Anthony Joshua mentally tortured himself before attempting to physically brutalize the Ukrainian genius who captivated him into giving up his heavyweight world titles this weekend.
It’s not easy to decipher which of these processes is most problematic for him at the start of a big week of fighting in a desert full of mirages.
Joshua’s quest to free himself from the psychological maze in which he was completely lost against the smaller but faster and smarter Oleksandr Usyk in Tottenham 11 self-flagellating months ago is so complex that he struggles to articulate it clearly.
Anthony Joshua has undergone mental torture for his rematch against Oleksandr Usyk
Sitting in a small circle in London shortly before his flight to Saudi Arabia, he did his best to explain his state of mind, but the contradictions were still so widespread that it was difficult to follow his reasoning.
Sometimes he sounded more like a philosopher than a fighter.
Is he worried about the defeats on his record? Will it be different as he ventures into what are to him the uncharted waters of bidding to become a three-time world champion?
Was his happy, fan-greeting, wide-smiling ring walk in September a mistake not to be repeated? How much more attention does he really pay to his new trainer than to his predecessor?
Will he be more Iron Mike Tyson this time than a pale imitation of the fancy Floyd Mayweather? Is he confident in winning this rematch?
The 32-year-old faces criticism from some quarters, mockery by a cruel minority
A 32-year-old multimillionaire, self-made by sporting triumphs, AJ is no man to feel sorry for. But there may still be sympathy for his inner turmoil as he pursues greatness in the prize ring. Not least because he now faces criticism from some quarters, ridicule by a cruel minority.
A psychologist is an important member of Joshua’s extensive team. Wish the good doctor the best as he works to unravel some of these musings from Joshua.
To start with all those barbs: ‘I try not to focus on criticism. There are also many positive vibes. Especially within the four walls of my house and the environment I form around me. Do I have to shape that environment around a few defeats?
‘Records are important now because people tend to forget these days. But I endlessly study the win-loss records of the famous – and boxers who consistently fight the best rarely go unbeaten in their careers. As annoying as it is, I know I’m dealing with losing. I fight the best.’
Joshua says his training camps were ‘so challenging, so exhausting and so brain-tiring’
What about the widespread speculation that he would have no desire to continue boxing after being humiliated by Usyk in the first fight and whether he will hang up the gloves if he loses to him again.
“Right after that, in the locker room, I knew I would fight again. I said to everyone: come on. What the f***. We are warriors. We lost a battle, but not the war. This is an ongoing battle. It’s not over until it’s over. This is how I remotivated my team. Nothing should discourage you. I have to keep that mentality. For the rest of my life. Even if I stumble in private or in public.
“But it’s been a nightmare to sit on this loss for so many months. The time frame changes every day. I have devoted a large part of my life to a very strenuous sport. I’ll do this for as long as I can, but I think I’m very smart in business now. I’ll be 33 soon and a lot will depend on how long my body can last.’
Crucially, he’s completely determined to use his height, weight and punching power advantages in the desert heat – rather than the incredible fall folly of trying to prove himself a good boxer as one of the master technicians in the ring today .
“It sounds crazy, but I’m not going to lie. My goal was never to hurt him, to throw harmful punches. My goal was to go the full 12 rounds and prove that I could box as well as him. To land scoring punches.
“But I didn’t work hard enough to prepare for a 12-lap fight at that pace. I was not in the right mindset. That of wanting to go in and destroy it. Obviously I’m using my size and strength this time, isn’t it? But working on it is easier said than done.
“Training camps are so challenging. So drain. So brain-tiring. I must be better conditioned (a confession there that I take the smaller Usyk for granted).
“I need adjustments to deal with a left-hander because to me these lefties are a nightmare. I swear if Oleksandr wasn’t a lefty, I would have smoked him. One hundred percent.’
That claim takes some swallowing, but Joshua has made changes. Rob McCracken, boss of the UK’s successful Olympic teams and coach of AJ throughout his professional career to date, has stepped down in favor of champion Robert Garcia’s famed Mexican-American guru.
Renowned Mexican-American guru Robert Garcia was hired as Joshua’s new trainer in June
Joshua comes close to blaming McCracken for the debacle in fight one in which his corner was not heard and told him he was losing: ‘With Rob at Uni (his camp in Loughborough) we walked into the gym and we did skipping, shadow boxing, pads and the bags. He would say things like hands up, or slip away.
“Robert breaks things down more. In a sparring round I have to perfect that damn jab. In another round, to tilt more when throwing the big right hand. It’s more tactical (to deal with a left-hander). Reasoning for the method. It’s a lot to remember.
“So I’ve handed over control. I described the two or three things I wanted to work on. Now I listen. Absorb information like a sponge. Let my men make the decisions.’
And that fan-friendly ringwalk to professional suicide in September?
“It was normal for me.” he says. ‘Maybe too normal. I saw many people I knew in the crowd. Tottenham is local to me. I remembered driving to Wembley to fight Alexander Povetkin and seeing my whole family on the North Circular. I waved at a car and called Yo auntie out the window.
Joshua surrendered his world titles after being outclassed by Usyk . in London last September
‘That’s usually how it is with me. Calm. Many people understand the physical side of boxing. But what about the psychological element? A fighter must be trained to hold his head when entering the ring. Don’t mentally drift away because someone yells swear words, or is even positive, or sees your mom walking on the ring. Now I need tunnel vision.’
What about psychology then? Has Garcia regained his confidence for the huge challenge ahead?
“It’s not so much about being confident,” Joshua says. “That’s up to my team. I have a lot of respect for Robert, but I can only gain confidence from my preparation and my sparring. A coach can tell a fighter a million good things, but if he doesn’t do them at night, it’s no use.”
Not exactly a resounding endorsement. There is still a hint of confusion when he describes Floyd Mayweather as ‘boxing’s Messi or Ronaldo’, but goes on to say he wanted to score points at Tottenham ‘in the boxing art of Mike Tyson….dad, dad, dad.’
Wait a minute, wasn’t Iron Mike the KO King? “Mike was sent from heaven to honor us with his talent. Although I can learn from him, I can never be like him. He was one of a kind.’
Joshua’s ringwalk for his first-fight defeat was branded too fan-friendly
But has Joshua’s training gone far enough that he can do what most boxers ask of him: go on the offensive from the first bell in Jeddah and attempt to engulf the Usyk spirit beneath his size and might?
He says: ‘I’m willing to harm him this time, despite all my respect for what he did in the war in Ukraine. I do know that if I use my elements of height and strength, I have a better chance of winning.”
For that, our prayerful thanks to the Lords of the Ring. While somewhat limited in optimism, this thankfully simple statement of the obvious represents the best chance our AJ will topple the heavy bets quoted against him. That and a clear head.
Usyk v Joshua for the WBA, IBF, WBO and IBO heavyweight world titles will be broadcast live on Sky Sports Box Office this Saturday night for £26.95 pay-per-view.