Dillian Whyte was the ideal opponent for Anthony Joshua at this stage in his career. The age-old rivalry between the pair, forged in the amateurs and continued as pros, was a ticket-seller. The O2 Arena was due to be heaving for their collision. With Joshua having lost two of his last three, and not looked particularly hot even in the victory, it was also a chance to dazzle. Whyte’s erosion has occurred at a greater clip than AJ’s and renewing hostilities gave the Watford man an opportunity to score a first knockout since December 2020.
The news that the Whyte fight has been cancelled due to Dillian’s “adverse analytical result” in a random pre-fight anti-doping test has thrown Joshua’s immediate future into disarray. A mad scramble ensued to find a fighter to replace ‘The Body Snatcher’ and save the O2 show. Undercard opponents Derek Chisora and Gerald Washington were considered before Robert Helenius was awarded the chance.
Joshua now finds himself clashing with an awkward late replacement he hasn’t prepared for. And yet he will get little of the credit he would have for beating Whyte. Helenius is 39 years of age and his best days are behind him. He also fought just last Saturday, a point of contention for many criticising the bout.
It is a uniquely AJ fact that the pressure actually increases now he is set to fight a weaker foe. Given the bitterness of the grudge match and the reputation-washing PR that shone a brighter light on Whyte than his recent outings have deserved, some fans were convinced they were in for at least a competitive fight. Helenius doesn’t promise the same.
Now, this fight circles back to that knockout statistic. Joshua hasn’t stopped an opponent since his ninth-round KO of Kubrat Pulev in 2020. Before that his last knockout was in 2018 against Alexander Povetkin. For a fighter who was once vaunted for his power, Joshua has adopted a more cautious style. His trip to the canvas on the way to beating Wladimir Klitschko in 2017 was the first chink in his armour. AJ’s shocking 2019 loss to Andy Ruiz Jr sealed the deal. Where once he fought with abandon, now he fights with reluctance.
The Franklin fight was supposed to break the spell and bring back the old AJ. But instead, Joshua laboured to a points win over ‘989 Assassin’. Against 'The Nordic Nightmare' there will be no excuses. If Helenius hears the final bell, all questions will be answered. Joshua will have lost the elite finishing ability that was once his edge.
But where there is peril there is also opportunity. The emotions of the Whyte feud have been put to one side. This is no longer a grudge match. Joshua is free to climb into the ring with a cool head and do his job. It is a job he will be doing against an opponent he should beat and beat well. If the Olympic gold medalist can hit something even approaching his old standards, he will walk out an impressive victor. Whyte was an eminently winnable fight. But this is a chance to put a new clip in Joshua’s long-stagnant highlight reel.
Of course if AJ wins well, the armchair Freddie Roach contingent online will say it’s because he fought a weak opponent. But you can only fight what is in front of you. Whyte, by virtue of ingesting a banned substance, is no longer in front of Joshua. Now the former heavyweight champion must deal with a different challenge on short notice. How he acquits himself could shape the rest of his career.
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