“He was shaking like a leaf!” Paul Walmsley, Anthony Joshua’s former Team GB coach, is remembering the time he collared him for not following orders.
“There he is, six foot six, and he’s pointing at Anthony Fowler: ‘He made me do it’. The big s***house.”
In Sweden, the place covered in thick snow, Walmsley had decided to take his charges out for a walk. One of the newer members of the squad though, AJ had other ideas. He soon regretted it.
“Being a smart a***, they must have thought ‘we’ll swerve this, wait for them to go out then come back to the room,’” Liverpudlian Walmsley explains during an exclusive interview with The Sportsman with searing Scouse humour. “I went berserk. It was the first time he’d ever been abroad I think, boxing for Great Britain. I'd love to have taken a picture of me standing next to them, waving my finger, him standing there shaking… he never did it again!”
It was this discipline and Joshua’s bold attitude which helped him win gold at the 2012 Olympics in London. With Walmsley in his corner, the pair made a strong team. However, that must have come as a shock to some. After winning the ABAs Joshua was invited to the GB development squad nine years ago.
“I’d heard a bit about him so was expecting this big, arrogant heavyweight to come in,” Walmsley revealed. "Someone said to me: ‘He won’t last five minutes with you. He’s this, he’s that.’ I told them: ‘Well, he’ll be out the door then, won’t he?’
“I’m a bit strict, a bit military and everything has to be run like clockwork. I take people as I find them though and you make your mind up when you meet them… it turns out the kid was as good as gold and we ended up getting on like a house on fire.”
Joshua is now 31, and a two-time unified heavyweight champion, who is preparing to face Kubrat Pulev on the 12th December. In football terms, he is perhaps more of a Cristiano Ronaldo than a Lionel Messi; a tireless, hard-working competitor and athlete as opposed to a completely natural talent. A late starter in boxing terms, his success is even more remarkable.
“I wouldn’t say he was a fast learner in terms of grasping things straight away but he tried, which was the important thing,” Walmsley admits when asked about AJ’s early years. “He was a bit raw. He hadn’t had a great deal of bouts as an amateur. Three years before he won the medal in London he wasn’t even in the gym.
“That little foundation most boxers have of schoolboy, junior, senior boxing, he never had that pedigree but he was eager and just stuck at the drills. When he came to me I called him The Coal Man. He was too young to know what the coal men were but he was over his foot front, basically looking at the floor, and I said to him when he came in ‘Do you carry sacks of coal on that back, is that why you're leaning forward?’
“He soon picked it up. We had a little conversation and we gelled on what was the best way forward for him. His best qualities were his power, which is phenomenal, and also his speed. Not so much now because the pro game is different, but his footwork when he was an amateur, once he got into that flow with the movement in his feet, he was great to watch!”
Obsessed with improving and being the very best, even now Joshua is still a student of the sport.
“There was always something unique about him, and the further he got up the ladder at the main tournaments, the more he immersed himself into the training and the psychology of sport and the diet,” Walmsley tells us. “He’s still like that now, really intense, always learning and looking for anything that will give him the edge.
“He’ll read things and watch past masters - how they did things, what they did - and goes into real depth: Can I do this? Can I use this? Will this better me?”
After losing to Andy Ruiz Jr. last year, Joshua avenged the defeat in December. The second result in Diriyah came as absolutely no surprise to Walmsley.
“I think that was just a blip,” he insists. “AJ’s back on it now and so determined. Talking to him before the second Ruiz fight, he was just so focused, you’ve never met anyone in your life like him. He won’t leave any stone unturned. He’s so professional and meticulous in his planning. He’s not just a robot who turns up, smacks a bag, spars, and goes home and then in two months’ time he boxes. He goes through everything.”
Speaking to Walmsley, it’s clear he is extremely fond of his former protege. A menace in the ring, he’s a gentle giant out of it.
“All he does is laugh. All you can hear when he’s in the gym is his laugh, booming everywhere,” he says, warmly. “He used to stay in the flat above me and you’d be in bed and all you’d hear is him laughing. You’d have to phone him up and say: ‘Shut up, you, I’m trying to get to sleep!’ and he’d just laugh and say sorry.
“He’s got that dark side to him, the killer instinct that every boxer needs, but he’s one of the most likeable fellas I've ever met in my life. He’s just a lovable kid. He hasn’t forgotten where he’s from and he’ll still do anything for you, he’s really generous, I don’t know how anybody can dislike him."
Always stopping for pictures for fans, one night it took them two hours to get out of a venue!
“The cleaners, programme sellers, whoever you are, he’ll talk to anyone. He’s one of them people, he could walk into your local with you and in an hour’s time, he’d have everyone in the pub talking to one another. He’s like that Crocodile Dundee,” Walmsley laughs. “It’s phenomenal, his personality has brought people into boxing that would never have come into boxing. He’s so infectious, people are spellbound by him.”
The relationship developed between the two and Walmsley admits they share a special bond.
“You do your best as a coach. Some kids you don’t get on with so great but you still do your best. Other kids you work with and you gel, like father and son. I think every coach worth his salt sees them like an uncle, nephew, their best mate, all the different roles you’ve got to play, the shoulder to cry on, you’re all of them things I think.
When Joshua had a brush with the law before his Olympics bow, arrested after police reportedly found cannabis in a sports bag in the boot of his car, it was Walmsley who took the call.
“We’d started the squad on the Thursday and he was late. I got a phone call from the police: ‘Do you know Anthony Joshua?’
“When he told me, I could have strangled him! ‘Do you know the career you’ve got ahead of you and you’d put it on the line for a silly little thing like that?’ But then, good enough, he came through it. I had to write a character reference for the judge, so I just put what a talent he was. It was basically a fork in the road, you can go down the wrong route or this great route is available to him; a great opportunity to change his life, which thank God he took and it’s turned out great for him."
Winning the super-heavyweight gold medal at the Olympics for their country in 2012, it was a monumental experience for the pair. The stakes were so high but Joshua wasn’t fazed. Walmsley, too, relished the bout.
“The higher up you go, the more pressure there is but I just thrive on it,” he insisted. “All the cylinders are firing and I just focus on what I need to and it brings out the best of me.”
Defeating Roberto Cammarelle, almost 10 years his senior and a world and European champion himself, in the final was a stunning moment and one of the best nights of Walmsley’s career. Despite admitting he’s never watched the footage back, he still remembers every detail. The fight went to countback, providing a gruelling wait for Walmsley, who was so desperate for ‘Josh’ to win.
“I was trying to watch and count. I thought: ‘My heart won’t take this.’ I was screaming, the sweat was pouring out of me in the corner, I just wanted him to win it that much. Lovely kid, what he’d been through, he had to win it. I remember leaning on the ring, listening to the announcer. I was looking at the floor and just said to the coach next to me: ‘Dare to dream.’ I looked up at the lights and as I looked down again at the blue canvas, he said: ‘In the blue corner...’
“I was jumping up and down, I nearly fell out of the ring, jumping up and down on the apron of the ring, and thought ‘I’m gonna fall off!’ I couldn’t believe it. I shed a little tear and it just all came out of me. I don’t think I slept that night because of the adrenaline pumping through me. We were talking about it last week funnily enough. He's still seeing us at the camp in Sheffield. He’ll come in for a 10-week camp when he gets a date to box.”
As Joshua prepares for another massive year, it’s still Paul Walmsley, his friend, he looks to. But now he’s older and wiser, there’s less chance of him getting a telling off these days.
This article first appeared in The Sportsman on 27/01/20