For the first time since joining boxing’s elite seven years ago, Anthony Joshua has been on the outside looking in on the world heavyweight title picture.
The biggest fight in the sport was, until last week, set to go ahead with Joshua playing no role in it. Talks between Tyson Fury and Oleksandr Usyk started and eventually collapsed with the 2012 Olympian merely an interested observer like the rest of us with his place at boxing’s top table offered elsewhere off the back of two crushing defeats to the Ukrainian.
Taking a look across the division, there is no immediate world title shot in sight for Joshua. Daniel Dubois [WBA], Filip Hrgovic [IBF] and Joe Joyce [WBO] are the mandatory challengers for the three titles held by Usyk with none of those sanctioning bodies likely to be in the mood to allow anyone to jump the queue.
A meeting with Tyson Fury for his WBC title could be an option – one Eddie Hearn insists could be back on this summer. But we have been down that familiar road before to no avail.
On Saturday, the 33-year-old will be expected to beat Jermaine Franklin, show off some of the work developed under new trainer Derrick James and begin rebuilding his reputation inside the ring.
Franklin is a well-schooled and game opponent who gave Dillian Whyte real trouble at the same venue last November. But on paper, he is arguably Joshua’s easiest opponent since Eric Molina seven years ago. Joshua will not only be expected to win but win well if he is serious about relaunching a title bid.
It’s a different type of pressure – a defeat would be his third on the bounce and even with the backing of Hearn and broadcaster DAZN, selling him as a credible contender would be a tall order.
Should he get that reaffirming win, the fights are there even if there are no world titles attached. The Dillian Whyte rematch after their blistering war in 2015 is a compelling option as is the long-awaited Deontay Wilder fight. But another slip-up on Saturday back at the venue where he made his professional debut 10 years ago ensures all that goes away.
‘It is back where it all began for him at the O2 and it’s one he must win, simple as,’ Hearn told Metro.co.uk.
‘He wants all the big fights. If he had it is way he wouldn’t be fighting Franklin, he would be fighting Fury or Wilder straight off the bat. But has just boxed the pound-for-pound no1 twice on the spin. Franklin is a very good fighter, we saw that against Dillian Whyte and it is a style that is difficult for Anthony Joshua as well. And Franklin is coming to win.’
Joshua was one of the most lucrative names in British sport during his time at the top, selling out stadiums in his last six fights on these shores – with the exception of his December 2020 title defence against Kubrat Pulev where Covid restrictions took charge of the situation.
Rumblings of tickets not disappearing quite as quickly as they used to have been largely dismissed by Hearn but there is no denying Joshua’s star power has taken a hit.
In addition to taking himself out of his comfort zone and setting up fight camp in Texas with new trainer James, Joshua has made efforts to limit commercial and media obligations following on from the emotional meltdown that followed his second defeat to Usyk.
He explained at a press conference in February: ‘I made a conscious decision last year to step back and put my heart into boxing and nothing else. I have got that fire going again.’
‘He was king of promotion, but he never went out intentionally to be that, he never really wanted to be that,’ Hearn explained.
‘I don’t think is has been detrimental to his career but it has been draining. He did it because he wanted to be a star and because he has got a good heart. But now he has removed himself from that, taken his camp to America because he knows this is the final roll of the dice.
‘He needs to get it right. He’s done so much for British boxing and British sport and he will continue to conduct himself in a fantastic manner. But at the end of the day he has got to do what is right for his career and he felt this was the move.’
With world titles temporarily out of his reach, Joshua can put that aside for one moment and rediscover real momentum starting on Saturday night.
Boxing has always loved a comeback story and this weekend will provide us with some evidence of how far this one goes.
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