Anthony Joshua has his belts back, now what comes next?
British fighter has a range of potential opponents after victory over Andy Ruiz
Anthony Joshua celebrates after winning the heavyweight championship against Andy Ruiz Jr. in Diriya, Saudi Arabia. Photo: Fayez Nureldine/Getty Images
The Saudi experiment was supposed to be a voyage of discovery for everyone, although we are no nearer to identifying the best heavyweight in the world, nor a conveniently misplaced moral compass.
Deontay Wilder? Unquestionably he is the most dangerous. Tyson Fury? The trickiest and craziest. Oleksandr Usyk? The unproven. Andy Ruiz Jr? The fattest. What we do know is that Anthony Joshua, who again owns three-quarters of the heavyweight pie, won’t spend the rest of his life as an obscenely rich has-been in north London.
If Andy Ruiz Jr, all 20st 3lb of him, had beaten the slimmed down Joshua (16st 13lb) for the second time in six months, AJ’s career might have been shredded. There would likely be no talk of paydays in the desert, unified and undisputed titles, legacy nights and football stadiums filled with 90,000 fans. He would not be needed or wanted in the Big Mix. That is modern boxing: compelling, eternally flawed, frustrating and cruel.
When Joshua beat Ruiz over 12 rounds in their rematch on the edge of Riyadh on Saturday night he pulled off a brilliant and epic career save, 36 minutes of sinew-sapping concentration against a dangerous left-hooking blob that retrieved his belts, restored his reputation, boosted his fortune by $90m and made a lot of people ringside in Savile Row suits and the traditional Arabic thobe very happy indeed.
But can this version of Joshua beat Wilder? Only if he can again box like a lion-alert gazelle for every second, and only if the American rumbles with criminal inattentiveness to the sport’s disciplines, as he has done before and as he did for six and a half rounds against Luis Ortiz before exploding his thunderbolt right on the chin of the cagey old Cuban in Las Vegas a fortnight ago to record his 41st knockout in 43 fights, a chilling statistic.
Can this Joshua beat Fury? Perhaps. The Mancunian provides way less threat than Wilder in terms of power, but he has the skill-set and relaxed self-belief to beat anyone if he turns up fit and motivated, as he showed in his rise-from-the-canvas draw against Wilder a year ago. What both can do is reinvent themselves.
As for Usyk, the Ukrainian southpaw is the smaller opponent nobody wants, an unbeaten career-finisher, who destroyed cruiserweight Tony Bellew before easing into the heavyweight division with a solid beating of veteran Chazz Witherspoon in October. Usyk – a modern-day Evander Holyfield – will be kept in Matchroom wraps for a little while yet.
The most obvious route for Joshua, then, is a return to safer ground, most likely a defence of his reclaimed WBO belt against the 38-year-old Kubrat Pulev in the spring or summer, before they sit down to pick up the pieces of Fury-Wilder II, scheduled for February 22nd in dispute of the WBC title.
Those are the vaguely predictable variables.
The immediate pulse from an electric night is that the Joshua show can roll again, in a tug-of-war between the boxing desert capitals of Las Vegas and Saudi Arabia, a land of mystery, tumult and immense wealth, an empire controlled with rigid authority by a single family, rather than feuding casino billionaires of Nevada. It is Eddie Hearn’s proclaimed hope to barter between the two.
Nobody can accuse Joshua’s promoter of hiding his ambition. Having gambled and lost when he took the champion to New York six months ago in the expectation of launching the American chapter of AJ’s story, he can now reset. He still holds the dice. He has Sky Sports and DAZN. He has the Saudi royal family on board, with all the baggage therein entailed. And, for as long as Joshua wants, he has the holder of the WBA, IBF and WBO belts.
Nothing is as it seems in boxing, though. It is an ever-moving river of fluid morality, unconfirmed rumours, lies and searing truths, courage and surrender, deals and broken promises. Boxers get churned in this business, at all levels, and can struggle to make themselves heard on the margins. Almost unnoticed on the undercard on Saturday night was a balding heavyweight from Azerbaijan having his second professional fight at 33.
Hard done by
Eight years ago in Baku, with his autocratic president looking down on him like Caesar, Magomedrasul Majidov got the benefit of a dubious 22-21 points decision over Joshua to win the second of three world amateur titles at super-heavyweight. En route, Majidov had stopped the estimable Cuban Erislandy Savon. A year later at the London Olympics, Savon was considered hard done by in losing 17-16 to Joshua in the first round. Joshua went on to win gold – and many millions. Majidov went out in the semi-finals, and home to Baku.
So here they were again, Majidov and Joshua, boxing in the same ring, at opposite ends of the bill for wildly different money: Majidov took less than two rounds to stop one of Joshua’s sparring partners, Tom Little – known in Traveller folklore for giving Billy Joe Saunders his last bareknuckle fight, and losing a chunk of his ear in a street fight.
Savon? He fights on as a quasi-amateur for Cuba. Most recently, he lost for only the 31st time in 192 bouts, in the World Series of Boxing in Ekaterinburg, Russia. Savon, nephew of the legendary Felix, clings, tenuously perhaps, to the sentiment of his country’s most famous fighter, Teofilo Stevenson: “What is a million dollars,” he asked when turning down the chance to fight for pay against Muhammad Ali – compared to the love of eight million Cubans?”
As for more pragmatic pros playing for much higher stakes now, should any of them have been in Saudi Arabia in the first place? Were it possible to canvass the uncensored opinion of those oppressed in the oil-rich totalitarian regime, where state-sponsored terrorism, religious persecution and the bombing of Yemen to the south are quietly ignored for the duration of whatever sporting event is imported to gild the desert lily, the answer would be no. But nobody is asking that question. We move on, boxing’s values shifting like the sands. – Guardian