Anthony Joshua’s career has recovered before from a world title defeat and it may do so again, but the former heavyweight champion will likely never recover to the same status or profile he once enjoyed after Saturday’s split decision loss to Oleksandr Usyk.
One defeat to Usyk last year was bad enough, but a second within 12 months swept Joshua’s once formidable reputation deep into the Saudi Arabian desert and a share of the judges’ scorecards (115-113, 116-112 to Usyk, 115-113 to Joshua) seemed generous in Jeddah.
As WBA, IBF and WBO heavyweight champion Usyk looks ahead to the biggest fights, Joshua sinks to his lowest point in his career in years which perhaps explains his outburst in the ring following the loss — an outburst which could damage his reputation and his sponsorship portfolio.
Joshua initially tossed his world title belts to the floor and stormed out of the ring, before returning to grab the microphone and address the crowd.
He said: “I’m not a 12 round fighter, I’m a new breed of heavyweights — Mike Tyson, Sonny Liston, Jack Dempsey. ‘You don’t throw combinations like Rocky Marciano’, I’m 18 stone… I’m heavy, it’s hard work. This guy here is a phenomenal talent, we’re going to cheer for him three times.”
After 12 consecutive world heavyweight title fights, Joshua can expect the likelihood of no belts on the line when he eventually returns to the ring after a demotion in ranking. Others are now ahead of him in the queue for a title shot, people he once used for sparring like Joe Joyce.
Joshua, who lost a unanimous decision to Usyk in London last year, just could not find Usyk with his power punches and the fight slipped away from him inexorably.
Joshua improved in their second meeting, but it was still not good enough. The English boxer landed a good attack to the body in the eighth round and managed a sustained attack in the last minute of the ninth, but generally Joshua’s best moments were too isolated to change the momentum of the fight. Usyk responded with a big 10th round, putting together flowing combinations, including a crunching left uppercut and right hook.
Southpaw Usyk was too quick, too slick with his punches and his mobility denied Joshua any opportunity to set his feet and land his power shots.
At 244½ pounds — 23 pounds heavier than Usyk and three inches taller — AJ had the advantages of being younger, stronger and bigger, but all of that counted for nothing and it is Usyk who progresses to a likely $150 million clash with WBC heavyweight champion Tyson Fury, which would be the first time in heavyweight history all four belts would be on the line.
Some reports even claimed Fury — despite his retirement claims — has already signed for the fight. According to his social media feed earlier in the week, Fury is in training at home in Morecambe, England.
“I’m sure Tyson Fury is not retired and I’m convinced he wants to fight me and if I’m not fighting Tyson Fury I’m not fighting at all,” Usyk said afterwards.
Joshua (24-3, 22 KOs), 32, rescued his career in Saudi Arabia three years ago when he cautiously outboxed Andy Ruiz Jr., six months after the American had stopped him in seven rounds for the WBA, IBF and WBO heavyweight titles. That came as a huge shock after AJ had registered six defences, including an 11th round KO of former world champion Wladimir Klitschko, who had previously reigned for nine-and-a-half years.
Klitschko retired after losing to Joshua, but there are still plenty of potential fights for the London-based boxer who turns 33 in October.
“I’m not thinking about retirement,” Joshua said earlier in the week in Jeddah. “People will always ask questions, I still want to continue. I love it.”
At least Joshua does not have to worry about defeat costing him a £200m pay day against Fury (32-0-1, 23 KOs), his English rival who has flip-flopped between retiring and fighting on recently. Fury’s future will become clear by the end of the month when he must either relinquish the WBC world heavyweight title, or announce future plans.
Joe Joyce (14-0, 13 KOs), 36, and Dillian Whyte (28-3, 19 KOs), 35, both from London, would be fit to fight Joshua. Whyte rocked Joshua in his last non-title fight in December 2015, before he was spectacularly knocked out in round seven.
Daniel Dubois (18-1, 17 KOs), an English rival nearly a decade younger, is in a better position to challenge for the WBA title while Joyce has multiple options. Joyce, who has sparred countless rounds with Joshua but not since 2017, is No. 2 with the WBC, and No. 1 with the WBO, one of the three belts Usyk holds.
One punch, one win, can change a lot in heavyweight boxing and Dubois has quickly revived his career following a stoppage loss to Joyce. A rematch with Whyte would be risky, but victory would restore Joshua’s hopes of becoming a three-time world champion.
Joshua and his team will now have to look on as bigger fights get made, without him.
Usyk, 35, who reigned as undisputed cruiserweight champion from 2016 to 2018, had the hopes of his war-torn nation on his shoulders, but he showed no evidence of the burden or being distracted as he demonstrated why he should now be recognised as the world heavyweight No. 1.
Less than six months after sheltering in a basement from bombs landing in his home city of Kyiv, Usyk stepped into the ring to face Joshua in Saudi Arabia believing he was fighting to lift the spirits of Ukrainian soldiers on the frontline.
After taking up arms on the frontline earlier this year, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in March, Usyk left his homeland to start training for a rematch with Joshua.
There is also a long list of world heavyweight champions who lost the heavyweight title(s) in a first defence — Ingemar Johansson, Leon Spinks, Tony Tucker, James ‘Buster’ Douglas, Frank Bruno, Mike Tyson, Shannon Briggs and Charles Martin among others.
Some lacked motivation or drive after experiencing their moment of glory, but not Usyk who has a deep well of inspiration. He appeared at the pre-fight press conference in full Cossack warrior outfit, with his head shaved and a skinny ponytail.
Wladimir Klitschko, Usyk’s fellow Ukrainian, reigned for nine-and-a-half years until being beaten by Fury on points in 2015. Usyk won’t go on for that long but he has looked imperious in his last two world heavyweight title fights.
Fury is the only threat on the horizon for Usyk’s reign. The English boxer’s height, reach and boxing skills would present an unprecedented challenge for Usyk.