Of all the slings, arrows and brickbats being hurled at Anthony Joshua since he fell from the gilded throne of world heavyweight champion the one which will hurt him most is totally devoid of foul-mouthed trash talking.
It came couched in a simple sentence uttered this week in Riyadh by Deontay Wilder, who he will meet over two $100 million super-fights next year assuming they both win their warm-up scraps in Saudi Arabia on Saturday night.
The Bronze Bomber said of AJ: ‘I sense he has lost the respect of the heavyweight division in the last two years.’
Respect: That is the word which will cut Joshua to the quick.
Respect: That is what hard men born and bred in tough communities from the cobbles of East London to the Gorbals in Glasgow – and, yes, Exchange Road in Watford – prize most fiercely. In fact, they demand it.
Anthony Joshua knows he cannot afford a slip-up against Otto Wallin this weekend
Two super-fights with Deontay Wilder (left) lie ahead in 2024 if both men win in Saudi Arabia
Witness all those gangster movies in which the murderer explains: ‘He disrespected me.’
Joshua is no killer, other than euphemistically in his preferred form of legal combat. Outside the ring, by and large, he is a pleasure to be around.
But the need for respect is in the DNA of men schooled in the mean streets. An environment often riddled with drugs. Possession of a small quantity of which led to AJ being jailed briefly before he slipped into a boxing gym in search of redemption. So successful was that epiphany that he garnered respect by the bucketsful.
Just how much that means to him became clear one Sunday morning dappled in April sunshine seven years ago, when a few of us gathered in a Palladian villa he had rented in leafy St John’s Wood. There to mull over the winning of his first world heavyweight title the night before by knocking out American Charles Martin inside two rounds at London’s 02.
The congratulations were met with fist pumps all round, each accompanied by him saying: ’Respect.’ It is the highest compliment he can give. There have been plenty of those down the years and whenever that word is not forthcoming you suspect he has been upset by something.
At the conclusion of that particular meeting he revealed: ‘Since winning the (London) Olympics I’ve been working to control my language, manage any anger, suppress those instincts. Do you think that’s the right way to go?’
Joshua wants to prove his is still a force in the heavyweight division after suffering setbacks in recent years
Given that the question revolved around the sponsorship, advertising and business ventures from which he has gone on to make a separate fortune I replied: ‘Yes. Think about how Mike Tyson didn’t make a commercial dime until after he retired from the ring and dropped the mask of the monster.’ As Shakespeare would have put it, Iron Mike mellowed his condition.
Now the question AJ is asking himself is whether he should go back to his tangled expletive-ridden roots. This fight week he has been courteous and curt alternately in response to suggestions that defeat by Otto Wallin – which would be his third loss in five fights – would spell the effective termination of his career.
Joshua has not been the same explosive fighter who stormed to Olympic gold and unified most of the world titles since he was knocked out by the rotund Andy Ruiz Jr in New York’s Madison Square four years ago. He retrieved the WBA, IBF and WBO belts in a rematch with Ruiz but only by switching from his traditional front-foot aggression to back-foot caution against the grotesquely out of shape Mexican.
Subsequently he has boxed warily through two championship defeats by Ukraine’s former cruiserweight Oleksandr Usyk and three moderate victories over Kubrat Pulev, Jermaine Franklin and Robert Helenius.
The solitary right-hander which demolished the latter has been his only bolt from the blue in that time.
However, his promoter Eddie Hearn is reporting, with a mixture of happiness and relief, a resurgence of the original spite and malice in Joshua under yet another new trainer. Which is odd since Ben Davison has acquired impressive credentials through tactical and technical coaching.
The world, especially Wilder with so much lucre on the line, is watching, waiting and wondering.
Joshua’s decline in popularity at home was singularly accelerated when he gave a speech at a Black Lives Matter rally in Watford. It included an exhortation for his audience to boycott white owned shops, which provoked accusations of reverse racism. He defended himself by saying he read a statement written for him and pushed into his hands at the last moment, before realising its contents.
For what my two-pennorth is worth I believe him. This is a man who dotes on his only son, fully supports the estranged mother and mingles seemingly without prejudice among whatever company he may find himself.
Joshua is still rebuilding his career after losing twice to Ukraine’s Oleksandr Usyk
But once the tide of admiration turns it is not easy to regain public affection. The jury is out. A statement performance against Wallin, preferably climaxed by KO, can sway the verdict. Although even against the second tier Swede this will require Joshua to throw timidity to the winds and risk reverting to the hell-bent attack which got him knocked down and almost out by Wladimir Klitschko but from which he recovered to inflict the stoppage of the Ring Magazine’s Fight of the Year 2017.
To this end, Joshua has gone to extraordinary lengths in the battle against his psychological demons. In October, before entering full training camp for Wallin, he went into voluntary isolation in a darkened room. His only contact with the outside world came when the clinic which charged him £2,000 for four days in solitude pushed his meals on a tray under his door.
He explained: ‘This is for my character. You and you alone embrace the infinite darkness, relax, clear your mind.’
The process is medically described as relieving all stress, strain and uncertainty. The absence of daylight increases the body’s natural production of melatonin. This chemical encourages long, deep and untroubled sleep. Wisely, Joshua limited this experiment to four days. Stay a week in this confined and lonely circumstance and you are likely to fall prey to hallucination verging on madness.
Now, under the Arabian sun, he looks in splendid physical condition. Although that was ever thus with the prize-fighter who Tyson Fury derides as a body-builder.
The insults will not stop coming until he is back on track, bullying opponents and blowing them away. But he will have to come out with conviction from the start. Wallin is inferior to Joshua in most aspects of this hard old game and has looked to be in decline in his most recent fights. But this is one giant unlikely to roll over.
His only defeat came at the fists of Fury. But only on points after he inflicted a ghastly eye cut on the Gypsy King who, as he is wont, fought back from near-fight-ending adversity to rescue the decision.
Joshua is in last chance saloon territory as he prepares to take on Swedish southpaw Wallin
The event in Riyadh will be another show-biz spectacle in the winter season there of entertainment and sports events and all the big names are expected to win. For his part Joshua roars, perceptively: ‘I am the lion in the circus.’
It is not usual to feel sorry for anyone who has achieved all his professional goals and is well on his way towards his stated ambition of becoming boxing’s first billionaire. Yet there is a poignancy about a man who has dominated his domain, has been struggling to recover that eminence but must do just that if he is reclaim, that word again……Respect.
Victory, preferably with a bang, will dry the ink on the vastly enriching two-fight contract expected to be signed post-fight late on Saturday night by AJ and Wilder, who has a somewhat more difficult task against Joseph Parker to come through before they reach for the pens.
Out in the desert, the heat is on. If Saudi Arabia were not as dry as the dust blowing up from a storm on its dunes, we would be talking about Anthony Joshua entering the dim and dingy light of the last chance saloon.