How will Anthony Joshua be remembered?
On one hand, the Adonis-like Londoner should be proud of his accomplishments: an Olympic gold medal, 21 knockouts in his first 22 fights and two reigns as a heavyweight titleholder. He’s probably destined for the Hall of Fame.
On the other hand, he has lost respect because of two one-sided losses in his last four fights, a knockout against Andy Ruiz Jr. in 2019 and a decision against Oleksandr Usyk in his most recent fight.
That’s why his pay-per-view rematch with Usyk on Saturday in Saudi Arabia is so crucial to his legacy.
If he wins, he will have joined Lennox Lewis and a few others as heavyweight champions to avenge losses and regain his heavyweight belts. That’s what great fighters do. If he loses, he’ll be the guy who had a good run and then fizzled, which would leave him off the list of the best champions.
The problem for Joshua is that he faces a much stiffer challenge than Lewis did when the latter avenged one-punch knockout losses to Oliver McCall and Hasim Rahman a generation ago.
That’s why many pundits and the oddsmakers believe the supremely talented Usyk will beat Joshua again, which would leave no doubt that the former cruiserweight champion is the better fighter.
Back-to-back losses to anyone would’ve been unthinkable as recently as three years ago, when Ruiz filled in for Jarrell Miller as Joshua’s opponent at Madison Square Garden.
Then Joshua’s world was turned upside down. The chubby American survived a third-round knockdown to put Joshua on the canvas twice in the same frame and then put him down twice more in Round 7, which led referee Michael Griffin to stop the fight.
Joshua hasn’t been perceived the same since. It’s not so much that he lost. It was the way he lost, apparently giving up when things seemed hopeless. Griffin implored Joshua to continue fighting after the final knockdown but he clearly had no interest in doing so, which forced Griffin’s hand.
Fans will forgive a fighter who suffers a setback. They aren’t as willing to overlook quitting, as Joshua seemed to do.
Joshua claimed some redemption when he easily outpointed an out-of-shape Ruiz in their rematch in December 2019. However, even in victory he didn’t make up much ground because he boxed carefully in an apparent effort to avoid another disaster.
He did enough to win but the questions remained.
Then, after he stopped Kubrat Pulev, came the first Usyk fight. The talented Ukrainian is one of the best cruiserweights of all time and defeated Chazz Witherspoon and Derek Chisora after moving up to heavyweight, which was a good start.
But Joshua was a monumental challenge for a small heavyweight, even one as good as Usyk. Joshua also had ability, could punch as hard as anyone not named Deontay Wilder and weighed in nearly 20 pounds heavier than Usyk.
Well, none of that mattered in the end. Usyk fairly easily outboxed Joshua to win a unanimous decision, claim three belts and leave Joshua’s future as an elite heavyweight in limbo.
That’s where the rematch with Usyk comes in. He’ll probably never be the great heavyweight he was projected to be after his Olympic triumph and impressive run as a pro, including a knockout of Hall of Famer Wladimir Klitschko in 2017.
At the same time, if he can find a way to turn the tables on Usyk, he would set up a massive showdown with Tyson Fury and bolster his reputation by becoming the guy who avenged two embarrassing losses in championship fights, a la his countrymen Lewis. That’s good company.
If he fails a second time? Retirement might be in the cards.
Yes, a lot is at stake for Joshua in this fight.