Anthony Joshua, the dethroned three-belt king of the heavyweight division, sat stoically in the post-fight press conference, as eager newsmen queried his fresh anguish. The former Olympic champion had just lost his grip on three-quarters of the world championship at the educated fists of Oleksandr Usyk. His eyes were puffy, his posture betraying his weariness after 12 rounds of harsh lessons from the Ukrainian master. Joshua spoke with a calm honestly, underpinned with a determination to get the man who had humbled him back into a prize ring. Almost every question ended with ‘AJ’ speculating on what will happen next time. How things will be different when these men meet again, as they are contractually bound to do. Joshua’s calm in the middle of a swirling storm, amongst the rippling chatter of his downfall, called to mind another of Britain’s heavyweight greats.
The through-line from the legendary Lennox Lewis to Saturday’s defeated gladiator is a strong one. Both won Olympic gold medals and went on to claim their first world titles in relatively short order (16 fights for Joshua, 22 for Lewis). They also both commanded more respect than admiration, battling in the court of public opinion against more candid, unguarded personalities.
For Lewis, even a 1993 knockout win over Frank Bruno was not enough for him to supersede the incredibly popular Hammersmith fighter as a national icon. Britons were more enamoured with Bruno’s series of dramatic near misses, against the likes of Mike Tyson and Tim Witherspoon, than Lewis actually capturing the title Frank fought so hard for. Bruno finally winning the WBC championship in 1995 was greeted as a cause for national celebration, a reaction Lewis would never quite receive even when he claimed the undisputed title four years later.
For Joshua, it is the shadow of Tyson Fury that hangs over his every move. ‘AJ’ has won more titles, made more title defenses and scored more knockouts than ‘The Gypsy King’. But the facts can’t get in the way of Fury’s story, and the outspoken Manchester fighter’s tale of overcoming depression to reclaim his crown has captured a nation. Like the serious Lennox coming off unfavourably when juxtaposed with the chuckling, affable Bruno, Joshua’s stoicism has seen fans struggle to warm to him the way they do to Fury’s manic patter. However, this measured approach served Lewis well as he built the defining heavyweight career of his era, and it can serve Joshua well too.
Lennox Lewis avenged the only two professional defeats on his record. ‘The Lion’ lived by the old adage about not getting too high after victory, or too low in defeat. When Oliver McCall brutally yanked the WBC title from his grip via knockout, he rebounded with four wins before beating him in a rematch, albeit with ‘The Atomic Bull’ quitting in startlingly bizarre fashion. When Hasim Rahman wrestled the undisputed crown from him in South Africa, Lewis beat him in an immediate rematch via a brutal knockout. The steely determination and ruthless careerism that had made Lewis an island, sequestered from fan affection, had helped him redouble his efforts to recapture what was lost. He retired having defeated every man he faced in the squared circle.
This path is familiar to Joshua. In June 2019, ‘AJ’ was stunned by massive underdog Andy Ruiz Jr, losing his titles via a seventh-round TKO that carried echoes of Hasim Rahman’s victory over Lewis. Joshua was magnanimous in defeat, and adapted to a more cautious style of boxing to retrieve his lost gold in a rematch six months later. He will need that sort of resolve again to relieve Usyk of his newly-won championship. If, as expected, he returns to the lion’s den for an immediate rematch with ‘The Cat’, the way Lewis never let the highs or lows of the fight game register in his demeanour should provide inspiration.
What should not serve as inspiration is the manner in which Joshua beat Ruiz in their rematch. The caution in Joshua’s boxing since Ruiz stopped him in the summer of 2019 has ultimately proved to be death by a thousand cuts for his second reign as champion. It was a necessary evil for the rematch, and equally people forgave Joshua for starting cautiously against Kubrat Pulev as he went up through the gears to stop him in the ninth round. But against Usyk, his reluctance to uncork the right hand that first carried him to the top of the boxing world played a major role in his decision loss. The new champion was able to dictate the pace with superior movement and sharper punching, as Joshua did not seem to trust himself to unleash the sort of power shots that could turn the fight.
If Joshua can overcome Usyk in the rematch, he can follow Lewis into history as one of the finest heavyweights of all time. He has proven in the past he can stomach a surprising loss and come back. However, ‘AJ’ has never had to do it against an opponent with the quality of Usyk. Arguably Lewis never had to either, as you would pick the Ukrainian to have handily defeated Rahman or McCall had they met. But his post-fight press conference showed positive signs. Joshua is focused on a rematch, rather than wallowing in defeat. Apply that same solemn determination to a Usyk return, and he might well reign as a three-time heavyweight champion of the world.