In recent years, it has become quite fashionable to criticise Anthony Joshua. At times, it has been relatively easy to. In the years since the heavyweight became the darling of British boxing, he has won world titles, lost them, regained them and lost them again – to the dismay of some and delight of others. Even in victory, he is susceptible to backlash, as was most evident in the reactions to his points win over Jermaine Franklin in April.
There was scepticism in these pages, admittedly, when Joshua laboured to a decision win against the American. Never mind that it was a vital victory in the aftermath of two straight losses to Oleksandr Usyk, and that it was a first bout under Joshua’s new coach Derrick James; it was an underwhelming outing, one that left even “AJ” disappointed in himself.
And when comparing Joshua to his heavyweight colleagues, it is easy to find faults in the 33-year-old. He is not a technician like Tyson Fury and Oleksandr Usyk; he has become gun shy, unlike the trigger-happy Deontay Wilder; he no longer holds an unbeaten record or the titles that some of those fighters possess. Yet there is one area in which Joshua has recently, consistently set himself apart from many of the key heavyweight characters.
Simply put, Joshua wants to fight and he does not fear loss in the way that many boxers do. After Dillian Whyte returned an ‘adverse’ drug test finding last week and his rematch with Joshua was cancelled, there would have been no shame in AJ opting not to fight. That is especially true given how he was burnt in 2019, losing to Andy Ruiz Jr on short notice after Jarrell Miller tested positive for multiple banned substances. It was not only Joshua’s first professional loss but a devastating one – a TKO on his American debut, in Madison Square Garden.
Furthermore, there is next to no precedent for a fighter of Joshua’s ranking facing a replacement like Robert Helenius on a week’s notice. Helenius, 39, is a credible opponent, one with a victory over Derek Chisora to his name and experience against Whyte and Wilder. Of course, his clash with the latter ended violently in the first round – not in the Finn’s favour – but was evidence of Helenius’s bravery, which he will draw upon again this weekend. After flirting with retirement following his loss to Wilder, Helenius returned just last Saturday to beat Mika Mielonen inside three rounds. One week on, he will face the only heavyweight who can rival Wilder’s power.
Helenius is, on paper, a more challenging prospect than Demsey McKean and a more sensible one than Filip Hrgovic, both of whom were touted as potential foes for Joshua this weekend. McKean and Hrgovic, who square off on the undercard of Joshua vs Helenius, would have posed different problems for AJ and his promoter Eddie Hearn: McKean stepping in would have raised eyebrows, while Hrgovic could have raised hell. The former might not have been worth the hassle, while the latter would not have been worth the risk, and Hrgovic himself might not have wanted to risk his status as the mandatory challenger to the IBF title.
Joshua, though, might have argued that either fight would have been worth it. He is intent on fighting this weekend, in a bid not only to stay on track for a possible clash with Wilder but also in an effort to get more experience with James in his corner. Ring time against Helenius will certainly be better than none at all, with a Joshua-Wilder fight unlikely to take place until early 2024, even though Joshua was in action as recently as April.
Wilder, meanwhile, does not seem particularly willing to step foot in the ring until he has to, ideally against Joshua. The American, 37, has not fought since his win over Helenius in October and he has appeared opposed to a showdown with Ruiz Jr. In fairness, Wilder is older than Joshua and has lost shine in the same way that the Briton has, but AJ deserves credit for taking even a measured risk against Helenius, who threatens Joshua’s prospective, seismic payday against Wilder.
It is also worth noting that Joshua publicly accepted a challenge from Fury just days after losing to Usyk for the second fight in a row. At this point, for any and all criticism of Joshua, he does not deserve to have his courage challenged. All the while, Fury has contrived to complicate talks with Usyk, leading to the collapse of that undisputed-title fight and the materialisation of Fury vs Francis Ngannou – an ex-UFC heavyweight champion, making his pro boxing debut. Usyk, meanwhile, will box mandatory challenger Daniel Dubois later this month and the Ukrainian should not be tarred with the same brush as Fury.
Hearn, too, deserves credit for negotiating this messy episode as best as possible. He has quickly found a decent opponent for Joshua, while avoiding the mistakes he made in the fallout of Conor Benn’s failed drug tests last year. “The tests, the results, the substances were very different,” Hearn said on talkSport on Tuesday morning, comparing the collapse of Benn’s bout with Chris Eubank Jr in October and Whyte’s failed test this week. Hearn does not represent Whyte in the way that he does Benn, but nonetheless is trying to learn from the saga of the last 10 months. Matchroom is also, rightly, offering refunds ahead of Saturday’s event at the O2 Arena, while Dazn has removed the card from its pay-per-view schedule.
Then there is Whyte, who will go through the appropriate processes but is understandably the subject of great scepticism, given he served a two-year drugs ban from 2012 to 2014 before being cleared of a doping violation in 2019.
While the other heavyweights deal with their respective messes, and while Hearn is tasked with cleaning up what he can, Joshua has kept things remarkably simple. Upon learning of Whyte’s failed test, he reportedly texted Hearn: “I can only imagine the time and effort you and your team have put into organising a fight night. Just to say, sorry about the news. Thank you for all you and Matchroom do for me, it’s appreciated and I never take it for granted.”
Maybe we should stop taking Joshua for granted.