I’VE DONE it, I’ve come up with an ingenious yet simple way that Anthony Joshua can fight his way back to the top of the heavyweight division, or at least be a threat to it: Anthony, you’re six feet six inches tall and it’s time to start boxing like it.
There is still time for you to develop a jab that is worthy of your elite physique and status as a top heavyweight. One which you should be using to offset and punish opponents, manage distance, and literally win fights with. A reliable right hand to back up a top-class jab would surely add to your current offering. As basic as these punches are, they’re literally staples of heavyweights who are orthodox and 6ft 4ins and above, like you. They simply must be part of your arsenal. Without them you’re negating your God-gifted advantages.
Fighting the ‘big man fight’ is what Lennox Lewis tweeted as Joshua failed to impose himself upon Oleksandr Uysk during their first fight. I totally agree but would go even further than that and suggest that Joshua should fight the ‘big man fight’ for the remainder of his career, no matter who’s in the opposite corner.
Coincidentally, boxing this way helped Lewis evolve into not only one of the best heavyweights in history, but also one of the most dominant. When I fought him in 1992, he was an unbeaten and aggressive boxer-puncher who fought out of a wide stance, often crouching as he attacked, and was eager to let both hands go – sometimes wildly – and blast out his opponents.
However, defeat changes more than just a fighter’s record. By the time he became the WBC belt-holder again in 1997, avenging his defeat to Oliver McCall, Lewis had mastered how to win fights differently and, on his terms, alone.
With his fundamentals and ring IQ enhanced by working with Emanuel Steward, Lewis no longer forced the action to get off with big shots. Instead, he optimised his height, reach and ring intelligence, making opponents see and feel every bit of his 6ft 5ins, 250lbs frame and 84-inch reach.
Lewis developed his jab to a point where it become metronomic, throwing it similarly to how a fencer would wield a sabre: establishing distance, probing, controlling pace and spearing opponents with it, eventually creating openings for that fight-changing right hand. Wladimir Klitschko followed the formula. Taking Steward on as a coach, who again narrowed the fighter’s focus to mastering, control, distance and timing with his jab and huge frame. This approach also helped both of their longevity at the highest level.
There was criticism from American audiences who wanted more drama from their heavyweights, but there was cogent reasoning for boxing this way: it was highly effective. With Steward in their corner Lewis and Klitshcko, both Olympic super-heavyweight champions like Joshua, were 16-1-1 and 16-1 respectively, with all blemishes rectified in rematches. Opponents were forced to orbit around their sheer size, unable to get past their primary weapons, the left jab and big right hand. Similar adjustments should have to be made against Joshua. Yet it was he who had to react to Usyk, in both fights; over thinking and expending valuable energy trying to match the Ukrainian virtuoso, step-for-step.
There is no guarantee that Joshua executing a functionable jab and right hand would have beaten Usyk, but an educated and well-timed jab keeps everyone honest in the ring, especially heavyweights, who are generally more au fait with dishing out punishment than avoiding it. An effective straight right is always a tricky obstacle for southpaws to deal with.
That Joshua hasn’t already mastered these fundamentals places scrutiny on the decision to abandon his learning cycle and go for a world [IBF] title in his 16th professional fight. After that point all his learning was ‘on the job’, as a champion. The part of his development where he might have been honing his craft against tougher opponents, gaining confidence in managing 10 or 12 rounds, and dealing with adversity along the way was exchanged for the pot of gold that came with beating a sub-standard belt-holder in Charles Martin. There should have possibly been a few more Dillian Whyte-like tests before moving on to world titles.
The leap from beating overmatched opposition and fighting regularly to navigating world level, lucrative stadium events and fighting once a year has seen Joshua’s skill set stagnate. He’s has had the same number of fights (27) in nine years as a professional as Mike Tyson had between his debut in March 1985 and his first world title challenge in November 1986. Tyson had also done 10 rounds three times in that time.
It’s unsurprising that the Joshua we see now is hesitant. He wants to attack because that’s his nature as a boxer and what has brought him success, but this approach has also gotten him stung. But he’s never learnt to rely solely on his boxing to control a fight, so he’s stuck between a rock and a hard place. The result is indecision and an increasingly unassertive fighter.
Prior to the Usyk rematch there was a feeling that Joshua needed to fight as he did earlier in his career to win. Maybe so but some of that ‘lost identity’ and his frustration likely derives from the glaring evidence that his old way of fighting won him an Olympic gold medal and helped him become a two-time world champion but isn’t quite good enough to beat the elites of the division.
Anthony, if you are willing to take a step back and adapt to something new and all together more fundamental, like Lewis and Klitschko did before you, then a new view of heavyweight boxing awaits you. It won’t promise success, but it’ll make you mightily tough to beat. Having a great teacher will only help.