AJ. Global sporting superstar. Transcended boxing. There was an afternoon back in July 2016 when I just knew that this was going to happen, writes Adam Smith, Sky Sports Head of Boxing Development.
There were, of course, moments in previous years. I had heard and seen much of Watford’s Olympic hopeful Anthony Joshua before he headed down to the Ringside set alongside fellow Team GB compatriots Luke Campbell, Anthony Ogogo and Savannah Marshall in 2012. His relaxed manner, intelligence, communicative skills and obvious presence were all quickly apparent. The crew seemingly captivated by his infectious smile. Weeks later, Anthony Joshua won the nation’s hearts and the shiny gold medal.
I can still see Eddie’s e-mail drop with that signed contract in 2013 – Boom. Matchroom and Sky had AJ.
2013 – 2020, time really does move fast! @SkySports thanks for sharing my journey with the UK! Tomorrow every fight’s on Sky Sports Action ?? pic.twitter.com/s2ypPwrdmF
Taking Joshua around the UK for the preliminary fights felt really different. The attention and attraction began to really roll. There was only one Ricky Hatton in regard to loyal fans – but now there was a heavyweight who captured the imagination of the casual sporting lover, at a time when boxing was beginning to get particularly buoyant again. He possessed skills, athleticism, potent power and that winning smile. What a mixture.
Joshua’s destruction of Gary Cornish saw a huge audience on Sky Sports, and the build-up and rivalry with Dillian Whyte on Box Office took it to another level. The IBF title was taken soon after and then came the time when I fully realised AJ would become a superstar.
So to a warm summer’s day in July 2016, when I saw that Anthony Joshua was the real deal – as a person, a sportsman, as a role model – and ultimately as a true boxing figurehead. It wasn’t anything in the gym, or even in the ring – but it was an ad-hoc visit to my house in West London. The moment when he just pitched up on his own, parked down the street – as a World Champion. In the many hours he spent with my family, I truly discovered that none of this new-found adulation and financial gain had gone to his head, like so many other fighters have succumbed to in the past.
Anthony and I caught up in the kitchen over coffee on all things boxing, and then one by one, my children Jessamy, Oscar and Tilly came back from school. He just has a natural charm and warmth to anyone he comes across. The kids had their homework, and he went round all three seeing if there was anything they needed help with.
Tilly is my youngest and cheekiest and as Anthony was testing her spelling, she grabbed his phone, checked his photos out and asked him who he was married to. When he replied that he was still single, Tilly wouldn’t let him off.
‘Who’s your girlfriend then? Come on we all want to know. My older sister fancies you, so we want to know.’
As always, Anthony navigated himself brilliantly and without any ego, to maintain the humour and make all of the kids feel great. Back he went to the homework, and had them all captivated. AJ just has a way of making every person he comes across feel like they are the one that matters. A skill he was surely born with. I wish I had filmed the whole afternoon. No team around him, just a very natural human being who was extraordinarily polite at all times, wonderfully relaxed, thoroughly entertaining and most of all both endearing and caring.
He showed the world how much he wants it.
It is that ability to attract people of all ages and all backgrounds, which despite Tyson Fury’s obvious claims to being king of the division, still make AJ the biggest draw.
I had a football match that evening across London in Regent’s Park and Anthony said he’d give me a lift. Even though it wasn’t anywhere near his home. He went out of his way, and when we arrived, he met one of my oldest friends who just could not believe that this was the World Heavyweight champion. So normal, so down to earth, so pleasant.
There have been many times since where these qualities have shone – hundreds of Sky staff cramming into the Central building just to get a glimpse or a selfie, or travelling fans in their droves at Manhattan workouts. The 90,000 packed into Wembley for his lift-off against Klitschko. The ease in which he addresses the thousands in stadiums following victory after victory.
Then the battering and embarrassment of New York. Conspiracy theories everywhere. No excuses from Joshua. Back to the gym. Back to the drawing board. His comeback victory over Andy Ruiz Jr proves his immense dedication, despite the millions he is earning. He showed the world how much he wants it. Private sparring sessions that I have witnessed, courtesy of fortunate invitations from his brilliant trainer Robert McCracken – particularly dog-fights with Martin Bakole – have made me convinced he has the heart for any battle.
It’s the other side of his heart though which is most telling. Just the other day, he asked how Tilly and the gang were coping. Like most children in this unprecedented and turbulent time, she is trying her best with her schoolwork at home. Just that she has to make do with her parents for guidance now, not the heavyweight champion of the world.
2 Time, now Tilly. 2 Time.
Everyone’s health is the only concern for AJ at the moment.
Once the journey continues – Pulev, Usyk, Whyte, Wilder and of course Fury surely await.
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