IBF/WBA/WBO heavyweight titlist Anthony Joshua. Photo by Lawrence Lustig
It is not normal being Anthony Joshua.
The media, the endorsements, the training, the publicity, the fame and adulation, boxing in football stadiums that are routinely filled to capacity.
But all of the above are things the 6-foot-6 man from Watford has to do these days.
Abnormal has become his normal.
And a stage not too many fighters ever get to grace is becoming monotone for the man more commonly known as “AJ.”
When his music hits this Saturday and he stands on the Wembley Stadium runway, prepared to walk to the ring in his fourth consecutive open-air extravaganza, he will be going through emotions with which he has had to quickly become familiar.
Fresh off the 2012 Olympics wearing gold around his neck, Joshua was instantly famous.
Now he is more than that. He is a brand. Joshua is the biggest thing to happen to British boxing, perhaps ever. Maybe we will only be able to tell at the end of his career but he has already had to take a lot in his giant stride.
“It’s not normal but I think it’s slightly different for him,” his coach Robert McCracken said on Sunday afternoon. “He’s only been boxing, in his entirety, 10 years, so he’s done things extremely quickly but I think from winning the Olympic Games, he got a lot of attention and he was in fairly big bills from the get-go. It didn’t take long for him to be selling out arenas and obviously he’s gone on to world title level, so he’s used to the big stage. He’s had lots of big fights on the big stage now and it’s in his backyard now, which is going to help him.”
In the other corner stands 39-year-old Russian Alexander Povetkin, who has been around, seen it all and done it all over a far longer period. He won gold at the Athens Olympics of 2004.
“Povetkin’s coming in from Russia, so it should all be in Anthony’s favor but, at the end of the day, it’s a fight and, once the bell goes, anything can happen,” continued McCracken. “Anthony’s got to get the timing right. You’ve got to make the right decisions and be smart but he’s gaining the experience he’s needed, 30-odd rounds in his last three fights and that should stand him in real good stead in his next contest.”
Those last three fights have come against Wladimir Klitschko, Carlos Takam and Joseph Parker. They have seen him develop from a novice titlist to a far more seasoned and rounded operator, while being well short of the veteran stage.
They each provided invaluable lessons.
Joshua climbed off the floor to defeat Klitschko; he boxed with a cut against Takam and fought to nullify Parker while unifying three heavyweight belts.
They are the sort of fights contenders need to endure on their way to championships, a rite of passage, but Joshua was hurried into a clash with Charles Martin and soon found himself wearing a crown well ahead of schedule.
After the Klitschko fight, in April of last year, a thriller and one of the great heavyweight showdowns, he failed to dazzle against Takam or Parker but got rounds in his locker and absorbed the experiences.
“Yes, that’s fair,” McCracken admitted. “He’s still learning but, at the same time, he’s a solid world champion who’s top-level, a unified champion who’s fought some really good fighters and Povetkin, for me, is behind Klitschko, as his toughest opponent. So Anthony’s prepared solely for Povetkin. There’s been none of the (WBC heavyweight titlist Deontay) Wilder stuff. It doesn’t work like that in reality. In reality you’re in the gym training for the Russian who’s only ever lost to Klitschko and who is an extremely dangerous former Olympic and world champion, so that’s all that matters to ‘Big Josh.’ That’s all he’s preparing for; that’s all he’s training for here and now and it’s a tough task at Wembley with Povetkin, who’s from the top tier of boxing.”
McCracken is a mild-mannered man. He is not one for hyperbole. In fact, the only real shock on the night Joshua stormed back from the brink to defeat Klitschko was that McCracken managed to crack a smile in the corner.
So he is even-handed in discussing his charge, assessing what he has done well and what he needs to do better.
No detail is left uncovered by Team AJ. That applies both commercially and in training. Anyone whom has seen McCracken work with his charges has witnessed him meticulously talk his pupils through shadowboxing and then attend to the finest subtleties in padwork sessions, working positions and combinations.
He and Joshua go over everything at Sheffield’s EIS (English Institute of Sport), where Joshua spent a couple of years on Team GB’s amateur squad. McCracken runs that amateur program too and the sanitary red, white and blue facility is the office in which McCracken refines the brute force and attempts to instill grace and fluidity into that hulking frame.
It is where McCracken added venom to the fangs of another pupil, Carl Froch, during “The Cobra’s” decorated super middleweight career.
McCracken was holding the Froch reins in Wembley when the Nottingham man nearly beheaded George Groves in their highly-anticipated rematch and his experience of the football stadium night is as expansive as anyone’s in the game today.
Yet for the big occasion, Joshua did not devastate or flatten Takam or Parker. Fans enjoyed their nights at the stadium, the pyrotechnics, “Sweet Caroline” and the anticipation but the “Joshua Express” that steamed through everyone – Klitschko included – stalled in those two contests. Ring experience was gained but a different kind of momentum was lost.
Joshua has promised to return to his attacking ways against Povetkin, while McCracken feels the styles will jel to create something more eye-catching than we saw in the champion’s previous two outings.
“Yeah, I just think that Parker and Takam – who came in late (for Kubrat Pulev) – they kind of stayed out the way and were on the back foot a little bit,” he agreed. “More so Parker, really, and you’re not going to win a fight going on the back foot. I don’t think Povetkin’s going to go on the back foot. He’s going to come forward. He’s going to be aggressive and he’s going to look to meet Anthony and that will probably suit Anthony better because if someone’s moving all the time and you’re just chasing…I don’t think that will be the case with Povetkin. I think he will come in and look to exchange.”
Joshua spoke like he wants to let himself off the leash, that he wants a tear-up that will reignite the buzz. McCracken’s job is to harness those enthusiastic ambitions without extinguishing them.
He knows what he wants from Joshua when the bell goes.
“Just to be controlled,” he explained. “To box at the right times and to throw hooks at the right times, not oblige the opposition and do what works for them. “So you want him to keep Povetkin thinking or moving and you want to control him, especially with his reach and his feet. Anthony’s got quick feet, so that’s what we’re looking for, and to throw hooks and not just exchange hooks all the time because that’s what Povetkin’s good at. He’s a solid opponent; he’s a dangerous opponent but you’re looking for Anthony to outmaneuver him, outwork him and break him down, as the rounds go on, not sit there exchanging hooks. Every now and again, you’re going to have to, of course, because Povetkin’s quality but, at the same time, you want to fight your own fight.”
Therein lies another challenge: Joshua is a fighting man with a fighting spirit. He likes to get in the trenches: it’s just not always beneficial. However the crowd will implore him to let the bombs fly and the expectation of 90,000 fans can weigh heavily and deviate those lacking discipline from the game plan.
“It’s difficult; isn’t it?” McCracken admitted. “Because the crowd urge you on but Anthony’s got a good bit of height and reach on Povetkin and he can be explosive using his height and reach. He’s knocked lots of people out with lefts and rights, so he’s always got that in his arsenal but Povetkin’s got that experience where he will look to get into positions and he can throw dangerous punches himself.”
McCracken and Joshua have been on the same page so far, though Joshua disagrees that Povetkin is the second best he has faced.
He feels Parker was better.
The threat the Russian poses is certainly different.
Yet while the AJ brand has gone global, with partnerships with Under Armour and Beats by Dre among his list of endorsers, there is still a British undercurrent of anti-Joshua sentiment.
Some feel he is too manufactured. Some think he is incapable of change, having been in some legal trouble in his teens. Some just do not like him.
It’s something he acknowledges.
“I can’t please everyone anymore, so I get that and so it’s my game now,” Joshua said to the BBC this week.
“I’m having fun with it. I did 16 fights and went in for a world title, three years an amateur and went and won the Olympics, unified the heavyweight division and it’s still not good enough.
“Either I get stronger from it or I get drained by it. I think I am getting stronger from it, as it builds up a thicker skin. Get behind me as a person rather than a boxer.”
McCracken does not suffer fools, no matter how lucrative one of them might be.
He would not waste his time on one and he believes he has a diamond in his trust, just one that has a lot of demands placed on his time by the commercial whirlwind of his own brand.
When asked how life is being at the helm of a British sporting A-lister, he said, “It’s a bit different because he’s a big name but, in the gym, he’s just Big Josh. “Once you’re in the gym, he just gets on with it. If he has a good round in sparring, he’s receptive and his tail’s up and then if he doesn’t have a great round, he looks out of the ring and you just give him a bit of information to change it around. But he’s a nice man, a nice human being and he’s a real fighter and that’s what people forget about him. He is a real fighter and if the going gets heavy, he’s no problem fighting on the inside, exchanging hooks and uppercuts. He can do it with the best of them. He’s very heavy-handed and very physically strong as well.”
McCracken says Joshua might have another four years ahead of him in his peak,“while he’s interested and motivated.”
However McCracken, stoic as always, refuses to be drawn on what lies beyond Saturday.
It is all about Wembley, again, for the coach and he is the man laying out the plan.
“It is what it is with Povetkin,” he added. “He’s looking to come in and hook at all times and he’s looking to counterpunch you at all times, look to counterpunch your hooks and he always comes back with that right hand-left hook or that left hook on its own. So (Joshua)’s trained to be aware of the shots and get his upper body moving a bit more but ultimately he’s younger. He’s got good height and reach and he’s in good shape. He’s the quickest he’s been in training at the minute, so it’s a good fight to look forward to.
Povetkin nailed David Price to the canvas in his most recent fight, on the Joshua-Parker bill, but that contest is of little use to McCracken. He will never read a fighter based on a single showing.
A heavy shot in round three had caught Povetkin and he was given a count.
“Listen, you can hit anyone with any shot in heavyweight boxing,” McCracken continued. “It could have been the jab; it could have been the right hand. It could have been balance, timing, everything…And in fairness to David Price, he’s a huge puncher. If David Price hits you on the chin clean, normally you’re going over, whereas Povetkin kind of stayed up. I know the ropes kind of kept him up but he didn’t appear terribly hurt but you can’t read too much into it. You’re (now) fighting someone who’s extremely motivated, who’s fighting for the world title against arguably one of the biggest names in world boxing in AJ but neither David Price nor Povetkin had much notice for the fight, so I wouldn’t read too much into that. “I’m sure he will be in much better shape for this contest against Josh and I’m sure ‘Pricey’ will be in better shape for his fight on the undercard. But it’s a funny business, boxing. Somebody can be an easy opponent for one opponent and a difficult one for another. It’s all about styles and timing but you’ve got to expect the best Povetkin, fully motivated, in good shape and working hard in camp with top sparring and he’s a formidable opponent.”
Again McCracken will not dwell on the sole loss on Povetkin’s record, which came against an imperious Wladimir Klitschko.
Povetkin was negative at times and never got a foothold, losing a wide decision.
McCracken said he boxed that way out of respect for the former champion’s power.
“Klitschko had about 50 KOs; he’s a monstrous puncher,” McCracken went on. “It’s something that doesn’t really get mentioned too much but if Klitschko’s catching you clean, he’s normally going to KO you but, for Povetkin to be hurt on numerous occasions and to keep staying in there and keep looking for those hooks, over the top, it shows you how dangerous he is. If he was ever going to quit in a fight, it was in the Klitschko-Povetkin fight but there’s no quit in Povetkin and he’s dangerous to the bell, so you’ve got to take him deadly serious and you’ve got to be on your game. It’s one that Anthony’s well up for.”
And that is just as well, as there is plenty at stake for the Watford superstar. He is booked to fight again at Wembley in April. There is talk of a rematch with Dillian Whyte, although fans would prefer he face the winner of the mooted Deontay Wilder-Tyson Fury fight.
Again McCracken will only cross that bridge when he comes to it.
“To be honest, I don’t really consider the opponent until we know who the next one is,” he explained. “I look at it long-term; I don’t really look at it short-term. “From a fan’s point of view, you’d think, if AJ comes through, then you’d expect the winner of Wilder and Fury and they will box each other, at some point, and, all being well, Tony Bellew will do what he can do and surprise a few people and get the better of (undisputed cruiserweight champion Oleksandr) Usyk, which he’s more than capable of doing. As good as Usyk is, Tony Bellew has a real fighter’s instinct. He’s very hard to beat, especially on his home patch. But Big Josh’s ambitions are obviously to finish top of the pile. There’s no doubt about it and that’s what he can achieve.”
When Usyk recently joined the Matchroom Boxing revolution, there was speculation that he could be steered into Joshua’s path.
If negotiations prove too fraught for either Wilder or Fury, Joshua has Whyte, possibly Usyk and promotional stablemate Jarrell Miller, should the alternate and less popular route open up.
Again Povetkin first. McCracken has warned Joshua. And if he comes through that, then he can look ahead.
Another camp would have been worthwhile. Another job well done would have been accomplished. Perhaps then McCracken might allow himself another smile.
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