Anthony Joshua reveals he has been ‘training on the edge’ for title defence against Oleksandr Usyk as heavyweight champion gears up for his biggest challenge since Wladimir Klitschko
As the world’s predominant heavyweight in the estimation of three of the four main alpha-belt championship bodies Anthony Joshua could be excused at least a hint of irritation as he keeps being compared unfavourably with his next challenger in terms of ring-craft. Far from it.
Instead of bridling at a perceived insult, Joshua has been using next Saturday night’s engagement with Oleksandr Usyk as the driving force for honing his own skills.
Instead of assuming that he can rely on his massive physique and mighty punching to overwhelm the smaller Ukrainian technician in front of a sell-out crowd in the first fight at the new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, Joshua has been applying boxing’s Sweet Science to his physical strength.
Anthony Joshua has gone to extreme lengths in preparation for defending his world title belts
Doing so to such extremes as using only his left hand in sparring in hope of diluting the unorthodox southpaw threat which made Usyk the undisputed world cruiser-weight champion, at a time when that division was stacked with outstanding fighters.
‘Deep practice,’ says Joshua while attributing those technical improvements in part to Covid. ‘That’s what I learned during lockdown. Very deep practice. I’ve been training on the edge. Exposing myself to being hit by southpaw partners because of only using my left hand. That’s hard. That hurts. But the basic necessities of living in the pandemic were perfect for me. I like the basics of life. I don’t need a lot to make me happy.
‘More importantly, this has helped me realise that putting yourself in vulnerable situations brings the best out of you. Not being allowed to impose my size and power in those sessions taught me not only the power of deep practice but also the power of the brain. Our brain is like plastic. It is always changing and you can use that to change and improve yourself. To find out more about who you are.’
There is a widespread assumption that Usyk, not a natural heavyweight, is not big enough to inconvenience Joshua unduly. That belief was reinforced as he seemed to struggle physically in his two wins since moving up to boxing’s most enriching marquee division, most noticeably against a still-robust Dereck Chisora.
Heavyweight champion has used left-hand-only sparring to prepare for southpaw challenger
Our WBA, IBF and WBO champion – not to mention the fringe IBO title – does not subscribe to that opinion.
Rather, Joshua regards the still-undefeated Usyk as potentially his second biggest challenge after the legendary Wladimir Klitschko in that epic victory at Wembley, saying: ‘It’s not annoying to me that people look upon Usyk as the superior technical boxer. He is very good. And I know it’s not just about being big and just going into that ring and knocking him out inside 20 seconds with my first big punch.
‘If that’s all it was then why would I have been so motivated to get out of bed at dawn to train? To put in the hard yards. To fatigue myself physically and mentally. To recover in the space of six or seven hours and then get up the next morning and do it all over again.
‘I looked at all Usyk’s attributes and worked on what I will need to do against him: The placing of my feet, the positioning of the hands, the timing and setting up of punches against a counter-punching southpaw, the angles, the total concentration. Everything it takes to outclass a clever opponent in all those departments. They are the depths I’ve thrown myself into for this fight. And for all the fights to come.’
There is a widespread assumption that Oleksandr Usyk is not big enough to trouble Joshua
Hopefully those in the future will include the long-awaited but interminably delayed blockbusters against Tyson Fury next year in Saudi Arabia and then Wembley for the undisputed world heavyweight championship. Always assuming all AJ’s hard work pays off against Uysk, that the WBC’s Gypsy King triumphs again over Deontay Wilder in their trilogy battle in Las Vegas on October 9.
The first phase of what Joshua calls his ‘deeper education’ had to be undertaken in the absence of his professor. As head coach, also, of the GB Olympic team Rob McCracken spent the best part of three weeks in Tokyo overseeing another Olympic medals haul for this country.
How much was he missed? ‘For a start,’ says Joshua, ‘for the structure he brings to the training. After I’ve sparred 12 rounds one day, then 15 the next he’s so good at getting me back in the ring and giving him another ten rounds. He’s someone you want to fight for. We all want to work with Rob, the way all footballers want to work with Sir Alex Ferguson. With a great motivator.
‘At the same time I have some other really good coaches around me. We were still working. I was still dedicated. Still learning. And even though Rob wasn’t actually there for a while he was still heavily involved. Giving all his input over the phone.’
Joshua regards Usyk as potentially his second biggest challenge after Wladimir Klitschko
All, he hopes, so he can deliver a thriller worthy of ‘this fantastic stadium.’ He adds: ‘I want to excite everyone as well as win. To give that huge crowd a defining performance.’
How so? ‘By using all I’ve been learning. If you follow your As, Bs and Cs you arrive at…….KO.’
That is the most likely outcome of yet another step on the road to Fury. Not least because Joshua has dug so deep into the noble art and underlying craft of the hardest game.
*Joshua v Usyk will be televised live on Sky Sports Box Office next Saturday night.