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The Lost Legacy of Anthony Joshua

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If Anthony Joshua retired today, would he be deserving of induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame? That was the question posed by my erstwhile editor here at NY Fights the night of Joshua’s clear loss to former Cruiserweight champion Oleksandr Usyk.

It’s an interesting query. My initial response is, “sure.” I mean, Sylvester Stallone is in said Hall of Fame for pretending to be a boxer, so why shouldn’t a real Heavyweight champion get in?

But I think what Woodsy was actually asking was a deeper question: What is the legacy of Anthony Joshua if it’s all over now? The answer is one of opportunity cost. Before I get to that, let me just stipulate that if Joshua were to walk away now, fall ass backwards into his fat stacks of cash, and order umbrella drinks while on a never ending cruise ship, I wouldn’t blame him. Let’s be fair, he has done some things.

After knocking out Charles Martin in April of 2016…

..he defended his title six times before his embarrassing loss to the roly-poly Andy Ruiz in June of 2019.

He avenged that loss, defended his title one more time before losing to Usyk last Saturday night in his own backyard of England.

Most significantly, AJ ended the miserable Klitschko era by knocking out Wladimir in an exhilarating fight that required Joshua to get up off the canvas before dispatching Wladimir in the 11th. It was a fabulous fight that seemed to beckon in a new era in which a truly exciting, offensive-minded fighter would free us from over a decade of pawing boredom that the Klitschko brothers were the poster children for.

That’s not nothing. The trouble is, what Joshua promised was so much more.

Handsome, athletic, articulate, and truly enjoyable to watch, Joshua has all the gifts one might want at the tip-top of the Heavyweight division. Most importantly, the talent is there. At his best, Joshua is a strong, hard-hitting fighter who takes risks. He was the anti-Klitschko.

Sadly, a funny thing happened on the way to all-time greatness. And to be honest, I don’t know what that thing is. Here is a gifted fighter who showed tremendous heart when Klitschko caught him and nearly ended his vindication as the best in the division back in April of 2017. Staggered and almost out on his feet, Joshua summoned tremendous reserves to take the fight to – and from – Wladimir.

So what happened? Where did that resolve disappear to when he fought the far less skilled and unshapely Ruiz? Joshua was able to knock Ruiz down, but when Ruiz got up, Joshua went down…again and again and again. How was this possible? Overconfidence? Poor training? Other? It really doesn’t matter. Joshua let a vastly inferior opponent beat him up. While Joshua won the rematch against an (even more) out of shape Ruiz, you could sense he had lost something. While Joshua fought smartly and roundly outboxed Ruiz, he was much more careful. It was an easy call for the judges at ringside, but if you were watching closely, that wasn’t the same Anthony Joshua who took over the world after taking Klitschko down. And hey, who could blame him for being careful? A second loss to Ruiz would have added greater insult to an already pretty awful insult.

Cue the howls, off this column, from many Brit boxing fans who adore their AJ

Joshua followed up with a relatively easy KO win over the nearly 40-year-old Kubrat Pulev last December.

Okay, fine, but not exactly the fight of the century. What I saw from Joshua last Saturday against Usyk was a skilled, talented, but seemingly less than confident fighter who gave away early rounds, rallied a bit in the middle of the fight, but could not close against a much smaller man. Take nothing away from Usyk, who is one hell of a fighter, and clearly earned his ‘W,’ but it’s hard not to look at Joshua and, once again, think about opportunity cost.

What is the cost of not being truly great when greatness is so obviously within your grasp? That’s the question Joshua should be asking himself. Because on a purely physical level, Joshua lacks nothing necessary to be hailed among the all-time greats. As we all know, boxing (or any sport for that matter) is not merely physical. What separates the truly gifted and truly great from lesser-lights is that something inside. That relentless drive that screams from within and says “I will not be denied.”

AJ is, no doubt, a classy sportsman.

You could see that missing not only in the first Ruiz fight, but the second one too. As Joshua chose safety and skill over risk and power. That didn’t work with Usyk. In part because Usyk is quite simply a much better fighter than Ruiz. What Usyk isn’t is a much better fighter than Joshua.

Out of all the current Heavyweights who make a claim to being the best in the division (Fury, Wilder, Joshua, and now Usyk), Joshua was born with more ability than all of them. And while I am loath to question the heart of anyone who would walk into a boxing ring and take shots from another man who tips the scales well beyond 200 pounds, the question does persist.

Who is Anthony Joshua? Or more significantly, if this is it, who could Anthony Joshua have been? And look, let’s not throw dirt on Joshua just yet. He’s no less talented today than he was before last Saturday night when he lost his piece of the Heavyweight crown to a beefed-up Cruiserweight. The clock is ticking though.

Anthony Joshua may have fought and beat Klitschko, but he has not fought Fury or Wilder, and he’s going to need to go through Usyk (most likely) to get to either of them. And if he gets a second shot, being careful – as he was last Saturday – will not do. Joshua has to dare to be great. He faced down that dare once before, but now that he has all the money in the world at just 31 years of age, does he have the desire?

Because what Joshua must ask of himself now is “Do I have another gear?’ That’s what will be required of him if he wants to be all that he not only could be, but should be. The opportunity is there, but is he willing to pay the cost?

If not, his legacy, while not meaningless by any means, will be defined by opportunity lost.

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