Roll the memory back to July 2018. The summer of football: where waistcoats made a fleeting return to the male fashion conversation, weekdays felt like weekends, the sun permanently shone and the country was swept by a spirit of wellbeing.
An opportune moment to reinsert UK boxing’s biggest star into the public consciousness. On 5 July it was announced that Anthony Joshua was to ‘stay home’ and give the public his next two fights at Wembley stadium: 22 September 2018 and 13 April 2019.
A PR masterpiece. Tap into that goodwill of the nation, build a bridge between the success of nation’s football team, the home of football and Anthony Joshua. Six days later, on Wednesday 11th July, England succumbed to Croatia in the World Cup semi-final. The alarm bells should have started to ring.
“Capacity for Anthony Joshua’s next fight on 22 September will be at 90,000 – we are expecting the 13 April capacity to extend to over 100,000” tweets Joshua’s promoter Eddie Hearn. The Essex-born smooth talker has pulled the sport of boxing in the UK from the doldrums. Hearn’s embracing of social media and online content has seen him revolutionise the promotion of the sport. Rather than rely on newspapers to make headlines, he creates his own. To many fans of British boxing, Hearn is as much a part of the sport, if not more so, than the men who lace the gloves.
With success comes criticism. Sit on the plinth and people will throw stones. However Hearn, through his willingness to provide details on his side of fight negotiations and feed the social media machine, can sometimes be guilty of supplying the ammunition himself.
Much covered are the negotiations between Joshua’s team and that of the American Deontay Wilder. For elimination of confusion we will simplify the situation.
Alistair Campbell once said: “Don’t accept you are in a crisis just because everyone says you are"
Three world titles sit with Joshua, one with Wilder. To become ‘undisputed’, one man must hold all four. Therefore the obvious move would be for the two men to meet and determine the number one heavyweight on the planet.
But this is boxing. Boxing doesn’t work like that. Too many money men, each looking to pick from the carcass. Too many egos unwilling to accept less than their perceived due. For the record, I believe if Joshua and Wilder were to sit in a room and discuss the intricacies (money, location and date) then we would have seen the fight by now. But that isn’t how boxing works. There are TV deals (Joshua is locked into Sky Sports, therefore unable to fight on other platforms) to consider, there are purse splits to decide upon and egos to appease.
For now, that fight is dead in the water. Imagine this scenario occurred back in the summer of 2018. Croatia and France win their respective World Cup semi-finals, but are unable to decide upon the value of both themselves and their opponent for the final, so we never get to see who is the best.
There are other factors in play, most notably the unexpected and triumphant return of Tyson Fury. The self-styled Gypsy King travelled to America and fought Wilder to a draw in a heavyweight bout of the ages – with a final round that will go down in boxing folklore. Meanwhile former Joshua foe Dillian Whyte has been building a solid CV of his own, staking a claim for a shot at either champion.
Therefore with three potential names in play (Wilder, Fury, Whyte), and the added spice of two British candidates, 13 April was circled in every boxing fan’s diary. 100,000 capacity for a potential undisputed fight or all-British showdown? You could have taken my money while the World Cup was being lifted.
It hasn't quite turned out like that.
Alistair Campbell, former Labour spin doctor, once said: “Don’t accept you are in a crisis just because everyone says you are”. He was renowned for his ability not to dodge the icebergs, but to patch the boat up and keep sailing. Joshua and Hearn’s voyage has hit choppy waters. By no means has the vessel sunk, but the holes are appearing.
No Wilder. No Fury. No Whyte. Only a small circle of people will know why these fights haven’t manifested. Wilder and Fury look set to collide again, while Whyte rejected what he claimed was a derisory offer to fight Joshua on the Wembley card that will never be – even saying, "The way he is going about business, Joshua won't be fighting me, Wilder, or Fury any time soon."
Were offers made between all parties? Almost definitely. Were they ‘low ball’ offers, designed to meet the demand for action but not to entice the opponent? Possibly. Were ego damaged and demands not met? Certainly.
The waters are now sullied. Lies and mistruths have been used as ballast by all parties. What we are left with is wreckage – 315lbs worth of wreckage to be precise. That is the weight of Joshua’s opponent on 1 June at New York's Madison Square Garden – when Jarrell ‘Big Baby’ Miller will welcome Joshua on his American debut.
Miller, with 23 wins and no losses, presents a reasonable test. But a reasonable test isn’t what is wanted from a man who holds three quarters of the relevant titles.
Cynics might see the fight as a means for Hearn to boost subscribers to his American broadcast partner, DAZN. Or that Hearn and Matchroom are trying to extract the highest value from Joshua in the easiest fights possible before the gravy train must risk being derailed. This has all become very, very polarising.
Two schools of thoughts seem to have solidified. One is that Hearn and Joshua have done all within their powers to avoid the biggest fights, knowing that Joshua is a money-making machine in his own right. The other is that Hearn and Joshua have been negotiated in good faith, albeit with a clear-eyed sense of Joshua's value, and the crash site is not their responsibility.
This was a period of respite for Joshua. With three titles, he will soon have to navigate ‘mandatory’ challengers
The outcome is damaging for Team Joshua, no doubt. The deposit for Wembley stadium will have been costly for a date that will no longer be fulfilled. The once-unwavering support for the London Olympics gold medallist is no longer. Joshua still commands a vast fanbase, no doubt. But the forums and social media platforms have started to mutter – or often shout – their dissent. Tides are beginning to change.
All is far from lost. Should Joshua overcome the – by medical terms – obese Miller and promptly secure the winner of Fury-Wilder II then no doubt the public will forgive and forget. He remains a charismatic and likeable figure, one whose reach extends far beyond the hardcore boxing fanbase.
However more icebergs line the horizon. This was a period of respite for Joshua. With three titles, he will soon have to navigate ‘mandatory’ challengers, put forward annually by the title organisations to ensure their pick of the upcoming fighters get a shot. These start to fill the diary for any successful fighter.
We shall see what 2019 holds for Anthony Joshua. Glory, success, riches and popularity have been just reward for a man who is dedicated to his craft. It is important that all involved, not merely Joshua and Hearn, see sense, adjust their wallets and, if need be, swallow their pride to accommodate the fights that would define an era. "That's the true art behind boxing," said Joshua in a 2015 interview with this publication. "You've got to leave your ego at the door."
This now comes down to whether those involved value legacy over money. It is down to the fans to demand value.