Anthony Joshua can legitimately claim to be the best heavyweight in the world if he beats Wladimir Klitschko in front of 91,000 fans at Wembley Stadium in April, but the quiet man from Watford says he will not be consumed by the temptations that have wrecked so many champions.
The Manchester Arena had long disgorged the 21,000 customers who had paid up to £2,000 for the privilege of seeing him beat up the 34-year-old Texan Eric Molina in three rounds in the second defence of his IBF title. The shattered loser did not show at the 1.30am press conference but Doc Holliday, a decent middleweight in the 1970s and a loud cheerleader for the absent promoter, Don King, came along to ask Joshua how he remained, “grounded and focused”. How, he wondered, had he not been sucked into the vortex?
“I sit here and listen to you, and I’m impressed,” Holliday said. “You’re the most focused young man. That’s a rare thing. I see you making a billion dollars. I been in boxing for a long time, I’m not a kid. I been with Muhammad Ali. I talk to fighters, I seen a lot of things: cocaine, heroin, all sorts of things. How do you do what you want to do, be what you want to be?”
Joshua smiled and replied: “You’ve seen how tough it is, the reality of it. From young, we were grinding, hustling, so success was always on my mind. I just flipped the script, but with the same mentality. I also stay around the amateurs, who are lions, man. They’re so hungry.
“This is all nice, the lights and stuff, but it ain’t about the money. When I was on the streets, hanging out, doing my thing I was like, cool, you can come around and I’ll show you a little watch. We’d be riding our bikes, and I went, ‘Yeah, when I’m older I’ll own that house.’ But I learnt money can’t make me, because if I show someone with money a watch they’ll say, ‘Well I’ve got three of them.’ It’s about staying focused, your class, your morals, what you’re about, more than just boxing. That’s why I’m on my grind. Boxing is just part of the journey. All the other stuff is a bonus, man, trust me.”
And now the journey gets serious.
Joshua could not say if Klitschko would be a tougher opponent than the unbeaten WBC champion, Deontay Wilder, who took nine rounds to get rid of Molina and was watching Saturday’s fight with the Showtime commentary team in America. “I haven’t fought either of them,” he said with a laugh. “I could watch them and say, ‘Wilder does this’ and, ‘Klitschko does that’, but it’s different when you’re in there. In order to beat Klitschko I need to improve to another level.”
The improvements will be incremental. When Molina left his chin hanging in round three, Joshua crashed a right hand of chilling impact on to it, leaving his reluctant opponent sprawled in his own corner. But he knows that Klitschko, who has not fought since Tyson Fury took his titles in November 2015, will provide an altogether more searching examination of his will and his skills.
“There are different degrees of animals in this sport,” he said. “We’re all predators, all lions. But we come together as one, to represent the sport of boxing. His brother Vitali retired and became a mayor in Ukraine. They use boxing as a platform and that’s how I want to present myself. We’re very clear about the respect we’ve got for each other, but we’re clear on a competitive level, as well.”
Klitschko, who ruled the heavyweights for nearly a decade, is 41 in March and will lose his edge at some point. When it was pointed out to Joshua the Ukrainian was almost old enough to be his father, he said: “It’s mad, I know. I think that will play a big role but I can’t let that be the reason why I think I’m going to win. In the heavyweight division, everyone is trying to land the one shot that will change the course of the fight. I will have to be sharp, and keep the youth on my side.
“He’s different. He boxes down the middle and has taken his amateur style to the pros.
“Who have I boxed like Klitschko? No one. He’ll be different from Molina, who did not present me with opportunities [by the cunning ruse of not throwing punches], and I had to create them. Klitschko will present those opportunities because he’ll be boxing in front of me.”
After a cordial exchange of words with Klitschko in the ring, Joshua said: “We said 18 months ago we wanted this fight. Everything I’ve said, I’ve stuck to. Klitschko was supposed to be now, although I didn’t think he’d still be around. But that’s what good living and being a true athlete can do, creating longevity in the game. He’s here. He’s a sharp operator. People write Bernard Hopkins off. He’s 52 in January and has his last fight next weekend.”
His promoter Eddie Hearn leaned over and said: “You’ve got another 26 years,” which tickled Joshua, and perhaps intrigued him.
“It’s about your lifestyle,” he said. “Some people start at 12 and finish when they’re about 30. If I could go on and not take too much punishment and learn the skills the true skills of boxing, I’ll be there if my body holds up.” He admitted the undercard war in which Dillian Whyte edged Dereck Chisora “is the sort of fight I like – but I won’t be here at 51 or 52 if I fight like that”.
Klitschko might well be taking the fight as “a last hurrah”, or he might want to own the division again. “How long is he going to be around for? I think he’s hoping to get me before he thinks I’m ready. A lot of people are.
“Half of them call my name out because they know the interest we can generate in the division. If there wasn’t enough on the table, I don’t think Klitschko would want to call me out. It’s risk and reward, right?”
It is highly improbable Joshua will still be boxing when he is 50, and he batted away suggestions that this was, “the Joshua era”, saying: “I’ll just do my best.” Nor is he fazed by the prospect of performing in front of 90,000 people at Wembley next summer. “It’s just another fight, man.”
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