Anthony Joshua heads into a career-defining year where his legacy will ultimately be decided, after suffering undoubtedly the worst 12 months of his professional career.
The 32-year-old approached 2021 with cause for optimism having overcome his demons to comprehensively outbox Andy Ruiz Jr in their December 2019 rematch, before displaying a new and improved, measured but clinical style as he dispatched Kubrat Pulev with relative ease a year later.
An undisputed showdown with Tyson Fury was now firmly on the agenda, and a more experienced Joshua, one who rallied after tasting defeat for the first time since his amateur days, was now ready to shine. Boxing is an unforgiving sport, however, and 12 months later, the mood has entirely changed.
The very second Joshua landed the decisive one-two, before a battered and bruised Pulev had even touched the canvas, the focus immediately switched to the historic, all-British undisputed bout against his great rival, Fury.
Promoter Eddie Hearn insisted work would start the following week as they looked to finally cement a bout between Britain’s two main attractions, promising Joshua is the ‘best heavyweight in the world’ and assuring his fighter will knock Fury out cold.
Joshua’s every word was immediately scrutinised, with many believing he was looking to dodge a match-up with the Gypsy King in his post-fight interview.
‘I’m up for anything. Who wants to see Anthony Joshua box Tyson Fury in 2021? I started this game in 2013 and I’ve been chasing the belts ever since,’ Joshua said on Sky Sports. ‘Whoever has got the belt, I would love to compete with them. If that is Tyson Fury then let it be Tyson Fury.’
This was no case of dodging or deflecting. Tyson Fury is the man Joshua wanted, but in clearly growing frustrated after a bout with Deontay Wilder failed to materialise, ‘less talk, more action’ was the mantra.
For a while, it appeared as if our prayers were finally being answered, after Joshua and Fury agreed a two-fight deal, with the first to take place in the summer of 2021. Joshua would put his WBA, WBO and IBF titles on the line, while Fury would throw his WBC belt into the mix.
The search for a first undisputed heavyweight champion since Lennox Lewis was finally approaching its conclusion.
Though Fury’s UK promoter Frank Warren was consistently more hesitant, Hearn revealed in March that negotiations were past the ‘hard bit’, with both fighters putting pen to paper, while claiming in May that the first fight would take place either on August 7 or August 14 in Saudi Arabia.
But then came disaster. As the public were preparing for a summer showdown, Wilder and his team were quietly working in the background, eventually winning an arbitration case that enforced a trilogy bout against Fury – which the Briton won in decisive fashion in October.
Joshua was left enraged as the fight fell through, insisting the public would now finally understand the situation at hand.
He took to social media to write: ‘Tyson Fury the world now sees you for the fraud you are. You’ve let boxing down!
You lied to the fans and led them on. Used my name for clout not a fight. Bring me any championship fighter who can handle their business correctly.’
And after Fury responded, stating the situation was out of his hands, Joshua replied with: ‘If there was an arbitration going on, why announce to the world we are fighting! The fight was signed! UNDISPUTED.’
There were now two options ahead for Joshua: take on WBO mandatory challenger Oleksandr Usyk in a high risk, low reward fight, or vacate his strap in favour of an easier warm-up bout, while locking horns with the winner of Fury vs Wilder III next, albeit not for the undisputed championship.
As Joshua said on numerous occasions in the build-up to his eventual bout with Usyk, he sees himself as a ‘throwback fighter’, insisting he will take on all challengers and assuring the prospect of vacating was never an option.
Joshua certainly deserves credit for taking the fight against an unbeaten, masterful southpaw, who won Olympic gold after a stellar amateur career and became the first ever undisputed cruiserweight champion in the four-belt era after just 15 professional outings. But ultimately, it’s a move that backfired.
The Brit was comprehensively outboxed – and nearly stopped – as Usyk ripped away his world titles with a majestic 12-round performance at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.
Fury took care of business on his end as he ended his historic rivalry with Wilder with a phenomenal stoppage, but Joshua’s defeat has once again left the heavyweight division in limbo, with a potential all-British dust-up now as far away as ever.
The loss has not only deprived Joshua of his world championship belts, but shed light on a number of issues prevalent both internally and within his team.
Though on the surface seeming entirely calm ahead of the eagerly-anticipated bout, there was clearly confusion within. Joshua was bizarrely seen speaking to his head of security, Clifton Mitchell – a former heavyweight boxer – just moments before the opening bell, asking how he should approach the fight.
His tactics in the ring were then entirely questionable. Looking to outbox the better boxer – and largely sticking to that game plan for 12 rounds – Joshua posed fewer problems for Usyk than previous opponent Derek Chisora, who simply roughed the Ukrainian up with his relentless pressure.
Hearn later admitted Joshua got his tactics all wrong and pointed towards the abundance of opinions coming from different members of his camp as a potential factor behind the poor display.
A few losses on a resume doesn’t have to define a career. Lennox Lewis, who goes down as one of the greatest ever, has two to his name, but he came back to overturn both in rematches. Joshua can follow suit by beating Usyk.
So, while 2021 proved to be an awful 12 months for Joshua, 2022 will be the year that defines his career. Will he jump straight back into a rematch with Usyk? Can he show significant improvement and get the win? And if so, can he finally get in the ring with Fury and give us all the show we want? Only time will tell.