Anthony Joshua is aiming to pass the ultimate physical and psychological test of heavyweight boxing in Saudi Arabia: beating a man who beat him soundly in an immediate rematch.
It’s an instinctive test that Lennox Lewis and Muhammad Ali have passed, while world champions like Mike Tyson, Sonny Liston and Deontay Wilder have failed. Of course, AJ is on the old side himself – having avenged his shock knockout loss to Andy Ruiz six months after suffering his first professional defeat in 2019.
Unfortunately, there’s a big asterisk next to that, as Ruiz practiced in the kitchen for the rematch and was so terribly out of shape that Joshua took the win in 12 one-sided rounds. Based on evidence from Oleksandr Usyk’s training, any weight the Ukrainian southpaw puts on will be heavy muscle rather than heavy cake.
This time, AJ must turn the result on himself without his opponent self-destructing. In fact, the Brit has to resist collapsing as it’s a formidable test of a fighter’s confidence, nerve and inner steel to step into the ring – without a warm-up – and take on an opponent who knows that can defeat you. Because he literally just did.
For all the explosive thrills of Tyson’s early career, one of the marks against him is that he never avenged any of his losses. The one time he got the chance, he seemed unable to face the prospect of another hard fight against Evander Holyfield and decided to fight with his ear instead.
Tyson biting off a piece of the ear from ‘The Real Deal’ seven months after Holyfield – like Usyk, a former undisputed cruiserweight king – bullied him into defeating him has been interpreted by many as ‘Iron Mike’ at the search for a way out. Tyson was actually landing some punches in that infamous third round, but he realized any victory would be a grueling effort against Bible-bashing (and head-butting) Evander. so Tyson lost the plot.
As Tyson later admitted, his hunger for boxing had all but evaporated by then. So Joshua will have to show not only the psychological strength to believe he can upset the bettors and beat Usyk – but also that his desire to win now, at 32 and financially ready for life, is as strong as when he was. on he was on his knockout-laden rise in the mid-2000s.
Tyson could never regain his burning desire to win, admitting that in 1997: “My heart wasn’t in boxing but I needed the money.” However, one of his late career conquerors, Lewis, is the best example of a modern heavyweight Joshua can look to.
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Lewis avenged his two career losses and one came when he was just 36, after being knocked out by huge underdog Hasim Rahman in South Africa in 2001. Lewis has not changed coaches as Joshua did – it happened before in 1994, when he took on Emanuel Steward after his loss to Oliver McCall – but he had to struggle with the trauma of coming face-to-face with a man who had humiliated him with his world heavyweight titles a few months earlier.
Going into Rahman-Lewis 2 in Las Vegas, it felt like “The Rock” had entered Lewis’s head during horrific fight preparation. But Steward knew better.
As counterproductive as that sounds, Steward actually sat and watched the first fight — which ended with Rahman stopping Lewis with a bludgeoning right hand — with his heavyweight the day before the contest. The idea was to remind Lewis of everything Rahman had done wrong before the knockout was over.
“After looking at him, he turned to me and said, ‘Emanuel, this man has no class. This is going to be an easy fight for me. I’m going to have fun out there’ , Steward later recalled.
“Then he went off to play ping-pong, and I knew then that everything would be fine.”
All was well, as Lewis boxed beautifully behind his jab in the rematch, then landed the best one-two of his career: a left hook that wasn’t thrown with much power, it was just meant to distract Rahman from sinking – right bullet that crashed into his chin. The knockout was so conclusive that it removed the need for a trilogy fight and Lewis went straight into a lucrative fight with Tyson instead.
In Joshua’s dream world, he probably wins just as conclusively against Usyk, then goes straight into his own mega fight with Tyson (of the Fury variety). However, to do so he will need to show some of the qualities Lewis showed that night: unwavering self-confidence, an ability to adapt his game plan and prove that Usyk – a friendly but almost impossible-to-read enemy off the ropes – does not live without rent in his head.
While Lewis had to prove he could defeat a man he knew could knock him out, Joshua has a different task: defeat a man who proved he could dispatch him. Like Lewis, AJ has a confident, articulate, aggression-preaching American coach in his corner. But while Lewis took a few years to fully adapt to Steward’s approach, Joshua must be hoping his bond with Robert Garcia will have an instant impact.
However, Joshua has at least shown against Ruiz – albeit the XL version – that he can come up with a completely different game plan and implement it quickly. Vital for any boxer looking to reverse a result in an immediate rematch.
The challenge here is that if Ruiz needed a back foot approach and a volley of powerful one-twos, Usyk won’t be dispatched so easily. Instead, Joshua may have to look to be more attacking, impose his size and power, and make it look more like one of Lennox’s pre-Rahman ping pong games – both shots traded – instead than a chess match. That’s without even getting into the fact that there’s no guarantee that a boxer with Usyk’s in-ring IQ will even approach the second fight the same way he did the first.
Nevertheless, Joshua will have to show that he has the will and the conviction of Lewis (against Rahman), Ali (against Ken Norton and Leon Spinks), Holyfield (in his second fight with Riddick Bowe) and turn the situation around on a man who recently beat him.
It’s not impossible, as these fighters have shown. But the lessons from Mike Tyson (vs Holyfield), Liston (vs Cassius Clay/Ali), Wilder (vs Fury) are that more often than not the winner doubles up and wins again the second time around.
This is the story AJ is up against. If he can banish the memories of Usyk UD12 at the London Stadium last year, he becomes a three-time world champion like Lewis – and claims true greatness. Lose and he falls into the realm of mere mortals who finally encountered a fighter they simply couldn’t defeat.
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