Anthony Joshua and the creep of distraction

Perhaps it says more about me than it does Anthony Joshua that I find myself in pursuit of weakness not strength when I watch his fights. Certainly, my wider predisposition for the cause of the underdog influences my perspective more than it should. The sight of late substitute Carlos Takam punching on through a veil of blood, huge physical disadvantages and referee Phil Edwards’ repeated invitations to retire, engaged this inclination.

Off-setting this default mindset isn’t always easy. I have no contractual obligation to be objective, this isn’t a public service broadcast after all, but I do like the opinions expressed here to be balanced and as such not drawn in the heat of the moment. Between the two types of contemplation, the instinctive and the considered, there is usually conflict. The first of my instinctive conclusions; I was minded to believe Joshua highest ever poundage was diminishing his stamina and output, stayed pertinent in the cold light of the morning after.

Pointing to Joshua’s disguised grimace at the best body shot Takam threw, in the third round if my memory serves, or asking whether Evander Holyfield would have hesitated, as Takam did, when the champion stopped to wince at the head butt that squashed his nose in the second, are two more observations still resonating in the gloom of Sunday evening.

My final conclusion drawn while viewing the show is entirely based on intuition, one which may well be misplaced but I couldn’t suppress. Despite the indisputable commercial success of all things Joshua, there is a cliff-edge much closer to the path he is on than I had contemplated before. It isn’t hubris or arrogance, though I think there is a whisper of it entwined with the humility he holds and works hard to project, but more a growing self-awareness of the expectations he carries and how the populist crowd he engaged and stimulated is a living breathing organism with an appetite he can’t control.

Steve Bunce spoke last week of Joshua being in the “don’t put a foot wrong business“, rather than merely the boxing business, because his aspirations and vision reach beyond the heavyweight belts he holds or a single coronating victory like the retirement inducing one Tyson Fury accomplished two years ago. The word ‘legacy’ accompanies every interview, as does ‘journey’ and the ‘path we are on’ and promoters and journalists refer to the ‘Anthony Joshua business’ more frequently than his jab.  This language is serving to programme the neural pathways of the masses, adding gloss to a global bandwagon Joshua, Sky and Eddie Hearn want everyone to join, but there is a flaw in their collective narcissism; they may be beginning to believe it all too.

Robert McCracken, Joshua’s trainer, represents a reassuring presence in this landscape. Impossible to imagine him tolerating his student, paymaster or not, being distracted by the call of the till or hum of the publicity machine. However, there were hints within the actions and outcomes of the week that suggested the prioritising of Joshua the fighter, the function which underpins all the money, has slipped.

Maybe Joe Louis or Rocky Marciano joked with footballers during their warm up, maybe they took the microphone from the post fight-interviewer and sought to interact with the crowd. Maybe they would have dropped their hands at the indignity of an opponent being willing to butt them behind a jab? Seems unlikely though doesn’t it?

All of this negativity is in conflict with the more sage, the more pragmatic part of me. The part of me that points to Joshua’s success in a gruelling contest, his shift in tactics, albeit belatedly, and his determination to see the job through when, to this observer at least, he lacked the sharpness and stamina needed to quell a spirited opponent definitively. And he knew it from quite early in proceedings.

I mentioned in previewing the chances of Kubrat Pulev, the original foe, that carrying the promotion single-handedly would drain the 28-year-old champion. The change of opponent exacerbated that conclusion and ‘going forward’, the popular refrain of any bright young entrepreneur, will represent a recurring theme if the strategy of pushing the Anthony Joshua story, to the exclusion of the opponent or the undercard fighters, persists.

In the final analysis, and as with most things in life, love and business, the truth is somewhere in the middle. Joshua prevailed in a difficult fight, despite not being at his best and was reminded, without undue cost, of the precarious footing he is on as a 20-fight champion and the sport’s number one cash cow.

And, with rose coloured glasses removed, I also remember that Marciano, Louis and Ali, the type of all-timers Joshua is so desperate to equal or surpass, all had off-nights too.

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