ANTHONY JOSHUA STOOD in the center of the ring in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia’s capital, and soaked in the moment as confetti rained down on him.
He dealt with doubt, disappointment and uncertainty in the aftermath of his upset defeat to Andy Ruiz Jr. in June 2019, but six months later, redemption was his. And boy was it sweet.
Once again on top as a unified champion after a lopsided points win over Ruiz in their rematch, Joshua was now plotting a new path. His No. 1 mission: Pursue the undisputed heavyweight championship. After all, Joshua needed only one more title to become the first unquestioned ruler in the division’s four-belt era.
But before Joshua (24-2, 22 KOs) could meet fellow champion Tyson Fury in one of the modern era’s biggest fights, Oleksandr Usyk had his say. The Ukrainian not only defeated Joshua, but did so in dominant fashion. On the verge of being stopped in the final round, Joshua ultimately lost by unanimous decision.
After the way Usyk (19-0, 13 KOs) dismantled him, the odds are long for Joshua (nearly 3-to-1, per Caesars Sportsbook) in the rematch. The enormity of the challenge prompted him to part ways with Rob McCracken, the trainer who led him to both an Olympic gold medal and the heavyweight championship. Robert Garcia, who guided 14 fighters to championships and has been honored by the Boxing Writers Association of America (BWAA) as Trainer of the Year, is now tasked with leading Joshua to a third heavyweight championship reign.
This weekend, Joshua will find himself back in Saudi Arabia for another rematch. With a victory over Usyk on Saturday (DAZN, 1 p.m. ET, with main event expected to start at 5:30 p.m. ET), Joshua can move to the brink of a matchup with Fury, who insists he is retired, but just weeks ago said he would fight Joshua for free, and continue his march toward greatness in boxing’s glamor division.
“I’ve got a… third chance to become heavyweight champion of the world…,” Joshua said. “I’m not just gonna go in there thinking it’s gonna be easy. I will address the weaknesses and then I’ll make sure I get it right and become champion again”
Long the second-biggest star in global boxing after Canelo Alvarez, Joshua is in danger of losing his grip of that perch with a third loss. Ahead of the career-defining night, Joshua realizes the magnitude of what lies in front of him, yet is almost eerily at ease in his confidence to overcome the odds and knows this is a must-win situation.
“I feel when I go and beat Usyk, I’ll get the credit I deserve again,” Joshua, 32, told ESPN in June. “And I’ll get the admiration for being a true boxing legend. …. I fought for the heavyweight championship in my 16th fight; I felt like it’s kind of overlooked.
“This is my 12th title fight in a row…” he added. “I just feel like sometimes even though we’re selling out arenas and it’s good to be popular, I don’t really care for that stuff. I’d just want the respect in the division. … I think this time I’ll get it right.”
BLESSED WITH MOVIE-STAR looks and a comic-book physique at 6-feet-6, 250 pounds, Joshua quickly ascended to superstardom in the U.K. after he captured his first title in 2016.
An 11th-round TKO victory over Hall of Famer Wladimir Klitschko one year later cemented Joshua’s status as one of the biggest sporting stars in all of Europe, and in March 2019 Joshua was included in ESPN’s World Fame 100 list. He has also been ranked in the top 20 of Forbes’ list of richest athletes.
The Englishman, whose parents hail from Nigeria, not only showed off his boxing ability in the instant classic against Klitschko, but he also displayed the sort of tremendous courage fans crave from fighters. Before 90,000-plus fans at London’s Wembley Stadium, Joshua rallied from a sixth-round knockdown to score the emphatic victory.
Three more title defenses followed before Joshua set off for his U.S. debut. A large portrait of him for a Hugo Boss advertisement adorned New York’s Madison Square Garden ahead of his first fight against Ruiz, a late replacement for the suspended Jarrell “Big Baby” Miller, inserted to deliver another brutal Joshua KO victory.
The event appeared to be following the script after Joshua flattened Ruiz in Round 3. But Ruiz was able to bounce back against one of the sport’s most dangerous punchers. He floored Joshua twice in the same round. Four rounds and two knockdowns later, Joshua was on the losing end of one of the biggest upsets in boxing history. His fighting spirit and ability to take a punch were questioned in the aftermath.
In the rematch, Joshua managed to alter his tactics under McCracken and outboxed Ruiz over 12 rounds. The stick-and-move strategy was in stark contrast to the seek-and-destroy style that helped Joshua become an attraction, but it was effective.
“It makes me feel more comfortable knowing that I’ve been in a ring with a fighter before, but ultimately he might come completely different,” Joshua said. “I definitely feel my training approach changes because I knew where I wasn’t good enough, you know, areas where I was exposed.”
Now, Joshua must find a way to win another rematch, but this time the challenge is far more formidable. Usyk, 35, is possibly a generational talent, a fellow Olympic gold medalist who conquered the cruiserweight division by unifying all four titles.
Usyk, ESPN’s No. 6 pound-for-pound boxer, possesses brilliant footwork and an educated southpaw jab. His punches flow seamlessly in combinations as he transitions from offense to defense, a puzzle that no opponent has yet solved. The jump from cruiserweight (200 pounds) to heavyweight seemed to make Usyk a stronger, more dangerous fighter with improved power, too.
Still, Usyk’s challenge of Joshua was just his second heavyweight contest, so it was surprising that Joshua didn’t impose his superior size and strength, instead electing to box from the outside against a technician. Tactical adjustments seem necessary if Joshua is to exact revenge, but the greatest obstacle might be Joshua’s confidence following such a sound defeat.
“Everybody around him is positive, everybody around him is pushing him to his limits to what he was doing before he lost his first fight,” Garcia said on an episode of his YouTube show. “He needs to know and believe that he’s still as good, or he’s gonna be even better than he was before he became champion for the first time, when he went out there and was knocking everybody out.
“[Fighters] might think, ‘I already lost a fight, so maybe I’m not as good?’ It gets to the head. It’s something that we have to change. Because he already did it. He already won the gold medal against the best fighters in the world and then as a pro he also beat the best to become heavyweight champion of the world. We didn’t see that before he lost. After he lost is when we’ve seen that there’s more of a mental problem so we’re working on that.”
JOSHUA KNOWS THIS familiar feeling all too well, but it doesn’t make it any easier.
Following the first defeat of his career, Joshua said Wednesday he never allowed himself to hit “rock bottom.”
He maintained that same mentality after the setback against Usyk, Joshua said, inspired by his boxing idol, Mike Tyson.
“S— happens in boxing,” Joshua said. “[Mike] is … one of the greatest of all time. So I just gotta keep on progressing. It’s annoying I lost, but if you ain’t got a strong head in this game it will eat you up. Mike Tyson is my favorite athlete as well. I can learn from him; how he came back.
“It’s part annoying because I sit back and I think, f— man, if I would have just won that fight [vs. Usyk], I wouldn’t be doing all this s—.”
Tyson, too, is no stranger to setbacks, nor rematches. He succumbed to Evander Holyfield via 11th-round TKO before the infamous “Bite Fight” in the return bout. All the same, Tyson remains a legend no matter how many times he lost. And Joshua insists that he, too, won’t be defined by a defeat.
That attitude served him well in the Ruiz rematch, and a knockout of Kubrat Pulev followed. He was on the verge of the megafight he and everybody in boxing wanted to see: A showdown with Fury for the undisputed heavyweight championship in one of the richest fights in boxing history.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was prepared to dole out approximately $155 million to land the rights to the fight. Joshua and Fury agreed on the terms. There was even a date: Aug. 14, 2021.
Then, an arbitration ruling enforced Deontay Wilder’s right to a third fight with Fury. Rather than relinquish one of his three titles, Joshua closed a deal to face his mandatory challenger, Usyk, despite the incredible risk the Ukrainian posed. A loss and his plans for a fight with Fury would disappear.
If Joshua could push past Usyk, and Fury could turn back Wilder, they could meet for all the four major belts. Instead, Usyk ruined the plans, while Fury was able to score an 11th-round KO of Wilder one month later in ESPN’s fight of the year.
And now, once again, Joshua can move to the precipice of a clash with Fury — despite Fury’s on-again, off-again retirement claims — with a triumph over Usyk.
“I can bring him out of retirement, 100 percent,” Joshua said. “I think he’ll bring himself outta retirement. S—, there’s nothing for him to do now. I think he’s not thought of his life after boxing. I think he’s pretty bored.”
But, depending on whom you talk to in boxing circles, accomplishing the task against Usyk ranges from extraordinarily difficult to impossible.
“I think AJ has a great mindset going into this fight,” Joshua’s longtime promoter, Matchroom Boxing’s Eddie Hearn, told ESPN on Tuesday. “He was stubborn the first time around. When people told him he couldn’t outbox Oleksandr Usyk, he wanted to prove them wrong. Terrible idea, but that’s over.
“You’re going to see a more aggressive Joshua in this fight, a more ruthless Anthony Joshua in this fight, and I also believe the addition of Robert Garcia in his corner will lead to that aggression, but also importantly, lead to the ability to change direction in the fight if needed as we know that Usyk is very clever.
“By the time the bell rings at the end of the sixth round, I want this fight to be over, or for Usyk to be tired and damaged to be in a place he really doesn’t want to be. He can’t let this guy get into a rhythm, and that’s what he did too easily in the first fight. I do not think this fight goes the distance, and I believe Anthony Joshua wins this fight by knockout.”
Joshua’s punches did inflict plenty of damage on Usyk throughout the first fight, especially early on. Usyk emerged from the fight with his face badly marked up. “We threw a lot of punches and it was challenging,” he said. “I’m looking forward to now putting some power behind them shots as well. I definitely think I can hurt him. One hundred percent I can knock him out.”
Seemingly in pursuit of a more aggressive approach, Joshua canvassed the U.S. for a new trainer last fall. He met with Virgil Hunter, Eddy Reynoso and Ronnie Shields before he eventually selected Garcia, a former junior lightweight champion best known for guiding his brother Mikey Garcia to titles in four weight classes. Many of Garcia’s champions employ a pressure style, but Joshua said that wasn’t the only reason he picked the Southern California-based coach.
“I said to Robert, ‘I don’t want someone that’s trained a heavyweight. I want someone that’s trained a lightweight so they can push me harder,'” said Joshua, ESPN’s No. 4 heavyweight. “Am I gonna use Robert Garcia because he’s gonna make me come forward? No, it’s not just about the style or how he’s training me. There’s so many different variables as to why we brought Garcia onboard.”
Surely, one reason is Garcia’s fiery instructions in between rounds. As Usyk piled up points in the first meeting, McCracken seemed to suggest all was going swimmingly. If Joshua struggles in the rematch, Garcia will be on top of him to adjust tactics.
If Joshua can do so successfully, he’ll become a three-time heavyweight champion and once again find himself on the path to a fight for the undisputed championship. The Saudis have long been interested in delivering a clash for all four belts in December, one that has appeared on the verge of completion countless times.
Joshua’s been here before, faced with doubts, both internal and external, as he prepares for an immediate rematch against a man who defeated him. His ability to turn the tables once more will define his legacy, for better or worse.
“I’ve got a … third chance to become heavyweight champion of the world,” Joshua said. “I’m not just gonna go in there thinking it’s gonna be easy. I will address the weaknesses and then I’ll make sure I get it right and become champion again. I think it’s a task that’s definitely possible.”