This week marks the second anniversary of Anthony Joshua’s rematch victory over Andy Ruiz Jr. ‘AJ’ had lost his WBA, IBF and WBO heavyweight titles to the Mexican-American six months before in a shock result, but regained them with poise and precision in the heat of Diriyah, Saudi Arabia. One need only cast their eye over the comments on the multiple ‘On This Day’ posts surrounding that fight to see how it is regarded. Joshua is not seen as a man who heroically overcame adversity, in the manner of his heavyweight rival Tyson Fury. Rather, his safety-first approach is mocked, his inability to score a knockout is lamented, and the whole affair is treated as a joke, rather than a dethroning of a reigning heavyweight king.
The Ruiz rematch is not the only Joshua achievement that is not taken seriously by many fans. The Watford puncher’s 11th round TKO win over Wladimir Klitschko won him The Ring Fight of the Year award. But speak to an ‘AJ’ detractor and they’ll tell you that Joshua being knocked down exposed him and that Klitschko was old. Comparing public perception of this dramatic victory to Fury’s iconic rise from the canvas to draw with Deontay Wilder in their first fight, or when he turned the trick again in their trilogy fight, is like night and day.
Recency bias can perhaps be used as a reason why Joshua’s career appears to be so undervalued. Certainly, when the Olympic gold medalist appeared third on our ranking of the Top 10 British Heavyweights of the Modern Era, many readers had a problem with the choice. There were arguments that Frank Bruno and Henry Cooper should both be above him. Not to disparage those two legendary names, but the reasons ‘AJ’ superseded them are clear. Cooper was a beloved warrior, but his career zenith was knocking a young Cassius Clay down en route to a stoppage loss on cuts. Bruno reigned once, briefly, as WBC heavyweight champion. Joshua has unified three of the four major belts, defending those titles seven times across two reigns. The power puncher also stands tenth in the all-time list for knockouts-to-wins ratio in heavyweight title fights, one place above a certain Mike Tyson.
There is a situation unfolding presently that does justify some of the questions asked about Anthony Joshua. That would be the “will he or won’t he?” situation surrounding his potential rematch with Oleksandr Usyk, the man who took his belts at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in September. Joshua originally triggered the rematch clause in his fight contract, with a spring 2022 meeting between the pair mooted. However, it has emerged that Joshua is being offered money to step aside and allow an undisputed title unification between Fury and Usyk take place.
The former champion confirmed as much in an interview with IFL TV, saying "That step aside thing, it may not go with what I stand for in terms of bringing me respect, fighting the best, but it may make sense for business". Joshua’s promoter, Eddie Hearn, went even further than his charge, saying that an offer of £40 million and a mandatory shot at the winner would do the trick. The money involved would be higher than all but one purse in Joshua’s career, that being the reported £58 million he received for fighting Ruiz again.
It is easy to sit here and debate what such a deliberation says about Joshua’s mindset. I’m not the one with a £40 million payday to do literally nothing on the table. At the same time, if ‘AJ’ accepts the money, it is revealing about his possible perception of a Usyk rematch. If he were more legacy-minded, would he not relish the chance to wipe the blemish off his record against the Ukrainian? In doing so, he would have defeated every boxer he has faced in the pro ranks. Lennox Lewis achieved the same feat, and it is one of the reasons he is regarded as Britain’s finest ever heavyweight. Joshua would stand to earn greater plaudits should he beat Usyk and Fury, rather than letting the pair settle things themselves and only fighting the victor.
However, the reaction to Joshua’s decision brings us neatly back around to this problem with how Joshua is perceived. If he was to step aside, he would arguably be doing boxing a favour, by letting an undisputed champion be crowned as soon as is humanly possible. However, rather than being lauded as a selfless step to aid unification, Joshua is being accused of possibly “bottling” a Usyk clash. There are many things levelled at Joshua, but the idea of him ever taking the easy road is the most egregious. Here is someone who won a world heavyweight belt in just 16 bouts, the fourth quickest in history in terms of both fights and time. He’s also 12th in the all-time list of most victories in heavyweight title fights. All this at just 32, with so much of his career ahead of him. Whether you have warmed to ‘AJ’ or not, he is already a historic figure in heavyweight folklore.
If you’re Joshua, you are probably tempted to take the step aside money as you know refusing would do little to change the unfair treatment your career is subjected to. He’ll never be afforded the national treasure status enjoyed by Fury, or the lovable underdog tag the likes of Bruno and Cooper enjoyed. Joshua is simply a very good heavyweight boxer, both as an amateur and a professional. If that isn’t enough for people, then the two-time former heavyweight king would do well to think only of himself from now on.
We caught up with the former trainer of Tyson Fury, Ben Davison, who spoke to us about Anthony Joshua stepping aside from his rematch with Oleksandr Usyk...