Anthony Joshua looked bereft of ideas as Oleksandr Usyk boxed, moved and pounded his way to a unanimous decision on Saturday night. The Tottenham Hotspur Stadium crowd saw Joshua lose his heavyweight titles for the second time, and this felt like a more raw exposure of his failings than the last one. In 2019, Andy Ruiz Jr stopped Joshua through sheer force of will. It was one of those sort of results that can happen to even the greatest boxers. It carries echoes of Leon Spinks outsourcing Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson coming unstuck against James ‘Buster’ Douglas and Lennox Lewis being levelled by Hasim Rahman. But the Usyk defeat was a more troubling one.
‘AJ’ was carefully, cutely outboxed. His greatest weapon, that shattering right hand, was disarmed. The Ukrainian’s lateral movement had Joshua chasing shadows, and he looked worryingly confused for a fighter with 11 world title fights under his belt. This was the sort of defeat that leaves a permanent mark on a boxer’s psyche. Anyone can get knocked out, but to have your entire boxing philosophy proven wrong in this manner is galling. Now would be the opportune time to overhaul that strategy, and logically that starts with the trainer.
I cannot stress enough that Joshua’s cornerman, Rob McCracken, is a wonderful trainer. His work as GB Boxing performance director saw this country land five medals at London 2012. In the professional ranks, he led Carl Froch to the top of the pile at super middleweight. McCracken has also trained his former Olympic protege Anthony Joshua from day one, and deserves immense credit for guiding him to the WBA, WBO and IBF world championships. But oftentimes, no matter how good a trainer is, their fighter becomes too comfortable with them. Old habits die hard, and sometimes a boxer needs fresh ideas to become the best version of themselves.
There is precedent for heavyweight champions changing trainers after chastening defeats. In fact, the two greatest examples of this changed to the same trainer, the legendary Emanuel Steward. The master trainer at the Kronk Gym reshaped the careers of Lennox Lewis and Wladimir Klitschko after they had been dethroned. He took the reins for Lewis after a fighter he trained, Oliver McCall, had knocked out the British fighter for the WBC title. For Klitschko, stoppage defeats to Corrie Sanders and Lamon Brewster were the catalyst for a backroom reshuffle. In both cases Steward made the fighters more defensive, adapting their styles to protect chins that had been exposed. He also gifted both with strong jabs, around which they built styles that took them to dominance.
Sadly Emanuel Steward is no longer with us, but there is no shortage of trainers who could reset the ‘AJ’ machine. The great Freddie Roach has form in this area, having taking over Amir Khan’s training after his first-round KO loss to Breidis Prescott. Roach took Khan from his lowest point to two world title wins, turning the fighter into a more polished boxer in the process. Buddy McGirt is also a great option, already proving his worth in helping Callum Smith rebuild from the Saul Alvarez defeat.
Ignore the armchair pugilists and Twitter reactionaries, Anthony Joshua is far from finished. You do not win, unify, defend and reclaim a world heavyweight championship without being a top class boxer. But he is a boxer in need of guidance, and after the Ruiz and Usyk defeats, Rob McCracken may no longer be the man to give it to him. Joshua is in possession of tremendous gifts, in particular his concussive power. But ‘AJ’ needs to polish his work, and adapt defensively to fighters who can out-speed and overwhelm him. In order to do this, he needs a new trainer.