It was shortly before 4am local time that Anthony Joshua met the crowd that had been waiting for him. Alongside his promoter, Eddie Hearn, the 32-year-old strode into the press conference room located at the back of the King Abdullah Sports City media centre and took a seat behind the podium. He and Hearn then started taking questions and everything was proceeding as normal, until someone asked Joshua if he was proud of the performance he had delivered in defeat to Oleksandr Usyk.
“Am I proud of myself?” Joshua said. “It’s hard to say if I’m proud of myself. I’m upset. Really, deep down in my heart …” Everyone waited for him to finish his answer, but he had no more words. Only emotion. Joshua leant forward, covered his eyes and, quite clearly, was in tears.
It had been that sort of night, one of intense sporting action but also one in which the athlete gave away to something more human. A rawness that was as engrossing as it was difficult to watch.
It was surprising because it came from a man who for so long has been the epitome of restraint. Joshua may punch people for a living but he also comes across as a nice guy. Charming, sweet, the type of boy a father would happily allow his daughter to have dinner with. But here, on a hot night in Jeddah, the Saudi Arabian city by the Red Sea, that all burned away.
Having lost to Usyk for a second time and consequently failed in his bid to regain his status as a world heavyweight champion, Joshua lost it all over again. He threw two of the victor’s title belts out of the ring before storming out of it himself. Having returned, he then exchanged angry words with Usyk before taking hold of a microphone. In front of the 10,000-strong crowd, he delivered a curious, foul-mouthed monologue.
“If you knew my story, you would understand the passion. I ain’t no fucking amateur boxer from five years old,” he declared. “I was going to jail … I got bail and I started training my ass off. It’s because of the fucking passion we put into this shit, man.”
“Motherfucker, I’m not a 12-round fighter,” he continued. “Look at me. I’m the new breed of heavyweight … ‘Oh, you don’t throw combinations like Rocky Marciano’. That’s cause I ain’t fucking 14 stone. I’m 18 stone and I’m heavy. It’s hard work.”
Joshua eventually got around to congratulating Usyk, but even that was done with a coarseness that made it sound insincere. In keeping with the rest of the speech, it was also really weird.
All in all, it was hard to know what to make of Joshua’s behaviour. Initially there was confusion, shock, even disgust. But ultimately it was difficult not to feel sorry for him. This, clearly, was not just a defeated man, but a broken one.
The overriding sense was of someone exhausted by the life he has been leading ever since being propelled into the limelight by dint of winning Olympic gold a decade ago. Joshua turned professional the following year and ever since it’s been relentless: fight after fight, most of them either in pursuit or in defence of a world title, with the majority staged in front of huge, expectant crowds.
With that comes vast riches but it is also draining, both mentally and physically, and while Joshua was probably able to cope with that during the good times, it has clearly proved too much during the bad – specifically in the period between his loss to Usyk in Tottenham last September and Saturday’s rematch. As Joshua admitted, he felt the pressure of needing to recover his WBA, WBO and IBF titles, and having not done so it is perhaps no surprise he buckled.
“I’m a hustler, I work hard and make sure my team is good, but it comes at a cost,” he said. “It will never break me, but it takes a lot of strength and tonight you saw a crack in the armour.”
Hearn also admitted Joshua came into this fight with the weight of the world on his shoulders and stressed that was what lay behind his erratic behaviour. “What you saw was raw emotion,” he said. “People don’t understand the pressure that’s on his shoulders, and he’s never ducked that pressure. He’s an amazing ambassador. Someone I want my kids to look up to.”
Hearn also praised Joshua for “putting up a fight against one of the best fighters to ever lace up a pair of gloves”. It was fair of him to do so given Joshua’s display on his return to Saudi Arabia three years after beating Andy Ruiz Jr in Diriyah.
Joshua had vowed to be more aggressive than he had been when facing Usyk in north London and lived up to his word. Charging forward in the first round, Joshua secured the centre of the ring in the second and consistently stung his opponent with thudding shots, no more so than in the ninth round when the challenger had the champion scrambling, having unleashed hell.
But after returning fire in the 10th round, Usyk took control of the contest through a combination of typically sublime technique and ferocity. Having largely dominated proceedings it came as no shock when he was declared the winner, the only surprise being it was via a split decision. Two of the judges delivered scores of 115-113 and 116-112 in the Ukrainian’s favour while the other, incredibly, deemed Joshua to be the winner via a score of 115-113.
For Usyk it was a 20th straight win across two divisions, in turn fuelling talk of a mouthwatering unification fight with Tyson Fury – something both men appear to want – as well as delivering much-needed pride and joy to his war-torn nation. For Joshua it was a third defeat in 27 fights and one that leaves him with few paths back to the top of his division. That is likely to lead to an increase in speculation, inside and outside boxing, that he could call it a day, something the man himself was keen to stress would not be happening anytime soon. “I’m a fighter for life, the hunger never dies,” he said.
Hearn went further by outlining his desire to see Joshua have “three or four fights next year and get back up to winning championship belts”.
He also outlined his wish to see Joshua enjoy fighting again, and more than anything, to “be happy”. Given his mood in the aftermath of Saturday’s fight, that feels like very wise advice indeed.