Anthony Joshua remained an undefeated fighter and was preparing to defend his IBF, WBA and WBO heavyweight titles against Andy Ruiz Jr when for the first time his team contacted the then-little-known Angel Fernandez.
Impressed by the improvement he had witnessed in Isaac Chamberlain under Fernandez’s guidance, if Joshua wasn’t yet ready to make changes to the training team led by the respected Rob McCracken, the deep-thinking heavyweight was at least considering the potential positives involved in him recruiting a further trainer with a different voice.
McCracken guided AJ to Olympic gold and professional world titles
Angel Fernandez – Instagram
While Fernandez joined Joshua later in his career
Joshua, then 29, had never forgotten what he’d had to ask of himself the night of his life-changing victory over Wladimir Klitschko, when he’d had to summon the courage to recover from a heavy knockdown to eventually stop and retire one of the finest heavyweights of all time. Aware that such demanding fights shorten careers and can potentially threaten a fighter’s health in retirement, he was determined to never again risk returning to that same place.
When Ruiz replaced Jarrell Miller as Joshua’s challenger at Madison Square Garden in New York in June 2019 he then proceeded to send Joshua in a direction that would transform him permanently. For all that he had been under-appreciated and was cultured in a way that Joshua simply wasn’t, Joshua’s significant advantages in height and range meant that Ruiz should simply never have been allowed into a position to land the punches that dropped the champion in the third round, and that changed the course of their fight.
Stopped in the seventh round after a total of four knockdowns, Joshua was the victim of one of the biggest of all upsets in the heavyweight division, but when he admirably sought the immediate rematch he required, his preparations for that rematch ultimately sent him further off-course.
When the complacent Lennox Lewis lost for the second and last time in a similarly unexpected shock, to Hasim Rahman in 2001, he pursued an immediate rematch and secured victory by preparing and fighting with the discipline he had previously lacked. Joshua, however – potentially unnerved as much by the criticism he had faced in the wake of the superior Tyson Fury’s comeback as he was by the way Ruiz had stopped him and his bad memories of the night of his biggest win – sought reinvention.
Recruiting Spain’s Fernandez, so heavily influenced by the respected Cubans Jorge Rubio and Ismael Salas, and the lesser-known Joby Clayton to assist McCracken – the trainer who had led him to Olympic gold – Joshua focused on improving his discipline, footwork and punch variety, more aware than any of the risk posed by Ruiz if he again invited him to trade.
When he performed as he did the night of their rematch – when another defeat would have left his career in disrepair – his judgement had appeared justified. Against a regardless bloated and less driven Ruiz he earned a convincing unanimous decision, having used his size and range to control the distance between he and his challenger, and to ultimately remain out of harm’s way.
Getty Images – Getty
Joshua’s defeat to Ruiz Jr was up there with the biggest upsets in boxing history
AFP or licensors
But in the rematch Joshua redeemed himself with a composed victory
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There were moments when Joshua betrayed a sense of anxiety, when his respect for what Ruiz had previously done to him meant him recoiling at some of the punches the Mexican-American threw, but he had demonstrated a cultured edge learned and executed over the course of six months, and, like Lewis, responded by avenging his defeat.
If that was to consistently thereafter be his favoured approach then as long as he retained his ability to be the “wrecking ball” he was once rightly described as by his former trainer Tony Sims – to so destructively, instinctively and explosively stop fighters of the calibre of Klitschko, Alexander Povetkin and Dillian Whyte – then there was little question he had vastly improved.
Instead, in his next fight with Kubrat Pulev, he fought like a confused fighter over-reliant on instructions from McCracken and caught between using the aggression and power Pulev would have had little answer to and being the fluid boxer he had been against Ruiz, ensuring neither was often achieved. He was often upright and guilty of leaving his chin exposed in a way he previously rarely had, and to the extent that a superior opponent would have punished the mistakes he made.
When he fought again, against the great Oleksandr Usyk in September 2021, that sense of confusion and uncertainty and his lack of conviction was then repeatedly and harshly exposed. Usyk – demonstrating the composure, focus, ringcraft and self-belief Joshua lacked – convincingly outboxed and threatened to stop Joshua, who had needed to be aggressive, instinctive, and to use his size, but had struggled to apply all three.
Joshua was beaten convincingly by Usyk on two separate occasions
But, he is hoping new trainer Derrick James can help him get his career back on track
Again Joshua responded dramatically, this time by severing his ties with McCracken and recruiting – after trials with numerous other trainers that again hinted at an uncertain mind – Robert Garcia to lead him into his high-risk rematch in August 2022. Those around Joshua had spoken of the need for him to rediscover what had taken him to his first world title, and to give Usyk the nature of fight that would have unsettled the Ukrainian 11 months before.
If they had identified that correctly, they had perhaps overlooked the advantage a fighter of Usyk’s near-unrivalled intelligence then had had off the back of the 12 rounds they had previously shared. Joshua improved for their rematch, troubling the champion in a way he hadn’t when so passive throughout their first fight, and perhaps even boxed at a level he had never previously showed.
Usyk, however, like Fury and only the very best, regardless adjusted because of the undoubted identity and boxing abilities he possesses – abilities Joshua has sought since losing to Ruiz, at the cost of the identity that had once threatened to make him great.
“Money,” Joshua, once so full of admiration for his sport’s history, answered when asked about his motivation ahead of his fight with America’s Jermaine Franklin, at London’s O2 Arena on April 1. “When it’s all said and done no-one will care about me no more. So, I’ve got to make the most of it while I’m here.”
He will fight for the first time under America’s Derrick James, having since parted with Garcia, Fernandez and Clayton, and having even spoken of being a “free spirit” who may change trainer again.
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