The weather in Jeddah is seasonably hot. Temperatures in the mid-to-high-30s and high levels of humidity have made Saudi Arabia’s city by the Red Sea a stifling place to be this week for those not used to such conditions. And for one visitor in particular it could be proving too much given he already has other reasons for feeling the heat.
Anthony Joshua is here for what may well prove to be a career-defining fight. On Saturday night, at the Abdullah Sports City Arena, he faces Oleksandr Usyk and seeks to avenge his defeat to the Ukrainian in Tottenham 11 months ago, in which he lost his WBA, WBO and IBF heavyweight titles via a unanimous points decision.
Joshua was out-thought and outfought in front of a home crowd and such was the gulf in class that the 32-year-old knew he had to make significant changes if he was to beat Usyk this time. And that is what he did, sacking his longtime coach Robert McCracken and replacing him with the highly regarded Mexican-American Robert Garcia.
Armed with a more aggressive strategy, Joshua feels confident he can exact revenge this weekend and, in the process, join the likes of Muhammad Ali and Lennox Lewis in becoming a three-time heavyweight champion. But equally he will have doubts, and he will be aware they are shared by bookmakers and punters alike.
Few, if any, back Joshua to beat such a skilled and resilient opponent as Usyk, with many inside boxing, including the former world champions Carl Froch and Kell Brook, going as far as to say defeat for Joshua is likely to leave him with little choice but to retire after what will be his 27th professional bout.
That may sound like hyperbole but such is the nature of a sport in which the fall from the top is often brutally swift, and defeat on Saturday would undeniably leave Joshua looking down rather than up the heavyweight division. The much talked about all-British clash with Tyson Fury would almost certainly not happen. This is partly because Fury is again in a period of retirement. Were he to make a comeback he would probably face Usyk in a unification battle. Joshua would be short of options to keep himself motivated, let alone chasing greatness, which in turn would harm his box-office appeal. As Brook put it: “He wouldn’t have the X-factor any more.”
Joshua has bristled at suggestions that a second defeat to Usyk would leave him with nowhere to go, insisting: “It’s up to me and not anyone else what I do with my career.” Yet he has also accepted that he “must win” here and there is a striking poignancy to the pressurised position he finds himself in given it is 10 years ago this month that he won super-heavyweight gold at the London Olympics. Joshua was 22 then, clean shaven and full of hope for the future, a future that has seen him amass riches and memories beyond his wildest dreams. But right now there may well be a part of him that wishes he could return to those giddy and largely carefree amateur days.
Equally, Joshua is likely to feel proud of what he’s achieved since stepping into the limelight of professional boxing in 2013. The plan was to become a world champion within four years – he achieved it in three in only his 16th fight, with victory over Charles Martin at the 02 Arena in April 2016. A little over a year later came his 11th-round stoppage of Wladimir Klitschko in front of a postwar record crowd of 90,000 at Wembley Stadium. It was an epic moment that fully established Joshua as one of the biggest names in British sport, let alone boxing, able to consistently sell out stadiums and win while doing so. Carlos Takam, Joseph Parker and Alexander Povetkin were all beaten in front of huge crowds, at home as well as in the stands.
But then came defeat to the little-known and, to put it politely, poorly conditioned Andy Ruiz Jr at Madison Square Garden in June 2019. The seventh-round stoppage was a shock to Joshua’s system in more ways than one, and while he got revenge with a unanimous points victory in their rematch in Diriyah six months later, the sheen that comes with being an imperious, undefeated champion had been dimmed. And that to a large extent is why Joshua finds himself back in Saudi Arabia now, desperately seeking a victory that, given the opponent and circumstances, would re-establish him as a heavyweight for the ages.
For that to happen Joshua has accepted he needs to go back to basics, hence enlisting the help of Garcia and focusing on claiming the centre of the ring and making full use of his formidable size, range and power. It is what Joshua does best and is, in truth, all he can do given his lack of technical ability on the back as well as front foot. Yet as much as that may be a negative it also speaks to the remarkable trajectory of Joshua’s career, the boy from a troubled background in Watford who was propelled into the glitz and glory of professional boxing by dint of becoming an Olympic hero, and who essentially had to learn on the job given he left the amateur ranks with only 35 fights to his name.
He learned what he could, soared high and, as perhaps was inevitable for someone so raw, crashed twice along the way. A third crash this weekend amid the burning glow of a Middle Eastern night is perhaps unavoidable given the brilliance of the man he is facing, and for all of Joshua’s insistence to the contrary, it could well prove the end. If so, it will at least have been a journey like no other.