Vincent Dunne looks at the varied reaction to the strategy employed by Anthony Joshua to regain his titles from Andy Ruiz Jr
Boxing is going through something of a transition and the Battle on the Dunes may be the tipping point. Anthony Joshua is a wildly popular figure in the UK. The young man won an Olympic Gold medal without much experience and when he turned pro the fans were just wondering when, not if, he would win a world title. He then went on a run as a one-man wrecking crew, not only winning, but knocking out everyone he faced. This continued all the way through demolishing Charles Martin for the IBF strap. Joshua’s place in the public’s hearts was assured after his life-and-death battle with the one-time doyen of the division, Wladimir Klitschko. The fact that he had to come through adversity, bite down on his gumshield and out-gun the long-time great meant that Joshua now was unmissable TV. Watch a Joshua fight and you’re guaranteed your money’s worth.
The first sign of Joshua putting result before excitement was in the unification match with Joseph Parker. This was forgivable as it was perceived to be a one-off and he was back to his destructive best in his next bout. A fight against Jarrell Miller would be another chance to show off his KO power but this time in front of the US fans, providing a chance for wider recognition. Of course, that script got flipped upside down, the opponent changed at late notice to Andy Ruiz Jr and seven rounds later, against a chubby foe who was meant to have no chance, Joshua had lost his world titles. Fans have no problems with you getting beaten but to be perceived by some to have quit and not gone out on your shield… this is a tougher pill to swallow. Slowly but surely the rumours started coming out: he had been knocked out in training, he had a panic attack the morning of the fight, he was carrying too much muscle and had become another Frank Bruno. These all seemed to give Joshua a pass so as long as he came into the rematch and blasted the underdog away, then all would be right with the world.
If you were to play a boxing computer game with Joshua as your character taking on Ruiz, you would box from the outside, use your height and length and stay away from Ruiz’s power, therefore giving him little chance to win. When Joshua went ahead and did exactly that, the fans suddenly turned on him. How could he run all night and not engage?! This fight is boring! Anyone who thought this was boring has never watched a Floyd Mayweather fight! The finest boxer of our generation could not be accused of having exciting fights and that did nothing to hurt his popularity or indeed bank account. However, he is not a heavyweight. The heavyweight champion of the world is supposed to be the baddest man on the planet. Boxing and moving without once engaging is not the done thing. Joshua is the champion again but seemingly less popular than he previously was.
So, where does this leave boxing? Will it go down the UFC route where fighters receive bonuses for the most exciting fights of the night and for the best finishes? In the UFC you’ll keep your job if you have exciting fights, the winning and losing isn’t as important. Posters on boxing forums now seem to say the best heavyweight in the world is Deontay Wilder and he perfectly encapsulates this change in fans’ priorities. He lost nearly every round in his last fight with Luis Ortiz and was miles behind on the scorecards but none of this mattered as he scored a highlight-reel KO and talks an aggressive game. He lambasted Joshua’s performance. It’s safe to say that Wilder won’t have a game plan of boxing just to win, he wants the back-page headlines with a picture of his opponent flat on their back.
As the boxing fan changes will the sweet science be a thing of the past? I love the fact if I want to watch a master boxer I watch Vasyl Lomachenko and if I want a KO I watch Wilder. Then you get the best of both worlds where a boxer like Fury tries to box the ears off Wilder without getting his head taken off! Boxing has a place for both but it will be interesting to see if the paying public agrees. As for Mr Joshua, how much will the fans want to watch his fights if he now employs safety-firsttactics more regularly, using the blueprint Klitschko used for years - win yes, but excitement? Well that’s down to your perspective.