Anthony Joshua heads into a career-defining year where his legacy will ultimately be decided, after suffering undoubtedly the worst 12 months of his professional career.
The 32-year-old approached 2021 with cause for optimism having overcome his demons to comprehensively outbox Andy Ruiz Jr in their December 2019 rematch, before displaying a new and improved, measured but clinical style as he dispatched Kubrat Pulev with relative ease a year later.
An undisputed showdown with Tyson Fury was now firmly on the agenda, and a more experienced Joshua, one who rallied after tasting defeat for the first time since his amateur days, was now ready to shine. Boxing is an unforgiving sport, however, and 12 months later, the mood has entirely changed.
Anthony Joshua set up a mouthwatering 2021 ahead with victory over Kubrat Pulev in 2020
It proved to be the most challenging period of his career, having failed to claim a win in a calendar year for the first time since turning pro and relinquishing his collection of belts
The very second Joshua landed the decisive one-two, before a battered and bruised Pulev had even touched the canvas, the focus immediately switched to the historic, all-British undisputed bout against his great rival, Fury.
Promoter Eddie Hearn insisted work would start the following week as they looked to finally cement a bout between Britain’s two main attractions, promising Joshua is the ‘best heavyweight in the world’ and assuring his fighter will knock Fury out cold.
Joshua’s every word was immediately scrutinised, with many believing he was looking to dodge a match-up with the Gypsy King in his post-fight interview.
‘I’m up for anything. Who wants to see Anthony Joshua box Tyson Fury in 2021? I started this game in 2013 and I’ve been chasing the belts ever since,’ Joshua said on Sky Sports. ‘Whoever has got the belt, I would love to compete with them. If that is Tyson Fury then let it be Tyson Fury.’
This was no case of dodging or deflecting. Tyson Fury is the man Joshua wanted, but in clearly growing frustrated after a bout with Deontay Wilder failed to materialise, ‘less talk, more action’ was the mantra.
For a while, it appeared as if our prayers were finally being answered, after Joshua and Fury agreed a two-fight deal, with the first to take place in the summer of 2021. Joshua would put his WBA, WBO and IBF titles on the line, while Fury would throw his WBC belt into the mix.
The search for a first undisputed heavyweight champion since Lennox Lewis was finally approaching its conclusion.
Promoter Eddie Hearn (left) revealed talks over a fight against Tyson Fury would start instantly
A two-fight deal was eventually signed but Deontay Wilder’s (right) arbitration got in the way
Though Fury’s UK promoter Frank Warren was consistently more hesitant, Hearn revealed in March that negotiations were past the ‘hard bit’, with both fighters putting pen to paper, while claiming in May that the first fight would take place either on August 7 or August 14 in Saudi Arabia.
But then came disaster. As the public were preparing for a summer showdown, Wilder and his team were quietly working in the background, eventually winning an arbitration case that enforced a trilogy bout against Fury – which the Briton won in decisive fashion in October.
Joshua was left enraged as the fight fell through, insisting the public would now finally understand the situation at hand.
He took to social media to write: ‘Tyson Fury the world now sees you for the fraud you are. You’ve let boxing down!
‘You lied to the fans and led them on. Used my name for clout not a fight. Bring me any championship fighter who can handle their business correctly.’
And after Fury responded, stating the situation was out of his hands, Joshua replied with: ‘If there was an arbitration going on, why announce to the world we are fighting! The fight was signed! UNDISPUTED.’
Joshua accused Fury of lying to the fans and leading them on while the fight was uncertain
The heavyweight pair embarked on a fierce exchange with Fury calling for a bare knuckle fight
There were now two options ahead for Joshua: take on WBO mandatory challenger Oleksandr Usyk in a high risk, low reward fight, or vacate his strap in favour of an easier warm-up bout, while locking horns with the winner of Fury vs Wilder III next, albeit not for the undisputed championship.
As Joshua said on numerous occasions in the build-up to his eventual bout with Usyk, he sees himself as a ‘throwback fighter’, insisting he will take on all challengers and assuring the prospect of vacating was never an option.
Joshua certainly deserves credit for taking the fight against an unbeaten, masterful southpaw, who won Olympic gold after a stellar amateur career and became the first ever undisputed cruiserweight champion in the four-belt era after just 15 professional outings. But ultimately, it’s a move that backfired.
The Brit was comprehensively outboxed – and nearly stopped – as Usyk ripped away his world titles with a majestic 12-round performance at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.
Fury took care of business on his end as he ended his historic rivalry with Wilder with a phenomenal stoppage, but Joshua’s defeat has once again left the heavyweight division in limbo, with a potential all-British dust-up now as far away as ever.
Joshua was comprehensively beaten by now unified champion Oleksandr Usyk in September
The loss has not only deprived Joshua of his world championship belts, but shed light on a number of issues prevalent both internally and within his team.
Though on the surface seeming entirely calm ahead of the eagerly-anticipated bout, there was clearly confusion within. Joshua was bizarrely seen speaking to his head of security, Clifton Mitchell – a former heavyweight boxer – just moments before the opening bell, asking how he should approach the fight.
His tactics in the ring were then entirely questionable. Looking to outbox the better boxer – and largely sticking to that game plan for 12 rounds – Joshua posed fewer problems for Usyk than previous opponent Derek Chisora, who simply roughed the Ukrainian up with his relentless pressure.
Hearn later admitted Joshua got his tactics all wrong and pointed towards the abundance of opinions coming from different members of his camp as a potential factor behind the poor display.
Hearn quickly confirmed that Joshua had activated the rematch clause against Usyk
Meanwhile, Joshua – who Hearn revealed has activated a contractually-agreed rematch to face Usyk once more – embarked on a tour of America, where he visited prolific trainers Virgil Hunter, Eddy Reynoso, Ronnie Shields and Robert Garcia.
Joshua confirmed he’s looking at other options, though not necessarily splitting from current coach Rob McCracken, during an intriguing interview with iFL TV, where he also gave a clear indication as to where his mind is at.
‘I’m heading into my 12th world title fight now and the learning’s done. It’s war, it’s straight war. I’m annoyed,’ he said. ‘I’m boiling up even speaking about it, I start firing up a bit, it’s that passion to win and I love a challenge.’
He continued: ‘I have one thing on my mind and that’s war, that’s murder – just to go out there and hurt the guy and take his soul to the point where he wants to give up. That’s what boxing’s about.’
Speaking to iFL TV, Joshua insisted his losing days are over and vowed war in the Usyk rematch
But then came another interview with iFL TV, where Joshua once again seemed somewhat confused after being questioned about a potential step-aside, where he would allow Usyk and Fury to fight for all the belts, before taking on the winner.
At first, he said: ‘I think people know not to approach me with that rubbish. People know not to approach me with that bulls***. It may have come to my team but I think they know not to bring to me at the minute.’
But moments later, he added: ‘In terms of stepping aside, I don’t know if that goes in line with what I morally stand for… but I want to be known as one of the smartest businessmen as well. I want to make the smart decisions and if the money is right we would have to look at it but respect has more value than money.
‘Will I take the step-aside money? If it’s a smart business move… will it affect my reputation and respect? Will I still get to fight the best fighters? Those are the three things I have to consider.’
Ultimately, it remains unlikely that Joshua will step aside. Fury has been ordered by the WBC to take on Dillian Whyte next, while members of his team have insisted any talk has been swiftly shut down by the heavyweight.
Joshua said ‘see you soon’ as he congratulated his opponent in the locker room after the fight
What we have now is a truly pivotal moment in Joshua’s career. He’s been here before after falling to a damaging stoppage defeat to Ruiz Jr, but this is different.
There was then a clear path as to how Joshua could change the tide in a rematch. Against Usyk, he’s the overwhelming underdog, with many predicting he will lose once more.
But perhaps more so, this is a year that will define Joshua’s character.
Whether Joshua wants to be remembered as a smart businessman, stepping aside would tarnish his reputation forever among the public. He would ultimately be admitting he doesn’t think he can beat Usyk in a rematch.
Even if he were to come back and beat the winner of Fury vs Usyk for all of the belts, the public would not forget that he did so while taking the easier route.
Just look at the example of Wilder. Having used every excuse under the sun following his rematch defeat to Fury, his stock was at an all-time low. But despite losing the trilogy bout, the American is now perhaps more respected than ever after putting in a truly gutsy, brave performance.
The public demand a great warrior, not a great businessman.
The difficulty for Joshua, however, is that if he loses again, it’s difficult to see where he would go next. Yes, match-ups against the likes of Whyte or Wilder will always be entertaining. But he’s been speaking about all-time great status for a number of years, and that would be gone – particularly with a similarly lacklustre performance.
Joshua simply cannot afford another lacklustre performance in a rematch against Usyk
But Joshua has shown he can overcome a devastating defeat previously against Andy Ruiz Jr
But, and this is a big point, rule Joshua out at your own peril. We can’t simply forget the astonishing achievements the heavyweight already has to his name.
Joshua started boxing at the age of 18 in 2008, and by 2012 he was the Olympic champion. By his 16th professional fight Joshua was a world champion. By his 19th he’d beaten Wladimir Klitschko to unify the division. And by his 21st he’d beaten Joseph Parker to add a third world title to his collection.
To put that into perspective, Fury’s 16th fight was against Nicolai Firtha (20-8-1), his 19th was against Vinny Maddalone (35-7-0) and his 21st was against former cruiserweight Steve Cunningham (25-5-0), who dropped him heavily.
Not only has Joshua risen to the top at record time, he’s also been a major factor in bringing boxing back to the forefront of sport as a whole, particularly in Britain.
Derek Chisora (right) has blasted away any criticism directed at Joshua
Chisora, admittedly managed by Joshua’s label, 258 MGT, recently blasted any criticism of the two-time heavyweight champion, insisting he and many others have benefited from the Brit’s success.
‘Everyone else makes money because he’s in it (the heavyweight division),’ he said. ‘People didn’t make money when Wladimir Klitschko (was champion). People weren’t in love with boxing. Deontay Wilder was WBC champion, people were not really interested.
‘When was the last time we had someone selling 60,000 in an arena? (He) sold out Cardiff, Wembley, Tottenham. When was the last time that happened? It’s never happened.
‘The guy’s come in, he’s done an amazing job, him and Eddie and Sky as well. They’ve done this amazing thing, selling these arenas out, giving a great show. Then the day he loses, he shouldn’t take the rematch? He just had a bad day at the office.’
A few losses on a resume doesn’t have to define a career. Lennox Lewis, who goes down as one of the greatest ever, has two to his name, but he came back to overturn both in rematches. Joshua can follow suit by beating Usyk.
So, while 2021 proved to be an awful 12 months for Joshua, 2022 will be the year that defines his career. Will he jump straight back into a rematch with Usyk? Can he show significant improvement and get the win? And if so, can he finally get in the ring with Fury and give us all the show we want? Only time will tell.