Anthony Joshua reflects on his days of knocking back white cider as he prepares to knock out Oleksandr Usyk
ANTHONY JOSHUA sits alongside Eddie Hearn in a hospitality suite at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium and observes a football pitch being turned into a battleground. This will be the third UK stadium in which the 31-year-old has performed (after Wembley and Principality) and Oleksandr Usyk will be the fifth opponent (after Wladimir Klitschko, Carlos Takam, Joseph Parker and Alexander Povetkin) he has faced in such surroundings.
Some are predicting it will be Joshua’s first loss on British soil. No matter, Joshua says. He takes a second or two to examine what will be the focal point of 67,000 fans, a boxing ring, and turns to his promoter. “I am glad I came here when we did that Sky broadcast,” he says to Hearn with a more than a hint of excitement. “It hit me then, it hit me. I never used to come to the venues before, I never used to test the ring, I never used to try the gloves, I just used to just rock up. But I’m so glad I came here before, I got on my knees and I made a prayer and all that type of stuff. It makes a difference, a big difference. It’s a phenomenal stadium… Do you reckon it can rival Wembley?”
Hearn smiles. “I think so,” he says. “Sound-wise, it’s so compact. It’s been three years this week since you last boxed at Wembley in front of a crowd like this.”
“Three years?” Joshua says, briefly drifting back to the night he stopped Povetkin in seven rounds.
“Yes, three years,” Hearn confirms. “Because after that it was Madison Square Garden, 18 or 19 thousand [fans]. Then Saudi Arabia, 16, 17 thousand. A thousand against [Kubrat] Pulev. I can’t wait, mate.”
“Yeah,” Joshua smiles, “I’m looking forward to it.”
Saturday nights in Tottenham used to be different for Anthony Joshua. Long before he was selling out the local football stadium, he would head with his amateur gym-mates to the now-defunct Opera House nightclub on nearby Chestnut Road. Brandy was Joshua’s drink of choice once inside. On the way, head-scrambling white cider or 20/20 – the go-to beverages of the young, carefree and financially challenged – would be consumed at haste.
It’s almost impossible to imagine that Joshua, particularly when faced with who he’s become. But he’s happy to try to paint a picture.
“We’re all boxers so you can’t really fight us, do you know what I mean?” Joshua chuckles. “There was 10 of us and if we get into a fight, the bouncer is going to sling them out and then he’s going to tell us where they are [laughs]. ‘Listen, they’re round the corner’. So we was always on top.
“They were fun days. It’s gone quick, but they were fun days.”
Joshua insists that aside from the discipline boxing has taught him, he remains that same street kid at heart.
“I’m still about, but I’m not about like that,” he says, laughing heartily. “With me, I’m still on the street. When I’m not boxing, I’m still on the street, I’m still me, I’m still a normal person. People still respect me. I’m not a celebrity superstar saying, ‘stay away’… Boxing won’t change me.”
But it already has, of course. Today he can’t leave the house without his trip being meticulously planned. His face is among the most recognisable on the planet. Even if he hasn’t changed as a person, his life has altered immeasurably.
“Through the lockdown, that was the best time of my life,” Joshua explains about experiencing anonymity once more.
“I was living a certain life and then boxing happened and my whole life flipped on its head. It was so quick, I wasn’t really prepared for what was around the corner. My whole world flipped. Everyone is that way and I’m the other way, upside down and my world is spinning in the opposite direction. Then, during Covid [and the lockdown], when the world flipped on its head, I got to poke my head out and be like, ‘back to normal again’. I was on motorbikes, scooters, it was just a blessing, free time, the garden, it was nice to be normal.
“But the only difference is, boxing takes up a lot of time. I have to make certain sacrifices. But other than that, I’m just chilling, bro.”
Being able to chill, as he calls it, is because of those sacrifices. After he lost to Andy Ruiz Jnr in a seismic shock in June 2019, Joshua was accused of growing too complacent atop the boxing world. Without question, that sobering setback inside New York’s Madison Square Garden reignited something that was lacking. Six months later, in Saudi Arabia, he won every minute of the rematch.
Between lockdowns, in December 2020, Joshua pummelled Kubrat Pulev to defeat in nine rounds. Then he began training for a fight with Tyson Fury. That date infamously collapsed but Joshua insists his focus did not. Instead it switched to Oleksandr Usyk, the former world cruiserweight champion who makes the business of fighting look like an artform. He’s biggest challenge to Joshua outside of The Gypsy King.
“It is going to be a nice night on Saturday,” he says like you or I might describe a trip to our favourite restaurant. “Sunday will come. And do you know what I’m most looking forward to about this fight? Going back to training. I want to get back to practicing because I can feel myself getting better again.
“You’ll see a lot of improvements from the Pulev fight to this one. And then from this one to the next one, you’ll see a lot more. I’ll get this done and I’ll get back to the gym. I look forward to that. You know why? Because when I’m training, I am at my best, I am in that spiritual realm, I am zen-like. I am in the zone, I am looking after my body, I am isolating.”
Joshua is curiously nonchalant about Saturday’s opponent but it shouldn’t be confused with overconfidence. Instead, that carefree attitude is merely an indication that the hard work has been done. For this camp, he locked himself away from his family, from his beloved son, for two-and-a-half months. It is the kind of dedication one should expect from a top level fighter, but is nonetheless hard to fathom that a man with a reported net-worth of £115m remains so dedicated to such a brutal living.
“As you move up the ladder in boxing, you can slip,” he says. “You can tick the boxes and say to yourself you have achieved everything. But as the years have gone on, I have become more disciplined rather than going the opposite way.
“If you look at my fights from the first one, you will see a gradual improvement because I am really trying to see how good I can get.”