In the fourth part of the “Rocky” film series, heavyweight boxer Rocky Balboa isn’t driven by a title, not by fame, not by money, he already has it all. He fights for revenge. Ivan Drago, his pumped-up, merciless opponent from Russia, had previously killed Apollo Creed, Rocky’s friend and trainer, with his hard punches in the ring. To prepare for his fight against Drago, Rocky travels to the mountains of Russia, there he runs through knee-deep snow, pulls a sled, cuts down a tree, carries a log, his gym is an old log cabin. Once he runs away from the Russian spies who are chasing him in the car. After this training camp, Rocky has not only gotten stronger, he is also ready to go to the limit of his strength. He defeats Ivan Drago by knockout in the 15th round on Christmas Eve in Moscow and is celebrated by the crowd. A film, sure, but one that continues to inspire boxers to this day. For example Anthony Joshua.
Before his fight this Saturday in London against the well-fed, soft American Jermaine Franklin, Joshua was inspired by Rocky. So he picked up the axe. And used it to hack at a tree and at a stump (alongside which were logs, possibly chopped by Joshua, possibly not). Is he stronger now, maybe even ready to go to the end of his strength? Or was the pick of the ax nothing more than a show effect? As so often with Joshua, the answer to these questions is not entirely clear.
The 33-year-old Briton is the big mystery at the top of heavyweight boxing even before the 28th duel of his professional career. He is so muscular and athletic that even Ivan Drago would be jealous when he sees him. He has one of the hardest punches. He’s not the most accomplished technician, but especially in his early professional years it was his powerful combinations that made him so dangerous; The then 41-year-old Wladimir Klitschko, who lost six years ago by technical knock-out against Joshua after he had attacked him with straights, hooks and uppercuts, also had to experience this. But Joshua lost this youthful momentum at some point. For a long, too long time he trusted his clout above all else. Then he bet a lot on the one shot that leads to the knockout. On the one shot that is perceived as a big show.
At times, Joshua seems like a boxer unwilling to push himself to the limit
But this one-sided strategy also made him careless and self-absorbed. In 2019, he lost his three world titles to the chubby Andy Ruiz, whom he hadn’t taken seriously. In September 2021 he lost again, this time to the Ukrainian Oleksandr Usyk, whom he must have taken seriously. But Joshua had come for a show evening, and as soon as he entered the ring he was high-fiving the spectators. In the ring itself he had nothing to oppose the cunning Usyk, who hit from all angles. He no longer looked like a boxer who still knew how strong he was. Most importantly, he didn’t come across as a man ready to push himself to the limit.
In the rematch against Usyk last August, Joshua was rougher, he boxed better, braver, more versatile. Still, he lost – the fight, and after the verdict, lost his composure and control of himself. He threw two of Usyk’s belts out of the ring. He took a Ukrainian flag from Usyk, slung it over his shoulder, and talked wildly about the war. He animated the viewers to a fivefold Hip hip hooray. And he asked his conqueror in disbelief: “You are not strong. How did you beat me?”
Apparently Joshua had become a mystery to himself as well.
He had already changed coaches for the rematch against Usyk, and then immediately again. Now he’s training in Texas with Derrick James, who, among other things, looks after Errol Spence, the world welterweight champion, feared for his ring intelligence, but also for his combinations. James has said that when he saw Joshua in the rematch against Usyk he laughed and wondered about his strategy. Under him he should box faster, more agile, more variable. That should be enough against the 29-year-old Franklin – most recently he lost to Dillian Whyte on points. Young Joshua won early against Whyte in 2015.
A fight against his compatriot Tyson Fury failed twice – is it finally a duel?
Even before the fight against Franklin, it was about upcoming, bigger tasks for Joshua. For example a duel with his eternal rival, WBC world champion and compatriot Tyson Fury. Twice a duel between the two was as good as agreed – and then failed. In the past few days, negotiations between Fury and Usyk about a unification fight ended at the end of April without a contract; Fury’s trainer then admitted that Fury hadn’t started training yet anyway. However, Joshua’s promoter Eddie Hearn has already announced that he has no doubts that he will soon be able to “perfect” a contract with Fury’s team. Financially, this duel is “twice as big” as that between Fury and Usyk anyway. And that’s what drives Joshua, as he himself said a few days ago: “I like to earn money.”
But for it not only to be a big, lucrative show, but also a duel in which it is really open who could win, Fury or Joshua – Joshua would have to present himself against Franklin again as a reinvented boxer. Or at least as he was at the beginning of his career.