those games in the eyes of many but there is no doubt that his pull has waned since those days. For Joshua, the reason for that is quite simple.
“I was the champion,” he says. “When you’re a champion it’s deserved, and I’m not the champion anymore. It’s natural.
“Even when I was the champion, in the first two fights after that I wasn’t in a stadium. When I fought for the unified championship against an old school legend that’s when I was like yeah, that was my crossover.
“It’s a building process. So it’s back to the O2 and travelling around, hopefully fighting in different arenas, maybe Manchester next. Once I fight the right people we could easily go back to a stadium. You know who these names are. Everyone loves a winner. Losers, especially in boxing, get no credibility.”
It was after his run of four UK stadium fights that Joshua went abroad, to New York, where his world came tumbling down around him at the hands of Andy Ruiz who left Madison Square Garden that night with three of the four alphabet titles. Joshua would win them back again in Saudi Arabia 11 months later but Oleksandr Usyk has since dethroned him once more. In Joshua’s opinion, with the belts goes the love of the public.
“I never looked at it being about me. ‘Oh they love me’,” he explains. “No, they just loved the belt.
“That’s why I don’t buy into the hype and what it all means. The belts will always be there. I want to get the belts and I want to move on. But then the next person comes along. The person who suffers is the one who thinks people love them. They don’t love you, they love the belts and whoever has the belts will be the king. I don’t have the belts so I can understand why there is a shift in my reality.
“I always believed it’s never just about boxing. You can’t let boxing define you. There has to be more to you. So when times like this happen, low times, it can eat you up if that’s all your identity is – ‘man I’m a champion and that’s my identity’.
“Naturally, even if you’re undefeated you have to retire and you’re not champion anymore – you’re a retired fighter. Why do people go crazy after retirement? Because they lose that identity. I thought I will always have my own identity as a person before I am identified as a champion.”
The truth is, it looks a long road back to the top – and particularly the belts – for Joshua. Even if he wins in devastating fashion against Helenius, it seems a fight against Deontay Wilder, also a non-champion, will be next. Win that and a crack at whoever holds the belts would seem logical but this is boxing. Joshua turns 34 in October and a man with his wealth will not need to go on forever but he is certain there is still time for him to become champion again.
“Yes, definitely I can do it,” he says. “I don’t think it’s that hard to fight for one belt, but it’s challenging to unify that’s hard. The accumulation of belts takes years.
“We’ve had Henry Cooper, Frank Bruno, Lennox Lewis, Tyson Fury, David Haye, Herbie Hyde, Henry Akinwande and me – that’s the British heavyweight who have held world titles. It’s not many is it?
“I’m happy to be among that list of respected British fighters. I managed to become champion and becoming champion is easy because there are so many belts but to unify, to accumulate belts and fight champion after champion, that’s very difficult.”
Before any of that – he has business to take care of at the o2. Only then can he change his screensaver again.