Former two-time heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua has dubbed himself “the comeback king” ahead of his rematch with Oleksandr Usyk this August. Speaking at a press conference to announce the Saudi Arabia-bound bout, ‘AJ’ drew on his personal history to make his case. “I have a second chance, when I was young I was getting in trouble and got a second chance and found boxing.”
However, the Watford slugger is not the only elite British heavyweight who can lay claim to the “comeback king” moniker. On-again-off-again retiree Tyson Fury, current WBC and The Ring heavyweight champion, has also shown a capacity for rejuvenation in the past. Joshua and Fury’s flair for reinvention is just the latest metric to compare the two rival heavyweights. While the true question of one man’s superiority over the other will not be answered until they meet in the ring, the title of “comeback king” can be debated. Which of the pair is the true holder of that crown? The Sportsman have made it our mission to find out.
Joshua’s journey took him from Reading Prison to the heavyweight championship of the world. As a teen, ‘AJ’ was remanded in custody for what he describes as “fighting and other crazy stuff”. This brush with the law saw him placed on an electronic tag, and it is the discipline he learned from honouring his curfew and probation conditions that Joshua credits with helping him focus on boxing.
Despite being a late starter at 18, Joshua’s gifted fists took him all the way onto the Team GB squad. But his old demons would rear their head once more, when the boxer was pulled over and found to be in possession of marijuana just a year before the London 2012 Olympics. Joshua was sentenced to 100 hours of community service. The fighter now credits the ordeal with teaching him “the art of bouncing back”.
Bounce back he did, clinching Olympic gold the following year before turning professional. Less than four years on from standing on the podium at London 2012, he claimed the IBF heavyweight championship, stopping ‘Prince’ Charles Martin in two rounds. He would hoover up the WBA and WBO titles too, in career-defining victories over Wladimir Klitschko and Joseph Parker. By 2019, ‘AJ’ was 7-0 in world title fights.
It was in the summer of that year that he would run into Andy Ruiz Jr. The portly but powerful ‘Destroyer’ rusted the Joshua machine in seven shocking rounds, perpetrating one of the great upsets of recent years. Once again, Joshua would have to rely upon “the art of bouncing back”.
Six months later, in the same country that will stage the Usyk rematch, Joshua and Ruiz met again. The latter turned up in far worse shape than he did for the first fight. The former turned up with a far sharper mentality, cautiously boxing his way to a comprehensive unanimous decision. Once again, Joshua’s capacity for a comeback was evident.
Fury’s credentials as “comeback king” are equally robust. The 33-year-old has never lost in the ring, giving him nothing definitely sporting to come back from. But he has had an incredibly hard road to reach his current status as the consensus best heavyweight on the planet.
‘The Gypsy King’ should have been on top of the world back in 2015. Fury had just ended the nine-year reign of WBA, IBF and WBO heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko, in a fight almost nobody backed him to win. After an entire era of Klitschko rule, with Wladimir’s brother Vitali also spending much of the period as WBC champion, finally the division had a new superstar. But as quickly as Fury had risen to the top, he tumbled into despair.
A drug suspension, for performance enhancers allegedly used in an earlier win over Christian Hammer, was the catalyst for a dramatic fall. Fury ballooned in weight following the Klitschko victory, and withdrew from a planned rematch due to what he described as a lack of motivation. A public battle with depression and substance abuse followed. Fury was candid in interviews about his mental health, and his openness saw others seek help for their own struggles. From his darkest point, Fury became a beacon for others who found themselves in the same boat. Something positive came out of his despair, and this gave the boxer the inspiration to fight on.
Initially he was blocked from doing so by UK Anti-Doping (UKAD) and the British Boxing Board of Control (BBBoC). Eventually Fury was reinstated in 2018, allowing him to embark on his comeback over three years since he claimed the heavyweight championship of the world. Fury insisted he remained the man to beat in the division, bringing the idea of the lineal championship to the mainstream for the first time since George Foreman was stripped of his sanctioning body belts in the 1990s.
Sefer Seferi and Francisco Pianeta were beaten on the comeback trail, before Fury stepped into the ring with WBC champion Deontay Wilder. What happened over the course of twelve rounds at Staples Center in Los Angeles would change everything.
Fury started well, smartly outlanding Wilder before tying the champion up in clinches. But the Brit hit the mat in round nine, finally succumbing to the power of ‘The Bronze Bomber’. Fury beat the count and won the tenth and eleventh rounds comfortably. But in the final session, he would enter boxing folklore forever.
A punishing right-left combination from Wilder had Fury out cold before he even hit the canvas. The fight looked to be over. The comeback snuffed out. But Fury somehow awoke and rose again. The LA crowd was in raptures, fans all over the world had to pick their jaws up off the floor. Fury had gone from down and out to standing and fighting in the blink of an eye. Fury would see out the fight, but only get a draw on the scorecards. Everyone outside the Wilder camp thought he deserved so much more.
The comeback that led Fury from the depths of despair to a fight with the WBC champion was impressive enough. The comeback that saw him get up from what looked to be a killer blow was like something from a Rocky movie. ‘The Gypsy King’ would claim the WBC title in the rematch, and fight through more knockdowns in a third fight to retain the gold. A comeback king indeed.
It is a close run thing between Joshua and Fury. Both have had to battle outside the ring issues in order to reign inside it. Both have also faced severe adversity within the ropes. At this stage, given how grave his mental health struggles were and how spectacular his revival in the first Wilder fight was, Fury just about edges it. But if Joshua can defeat Usyk and reclaim his championship belts, he might just be “the comeback king” after all.
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