On Saturday night we saw the best and the worst of Anthony Joshua, but there is a route back; Oleksandr Usyk became an iconic figure, now all that's left for him is Tyson Fury and the undisputed world heavyweight championship
Monday 22 August 2022 13:26, UK
Anthony Joshua delivered one of the best, maybe even the best performance of his career in the Oleksandr Usyk rematch.
Yet defeat has condemned Joshua to a slide down from the top tier of the heavyweight division.
For the first time in years Joshua will find himself among the chasing pack. Since his star-making performance at the 2012 Olympic Games, and in his barrelling ascent through the professional ranks, he was destined to reach the top.
From Charles Martin in 2016 he's taken part in 12 consecutive world title fights and throughout that period, even though he never ultimately fought Tyson Fury or Deontay Wilder, he had a legitimate claim to being the best heavyweight in the world.
But once Oleksandr Usyk beat him last September and confirmed that domination with a yet more impressive display at the weekend, the excellent Ukrainian has taken his place at the top of the division.
Joshua is left wondering where to go next. There is no unfinished business with Usyk now. The Ukrainian has called for a fight with Tyson Fury. That bout would decide an undisputed heavyweight champion and it's a fight the world is clamouring to see.
Although Joshua is descending to a level beneath them in the division, there are entertaining fights to be made. Gleefully waiting for a big fight are old rivals like Dillian Whyte and Joe Joyce, if the latter is to get past Joseph Parker next month.
America's Deontay Wilder too is an explosive battle that fell through when they were both titlists. But it's a fight that would still be enthralling even though both are now rebuilding after losses to the division's best.
If Joshua and his team do want to go straight into another huge fight, and another round of intense scrutiny, they have the options to do just that.
Joshua's sterling effort for 12 rounds against Usyk make him right now a formidable prospect for anyone in the world's top 10 outside of the two division leaders.
On Saturday he rediscovered his style. He showed he could make adjustments. After all his years as a champion, he showed undoubtedly he still has a fighting heart.
Joshua had learned from the first encounter with Usyk and was much more offensively solid second time around. He kept sustained pressure on Usyk, making use of his size and physicality, attacking the body with particular effect. Joshua also maintained his own forward momentum and showed his grit to wade on through the counters that often caught him clean.
He had a vision for how he wanted to fight the contest, and stuck to his plan even in the face of adversity.
Joshua had done his best. That is commendable. But it wasn't enough to win and he struggled to come to terms with the meaning of defeat under those circumstances. His behaviour after the fight did him no credit and the following day he admitted he let himself down.
His outburst immediately once the result had been announced was all the more shocking as it was so out of character.
At one moment a member of his team held him back, at another he grabbed two world title belts and lobbed them out the ropes. He stomped away, then returned to grab a microphone to deliver a tirade to the arena and vast television audience.
He confronted Usyk, in scenes that were confusing to watch. As he railed, Joshua appeared to bellow at him, "How did you beat me?"
That question could be taken in a number of ways. It could have been outrage at the decision, frustration that Usyk's skill overcame his strength, or even despair, wondering what more he could do.
It was the most crushing defeat of Joshua's career and that showed at the post-fight press conference. The strain was coming though. Evidently he was a man under pressure.
If he chose to, he could indeed walk away from the sport with his head held high. As an amateur World silver medallist, Olympic champion and two-time professional heavyweight titlist he has already lived the dreams of the vast majority of boxers. If he was satisfied with all he had accomplished, he would never need to fight again. But for some athletes, even when they have done all that could be asked of them, too much is never enough.
He doesn't want to retire. That much was evident when he intoned, "I'm a fighter for life, that hunger never dies."
It was a reminder to his audience, perhaps to himself too.
Even with a new training team, even with a vastly improved performance, he still isn't getting the answers on how he can beat Usyk and how, by extension, he could threaten Fury and become one of the world's top heavyweights again.
If that's the level he wants to get back to, there is only one answer. He has to get better still. To that end he has to rebuild.
So far in his career he hasn't followed the typical path of progression in boxing. Because he had so much ability, he moved so quickly.
Winning the Olympics four years after starting as an amateur boxer was astonishing. Winning his first world title in just 16 pro bouts was rapid too. Taking an immediate rematch with Andy Ruiz rectified that first defeat and reunited Joshua with his championship. But leapfrogged another stage of his development.
The immediate rematch with Usyk did not work out like that Ruiz return had.
But there is another way. It takes patience but typically when a boxer suffers a crushing loss they aren't well advised to just go for the next hardest fight they can find. Usually it's better to drop down a few levels, seek out the type of contests that they will be well assured of winning but which will give them rounds and experience to put the lessons they've learned into practice, to hone their skills and continue to develop their style.
Famously when Wladimir Klitschko suffered a devastating loss to Lamon Brewster, that saw many urging him to quit, he took those patient steps, gradually worked his way back to championship level and a decade of dominance ensued as he mastered his style.
When Manny Pacquiao was knocked out cold in his last fight with Juan Manuel Marquez, he didn't fight the Mexican again. He boxed through three fights he knew he could win and that ultimately set him up for the huge fight with Floyd Mayweather.
Joshua's next task is to come to terms with the defeat and what that means for his sense of his self.
Eventually he will come back to boxing. But maybe, for once, Anthony Joshua should just take an easy fight.
In contrast there is only one fight for Oleksandr Usyk. It must be Tyson Fury next.
Fury currently holds the WBC title. Usyk has the unified WBO, WBA and IBF titles. They would fight to decide the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world. It's about time the sport had one.
Lennox Lewis, the last man to hold that exalted status, knows it. He called for it. "Can we finally give the fans an undisputed heavyweight championship fight? 19 years is a long time and fans deserve it," he declared.
"Let's get it cracking."
The advice is good.
That's all Usyk wants next. He went as far to say if he doesn't get Fury he will retire. That raises the stakes for Fury. The mercurial man from Morecambe has frequently floated his own retirement but the early signs are that he won't demur from a sensational fight with Usyk.
"That is what I'm dreaming of every day," the Ukrainian said gleefully. "I'm going to beat his ass."
Fury, at six foot nine inches tall, is not just a fellow unbeaten heavyweight champion but the hardest man in the division to beat.
However against Joshua, Usyk showed he could handle the sternest examination from a large, powerful heavyweight giving his all to win. Usyk came through perhaps his toughest test so far in the ninth round when Joshua was trying desperately hard to break him down.
"In spite of my ability to control my emotions I was worrying a bit, especially in round number nine," Usyk said. "That was a surprising bit.
"In round number eight I saw in AJ's eyes that he was feeling victorious already. I kept on telling myself, 'You cannot stop. You cannot stop'.
"This is where the real spirit works.
"Size doesn't matter when you're fighting. That was a genuine war in the ring."
Astonishingly Usyk rallied to answer that challenge from the 10th round on to the end of the bout. He stepped to Joshua and took the rest of those rounds away from him to make sure he won the verdict. It was a sensational finish, and the split decision result was unfair to Usyk.
When the champion had his hand raised at the end of the fight, emotion briefly cracked across his face. He had been under extreme pressure himself. Usyk was boxing to represent Ukraine during the Russian invasion of his country.
"Some big things were at stake," he said. "Thank God the belts are coming back to Ukraine.
"Open your eyes and see clearly what's going on in Ukraine. Ukrainians never give up. They always go to the end. We always win. We're definitely going to win. We just need a little bit more time."
Usyk represents something far bigger than himself. He came out of a warzone to train for this fight to defend his heavyweight championship. He is becoming an iconic figure. Tyson Fury might just be the iconic fight he needs.