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Anthony Joshua: Hard hitting and humble

Odds of 1-66 do not suggest a legacy contest when first reserve Carlos Takam steps into the ring with IBF/WBA heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua in Cardiff. To be fair, Kubrat Pulev was not the one selling tickets either before his shoulder gave way a week ago.

The Principality Stadium sold out in two hours, all 75,000 seats. The queues were five deep this week just to watch Joshua’s public workout. The rush to embrace Britain’s boxing superstar reflects a need in us as much as an appreciation of Joshua’s talents.

We are hardwired to connect with heroes. Joshua is as much a concept as a corporeal fighting man. With his exaggerated musculature and Corinthian demeanour, he represents the idealised warrior king, a leader to guide and protect us, to show us the way, to make everything alright.

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Our earliest cultural references are populated by like mythical figures, from the Greek and Roman lodestars to the gods of Norse mythology. Joshua fits right into that slot, expressing a kind of primal hold over his subjects.

This will be only his 20th professional engagement, half the number that pepper Takam’s ledger. In some respects, he is still a student of the game. Though a world heavyweight champion and the boxer setting the economic agenda in and out of the ring, Joshua was initially reluctant to answer to the sobriquet ‘champ’ because there is, he says, elements of the fight trade he has still to learn.

Anthony Joshua Media Workout

Modesty is a virtue

His modesty, his utter refusal to toot his own horn is another deeply attractive characteristic that binds him to his audience. A week before his second pro gig In October 2013 I interviewed Joshua at his old amateur gym, Finchley ABC. My visit was in part to broadcast an early sponsorship deal with LA Muscle, a company quick to recognise Joshua’s appeal despite the risks involved with a novice fighter who might hit the deck at any time. They could not afford him now.

Joshua was courtesy personified. More than anything I was astonished at the low regard in which he held himself as a boxer. We are talking about a fighter who 15 months previously had taken super heavyweight gold at the London Olympics.

“One thing I do know looking back at the Olympics is that I was rubbish. I'm still rubbish now but in the Olympics, I was a bad, bad fighter. I feel that even more so now.” 

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Joshua, a late comer to the noble art, not throwing a punch inside a ring until he was 18-years-old, was essentially playing catch-up, and though Olympic gold legitimised him to a degree after just five years an amateur, his relative inexperience hung like breezeblock around his neck at the start of his pro career.

The Takam threat, or lack of it

Though he is shedding his insecurities rapidly now, tucked away in a corner of his mind a little of that sentiment lingers. As a consequence, no opponent is taken lightly, not even Takam, despite a record that suggests an easy night.

Takam’s previous five opponents boast more than 50 defeats between them. He has been dining on fodder. The three defeats on his record are more telling, the first eight years ago against a journeyman in Tony Gregory, followed by a stoppage loss to Alex Povetkin in 2014, and a points reverse last year against Joseph Parker, who edged past Hughie Fury earlier this month in a laboured defence of his WBO crown.

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Any man who stands more than 6ft tall and weighs 17st carries a notional threat, but there is little evidence that Takam has the ability to deliver in this setting against an opponent with Joshua’s preternatural gifts and relentless commitment. 

Legend in the making

Some have argued that the greatest threat to Joshua is himself. His love of a tear-up might just bring Takam into the equation. There are plenty of examples of big men with talent who have fallen to opportunists who come out swinging. Our own Lennox Lewis walked onto two big right hands in title defences seven years apart, the first from Oliver McCall, the second thrown by Hasim Rahman. Both anaesthetised him.

Joshua was down for the first time in his career in that epic encounter with Wladimir Klitschko at Wembley. They never see them coming. But he did what legend requires, he got off the deck to win. Joshua prevailed in the 11th in what will be remembered as his coming of age fight, the bout that elevated him into a different category of champion and propelled him beyond the sports pages into a different realm.

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Suits you sir

I offer second anecdote from the Rio Olympics, where he was working as a pundit, to illustrate Joshua’ s extraordinary capacity to draw the eye. It was the day of the super heavyweight final with big Joe Joyce attempting, unsuccessfully as it turned out, to emulate Joshua and Audley Harrison to become the third British gold medalist at the weight.

Dressed in a beige suit that struggled to contain him, Joshua stopped the foot traffic as he approached the arena, his remarkable silhouette prompting onlookers to reach for the phones to record the moment he moved in their midst.

Had the Incredible Hulk walked around the corner he could not have caused a greater stir than Joshua in those threads, all 6ft 6in and 250 pounds of him stressing the seams to near breaking point.

He is getting used to the commotion now, legislating for it in his public appearances and even accommodating his admirers with selfie sessions. In Cardiff, he stayed behind for 40 minutes after his public workout to commune with the people.

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Best of British

Joshua’s magnetic pull is greater even than Frank Bruno’s, the last great folk hero of the British ring. Bruno offered the same Herculean physique and disarming demeanour but he had none of Joshua’s spite between the ropes. Though we knew Frank could marmalise anybody with his dander up, we understood that he would ultimately fail because when it mattered he did not believe in himself enough.

Though Lewis was London born he was ultimately never quite British enough having won Olympic gold in a Canadian shirt and failed to take the audience with him. Harrison had the tools to become a household name but for one major flaw, he didn’t like the fighting bit as it manifests in the professional game.

Frank Bruno Admitted To Psychiatric Hospital

The contenders for hegemony at home and abroad

The British heavyweight scene is flush with interest but the others in the cast are considered only in boxing terms. Among the principal contenders who might fancy their chances, David Haye is a relic of boxing’s trash-talking past. Tyson Fury, should he ever conquer his demons, falls readily into the same category. Neither fires the imagination of the wider public, and neither would start favourite were they to share a ring with Joshua.

He has laid before us the prospect of another ten years at the top, which at 28 with so few miles on the clock is entirely possible. WBC champion Deontay Wilder would appear to pose the greater present danger but is hittable. Parker looks underpowered. Nevertheless, dates with both are penciled in for 2018.

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The hope must be that another Klitschko-type emerges to give the story what every epic tale needs, an adversary to challenge and to test, to take him to the ragged edge, to force the same volcanic reaction that did for the last man to rule boxing’s big men for a decade.

The greatest of them all, Muhammad Ali, had Joe Frazier, Ken Norton and George Foreman to light his fires, Evander Holyfield had Riddick Bowe, Mike Tyson and eventually Lewis. Joshua is genuinely grateful for his Klitschko moment. Here’s to the next eruption.

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