AJ on a high, but can he stay at boxing's peak?

Luke G. Williams
26/11/2017 10:58pm

Click here for the BM online team's 2018 wishlists for Anthony Joshua

As Anthony Joshua ends the year on a figurative and literal high - training in the 'world's highest boxing ring' in Dubai - Luke G. Williams ponders what 2018 and beyond might have in store for the British heavyweight sensation ...

In the heady Olympic summer of 2012, I was in the ExCel in London when Anthony Joshua defeated Roberto Cammarelle on the 'count-back' system in the final of the super-heavyweight tournament. Roared on by a cheerfully raucous and inevitably biased home town crowd, the 22-year-old AJ was one of the poster boys of the London 2012 love-in.

joshuadubai2While I naturally found myself charmed by AJ's broad smile and chilled-out persona, and was genuinely delighted that he snaffled the gold medal, I am not ashamed to admit that I left east London that night convinced that this Olympic triumph would probably prove the peak of his fistic career.

Despite Joshua's obvious athleticism and marvellously sculpted physique, my assessment was that the man who squeaked somewhat unconvincingly past Cammarelle was too robotic a pugilist to ever make a major impact in the professional ranks.

Not for the first time, I was wrong.

Just over six years later, Joshua is master of almost all that joshuadubai3he surveys in the habitually chaotic kingdom of heavyweight boxing. Indeed, he is potentially just three fights away from restoring a sense of order to the division unheard of since the reign of Lennox Lewis.

With an unblemished 20-0 (20 KOs) professional record, Joshua has enjoyed a meteoric rise since his pro debut in October 2013, and currently holds the IBF, WBA (super) and IBO 'world' belts.

In the absence of lineal champion Tyson Fury, whose last appearance in the square circle was way back in November 2015, Joshua is widely acclaimed and accepted as the best active heavyweight on the planet.

joshua dubai 4Although I was wrong back in 2012, it is worth remembering that the most substantial chapters of the Anthony Joshua story remain some way short of being written.

Joshua has set himself lofty targets, having spoken about wanting his name to be mentioned "alongside the greats like Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson".

He would make a major advance towards the greatness he seeks if he was to end 2018 as the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world - although achieving this status would require him to defeat Joseph Parker, Deontay Wilder and Tyson Fury over the next 12 months.

The idea that such a schedule is possible, however, strains credibility in a landscape dominated by the inevitable strictures of boxing politics.

It is far more likely that Joshua will fight just twice in 2018, most likely against Parker and perhaps then against Wilder, dependent on the mandatory commitments of both men and how they each perform in their next fights.

Whatever course Joshua's career takes in 2018, he remains one of the most compelling figures in world boxing, as well as an out and out superstar in Britain.

joshdubai5Indeed, Joshua might just be the most famous and popular non-footballing sportsperson in the country right now. My evidence for such an assertion? The Year 7 English class who I this week asked to name as many famous boxers as they could - all 20 of these ten and eleven-year-olds mentioned Joshua and knew exactly who he was - the only other boxers who got a name-check were Floyd Mayweather and Muhammad Ali, while the recognition factor for Andy Murray and Lewis Hamilton trailed Joshua by some distance.

A major factor behind Joshua's widespread fame is the canny marketing that surrounds him. His fights might be hidden behind a permanent and seemingly intractable paywall, but his handlers are canny enough to have joshdubai6ensured he receives excellent exposure on British terrestrial television - witness for example, the BBC documentary 'Anthony Joshua: The Fight Of My Life' and the ITV offering 'Bear's Mission with Anthony Joshua', which paired AJ with survival guru Bear Grylls.

A further example of the impressive media machine behind Joshua has been his recent stay in Dubai, which has hardly been out of the newspapers, including this week when, in the words of a press release that dropped into my inbox:

"Anthony Joshua put his weight behind Dubai’s drive to become the most active city in the world ... as he took part in a vigorous training session on the iconic helipad of the Burj Al Arab. The stunt saw Joshua follow in the footsteps joshdubai7of other sporting greats, Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, Roger Federer and Andre Agassi as he entered the world’s highest boxing ring."

Some of Joshua's rivals and critics might scoff at such media stunts, but they are undeniably effective, as well as redolent of the methods that Muhammad Ali used to utilise in order to ensure maximum possible personal publicity (such as his iconic 'training underwater' shots for Sports Illustrated in 1961).

Aside from his megawatt smile and inherent 'marketability', one of the chief factors that makes Joshua so fun to watch is - ironically - the fact he appears so beatable.

In the pro ranks we have seen him floored by Wladimir joshdubai8Klitschko and hurt by Dillian Whyte and while, thus far, he has always overcome such passages of adversity, there remains a feeling that his unbeaten record could go at any time - particularly as he mixes in heavier-hitting class.

One former boxer told me recently that Joshua "seems like a sweet chap" while admitting he wasn't overly impressed with him as a "fighter".

"We can always manufacture stars, that's why we have advertising agencies," was his assessment. "But what can't be manufactured is talent and craft."

It's a valid point.

joshdubai9Thus far, the presentation of Anthony Joshua the media product and mainstream superstar cannot be questioned. Post-Klitschko, his uncommon bravery and determination also cannot be doubted.

However, question marks do remain about both Joshua's chin and his stamina. Who will test them and how they will hold up in 2018 remain two of the most pertinent questions in world boxing.

More important than this, though, is the unanswered question of whether Joshua's rapidly accelerating fame and wealth will affect his dedication to his boxing craft.

Despite his fame and multiple title belts, he remains - in essence - a 'prospect'. If he is to reach, say, 30 fights and remain unbeaten and ultimately earn a place on boxing's Mount Olympus, alongside the likes of Ali, Louis, Foreman, Lewis and Tyson, then he will need to continue to develop, grow and improve.

It will be fascinating to see if he can do so.