Anthony Joshua: Fighting the Occasion

There’s something about the unknown that really captures people when it comes to sport. Boxing is no different. There’s always question marks heading into a major prizefight and that’s what really builds anticipation. As much as pre-fight animosity adds its own layer, star-power and credibility is really all you need. The biggest fights can have a mystique and mystery, a complete uncertainty as to how the fight will look and feel when the first bell finally arrives. When you have fans, analysts and even fighters legitimately desperate to see how two champions match up on fight night, that’s magic. In my mind, few fights in recent memory capture that better than Saturday’s titanic Heayvweight title tilt between Anthony Joshua and Wladimir Klitschko.

It’s a super-fight that brings multiple fascinating uncertainties. Almost eighteen months after losing his crown, Wladimir Klitschko returns and one has to ask: is ‘Dr Steelhammer’ a spent force or was Tyson Fury simply too unique a challenge for the long-time champion? Time will tell but the extra layers of intrigue come with Joshua. The current IBF champion has been virtually perfect thus far, winning all 18 of his fights by knockout. Joshua hasn’t even been past the 7th round but with that feat comes uncertainty. Was Dillian Whyte’s success opposite Joshua a sign of defensive frailties? Is ‘AJ’ capable of changing his style? Can ‘AJ’ take a shot and in particular, what happens if it makes it to the championship rounds?

All of those aspects are interesting but in many ways, they aren’t really relatable. The general onlooker isn’t interested in defensive technique and thankfully, few of us will ever experience twelve rounds opposite Wladimir Klitschko. It’s for that exact reason that, rightly or wrongly, the fights etched in history are often built more on courage and bravery than they’re skill and technique. There’s something so fascinating about a prizefighter’s mind-set and Klitschko’s hunt for redemption is no different. In that same way though, Joshua’s position here has its own intrigue, his journey thus far is so different to Klitschko’s even if they entered under the same circumstances.

Entering the biggest fight of his life, Joshua seems to have so many boxes left to tick. The reason fighters have been historically matched steadily is in hope that when the big fight arrives, they’ll be ready. You can argue that Joshua wasn’t given the right opponents for this approach but either way, he’s certainly wiped out his opposition impressively and now will seemingly have to learn on the job. It’s still interesting to consider how a fighter as inexperienced as Joshua will handle such a rambunctious and chaotic atmosphere. Whilst nothing could compare to Saturday’s event though, there are some prior moments in Joshua’s career to point to for insight.

Joshua isn’t new to pressure, far from it. Whether you agreed with the decision or not, Joshua entered an Olympic Games in his hometown and came out the gold medalist. Add to that his relative inexperience in boxing altogether at the time and the achievement becomes even more impressive. As Wladimir Klitschko found out almost twenty years prior, entering the pro game as an Olympic gold medalist isn’t easy, especially as a Heavyweight hope. Couple that with Joshua’s impressive look and marketable personality and Joshua was a very hot commodity entering the professional ranks. Pressure was on from the start but nonetheless, Joshua took it in stride and began racking up quick knockouts immediately, big stage or not.

Two years later and Joshua was 14-0. The rapid knockouts kept coming against limited opposition and the groundwork had now been laid for a domestic clash with bitter rival Dillian Whyte. With a rivalry stemming from a Whyte amateur victory years prior, the two fighters became embroiled in multiple heated pre-fight exchanges. Whyte’s aggression didn’t seem to faze Joshua much on the surface but inside the ring we’d see a different story. The animosity was clear and translated to immediate drama with Joshua charging forward behind hard power punches. With each shot landed Joshua’s confidence began to surge and sensing revenge, he even began to talk to his slightly stunned foe.

This fight was different to ‘AJ’s prior 14 though, Whyte wasn’t going to fold and defiantly stood firm before shockingly rocking the overly aggressive Joshua with a left hook. Now hurt for the first time as a professional, Joshua’s disposition changed dramatically. After a couple of tough rounds though, Joshua rebounded impressively and fired back, eventually brutally finishing a spent Whyte in the seventh round. It was dramatic and violent, a fight different to anything Joshua had experienced before and whilst he’d had some issues, he had come out the winner. It was clear from Joshua’s performance and post-fight relief that the emotional aspect of the fight had played a major part in the in-ring action though.

The win was a major one at the time but other circumstances would elevate its meaning dramatically. Seemingly out of nowhere, an opportunity would arise for Joshua to fight the brand new IBF champion Charles Martin. Once again fighting in front of the raucous O2 Arena crowd, the pressure remained heavily placed on Joshua’s shoulders. Fighting an unheralded champion, the British public anticipated the perfect coronation and to his credit, Joshua delivered. In a complete contrast to the Whyte fight just four months prior, ‘AJ’ was relaxed and calm, waiting for the perfect moment before timing a right hand to floor and finish the underwhelming Martin. A fair argument could absolutely be made that Martin didn’t test Joshua much but nonetheless, he did the job and did it very well.

That professionalism has continued in Joshua’s two IBF title defences since too. Just ten weeks following his title win, Joshua scored a stoppage over Dominic Breazeale before returning in December to quickly vanquish Eric Molina. Now only a year after that Martin win, Joshua enters the biggest fight of his life: Wladimir Klitschko at Wembley Stadium in front of 90,000 fans. Interestingly, Joshua fought his sixth fight at Wembley, knocking out Matt Legg in May 2014. On that night though Joshua was the first fight and the massive stadium wasn’t even half full, a symbolic sign of the transcendent stars rapid ascension. This will undeniably be very different and the level of pressure is virtually unparalleled. Nonetheless, it’s fair to say that up to this point, Joshua has handled immense pressure admirably well.

His public persona is unmarked and barring that Whyte crisis, inside the ropes Joshua has been virtually untouched. You could argue that the Whyte tilt is the closest preparation Joshua has for Saturday in terms of atmosphere but this fight lacks that same hatred and distaste. This test is very different. Whilst Tyson Fury’s triumph may have made Klitschko more human, there is still an aura surrounding him and a quick glance at Joshua’s resume suggests that this is a whole new level of competition. With such a unique event surrounding the fight itself, the occasion almost has to be a factor. Anthony Joshua has done everything asked of him so far but now he may finally be asked some of those questions that have been discussed and pondered for so long. The biggest question now becomes whether or not Joshua really has the answers.

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