Here comes AJ. The initials are identification enough for Britain’s boxing superstar. In a windowless room in the bowels of Wembley, Anthony Joshua greets the assembled reporters with a handshake, and not the knuckle crusher beloved, for example, of Eubank and son, of Nigel Mansell, Lewis Hamilton and others in the iron-grip fraternity, rather a delicate, nothing-to-prove sort of contact. Joshua is beyond the macho gesture. Simply standing upright in a T-shirt, 20 inch, heavily pregnant biceps popping, gets that job done.
Though the mood is light and jocular, the essential Joshua is quickly revealed. Before us is a man who dare not lose, who is driven by the fear of it, even against an opponent whom for many does not quite fit the bill. Alexander Povetkin is ranked three in the world by the boxing bible, Ring Magazine, is the mandatory challenger for the WBA strap, one of Joshua’s three, frontline belts, won Olympic and world amateur gold and has only one defeat on his record, five years ago to Wladimir Klitschko.
The trouble is Povetkin is not Deontay Wilder, or even Tyson Fury. He does not have a face to which the non-aficionado can pin a moniker. In fact in the suit he wore to Thursday’s pre-fight head-to-head, he had all the pulling power of a geography teacher. In the technical sense Povetkin represents a decent threat, one to guard against, but in the other realm in which Joshua operates, that of global superstar playing the main stage, Povetkin is thoroughly second tier.
This is Joshua’s third Wembley gig and a galaxy away from his first, a one-round obliteration of Matt Legg six months into his pro career. Four years on Joshua is Britain’s ring superstar, boxing’s ultimate reference point, the unified heavyweight champion of the world. He relishes the status yet feels its weight. The victory over Klitschko in his previous appearance at Wembley in April last year changed the game, birthing a genuine sporting attraction and proving to Joshua that he is a fighter of real substance.
Just five years ago, before his second professional engagement, Joshua occupied different personal space. Though in possession of Olympic super heavyweight gold he was unsure of his credentials as a pro, after all his boxing experience was shallow, only five years deep. In a remarkable interview at his old Finchley ABC amateur club he was critical of his performance in London and expressed continuing doubts. “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.”
In that same interview, he also betrayed the tungsten inner that protects against the nuclear nosedive. “In the amateurs I was fighting opponents who had way more experience, 200 bouts some of them. But I had no fear. Once I sign up for it and I’m on that plane there is no turning back.” Fast forward to fight No 22 the justifications and rationale have a familiar ring. Using his love of motorbikes he explains there is still no fear, bar that of losing.
“When I’m on the bike I don’t think about the fear of falling off, it’s just speed, speed, speed. In boxing it’s not like go, go, go. It’s like I don’t want to make a mistake because I don’t want to fall off, type thing, a completely different buzz.” He went on. “The fear of losing is always there. I know that it could happen because I know how tough this sport is. There is only one winner and one loser. That’s what I say like in boxing there’s no league one, league two. You can’t say I am going to stay at British level and dominate and be king of that league. You are either the best or you’re not.”
Joshua’s most painful reverse came a year before his greatest amateur success, in the final of the 2011 world amateur championships in Azerbaijan, losing by a point to local favourite Magomedrasul Majidov. “When I lost in the final of the worlds it was the first time I dropped a tear because it meant that much. It was one of those Klitschko-esque fights. The Azerbaijan army was there, the president was there. That what’s weird, as an amateur you lose and you build again. As a pro, you lose and you’re shit. There’s no room for mistakes.”
The idea of defeat can be seen a tool to deter complacency rather than a nod to inferiority. Indeed, with victory over Klitschko and two title defences of more mundane quality since, against Carlos Takam and Joseph Parker, Joshua is not shy of proclaiming omnipotence. “I am the best in the division. There is no doubt about it. It’s been proven. There hasn’t been a time in boxing since I’ve been an amateur that I haven’t been on top. At whatever level I was at I have always been able to get to the top.”
So here he is counting down to Povetkin, negotiating the tension between an audience demanding five-star fisticuffs every time he fights and a business securing its investment. A fight with Wilder might have put £50 million in Joshua’s bank as opposed to the £15m mooted against Povetkin. A Wilder date in April, or Tyson Fury, should he prevail in their Las Vegas date, expected to be announced on Monday, will be worth many millions more. The desire to protect a future a jackpot and his authority explains the date with Povetkin.
In dimension Joshua makes a short-arse of an opponent who stands 6ft 2in and weighs 15st 12lb. Of itself, bulk is not sufficient. Povetkin proved that much in March stopping the similarly Herculean Liverpudlian David Price in five rounds. Povetkin claims big men have their weaknesses, too. Price also found Povetkin’s, dumping him in the third. While it does not follow necessarily that Joshua will emulate Price more conclusively, the evidence is supportive.
As well as being inferior of build, Povetkin, 39, is giving away more than ten years to Joshua. In a contest of profound athletic violence, the casual observer might sensibly reason that to cede so much ground you’d have to be crazy, masochistic or well paid. Povetkin is thought to be snaffling seven figures for his trouble. Some estimates suggest as much as £5m. It suits him to be regarded lightly, though he is unlikely to be granted that privilege by Joshua.