Inside Anthony Joshua's Quest for Redemption

Disgruntled by the disrespect after a surprising defeat to Andy Ruiz Jr., Anthony Joshua seems determined to reclaim his place among the boxing elite.
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SHEFFIELD, England – “I know why I lost,” Anthony Joshua said, and to his right Eddie Hearn, legs crossed, a familiar smirk creasing his face, noticeably flinched. He knows? Hearn has had a handful of conversations with Joshua since Joshua was stopped by Andy Ruiz last June, the biggest heavyweight upset since Buster Douglas knocked out Mike Tyson—and one of the bigger upsets in boxing, period. The morning after, Hearn popped into Joshua’s rented townhouse in downtown Manhattan. Joshua asked Hearn to join him on the patio. F--k, that happened, Joshua told Hearn. For nearly 15 minutes, fighter and promoter riffed. It began as a search for answers. It ended with Joshua asking: What do we do now?

In boxing, everything can change in an instant. For Joshua, it was the third round of his seventh heavyweight title defense. A crushing left hook early in the round had sent Ruiz to the canvas. Joshua, one of boxing’s best finishers, rushed in to close the show. A wild exchange followed, during which the doughy Ruiz clipped Joshua’s temple with a hook of his own. Joshua’s legs wobbled. His equilibrium was off. He was concussed, probably. He went down, the first of four times. The fourth was enough for referee Michael Griffin, who mercifully waved off the fight.

“It was a tough pill to swallow,” Joshua told SI.com in an extended interview. “I just had to deal with the pain and the issues of taking a loss against what people called a fat guy.”

For boxing, this was a seismic event. Ruiz wasn’t supposed to beat Joshua. Compete, maybe. But not beat. This was a showcase fight for Joshua, the unified heavyweight champion, arguably boxing’s biggest global star. He was originally slated to face Jarrell Miller, the foul mouthed Brooklyn native with a glossy record, a perfect opponent for Joshua’s U.S. debut. Two months before the fight, Miller tested positive for multiple banned substances. Ruiz, fresh off a knockout win over Alexander Dimitrenko, slid into Hearn’s Instagram DM’s, begging for the opportunity. Ruiz was a known commodity with a solid record and Mexican bloodlines. Hearn accepted. Ruiz won.

For months, Joshua’s loss has been dissected. Fighters have offered opinions. Analysts, too. DAZN made a documentary. The internet has its own answers. Joshua wasn’t focused. Indeed, in the days before facing Ruiz, Joshua was inundated with questions about Deontay Wilder, his heavyweight rival. Rumors that he had been knocked out in sparring swirled. Joshua had a panic attack. The theory here is that while Ruiz was in the ring, Joshua was melting down in his locker room. Joshua just isn’t that good. Wilder was among the first to question Joshua’s credentials, an opinion that gained steam on social media.

On Saturday, Joshua (22-1) will answer his critics when he takes on Ruiz (33-1) in a rematch. The fight will take place in Diriyah, Saudi Arabia, thanks to the Saudi government’s willingness, nay, eagerness to pony up north of $40 million for the right to host the event. Joshua will take home most of it. If he will leave with his titles, his reputation, his status as a boxing superstar is less clear.

He says he knows why he lost.

But does he know how to fix it?

Frank Franklin II/AP/Shutterstock

Frank Franklin II/AP/Shutterstock

The boxing gym at the English Institute of Sport has two rings, with a line of heavy bags flanking them. Joshua came to this gym in 2010, barely out of his teens, a burly heavyweight with a limited—but impressive—boxing resume. At 17, Joshua, a soccer player and a weightlifter up until that point, slipped on a pair of gloves. He won some amateur fights, claimed an English amateur super heavyweight title, catching they eye of the British national team in the process.

“Until that point, I was used to local gyms, where trainers have a [cigarette] and just do their thing,” Joshua said. “I thought I knew what boxing was. I come here, and this was serious business. I swear, I had never followed the sport before. I didn’t know anything about Olympic boxing—I’d never watched the Olympics. Suddenly I’m in an Olympic facility with guys seriously training.”

This is where Joshua’s meteoric rise began, from Olympic gold medalist in 2012 to fast tracked heavyweight contender to world champion in just his 16 pro fight. Joshua first popped on Hearn’s radar around 2010. Back then, Joshua was entangled in legal trouble. He had been arrested for possession of cannabis with intent to distribute. At his office, Hearn got a letter. It was from a local coach—Hearn can’t recall the name. There’s a young heavyweight named Anthony Joshua, the letter said. He’s having problems with the police. Would Hearn, as one of the U.K.’s biggest boxing promoters, come to court and tell a judge that Joshua has a bright future.

“I remember thinking, ‘You want me to go to court?’” Hearn said. “I don’t even know this geezer.”

A few months later, Hearn dropped into the English Institute of Sport. He was there to see Carl Froch, a super middleweight champion training with Rob McCracken. When he arrived, he was greeted by the loud thwacks of a heavy bag, the hinges squeaking as it rocked. He asked McCracken: Who is that? That, McCracken said, is Anthony Joshua.

“And all I remember thinking,” says Hearn, “is ‘fuck, I should have answered that letter.’”

Last month, Joshua peppered at one of those heavy bags, remembering the early days fondly. In the aftermath of the loss to Ruiz, Joshua was asked about replacing McCracken. The trainer is often the fall guy, and there is history that shows that a corner shakeup can be effective; both Lennox Lewis and Wladimir Klitschko thrived after making mid-career moves to Emmanuel Steward. Joshua, though, is fiercely loyal to McCracken. When he had his legal troubles, Joshua says, many wanted him booted off the British boxing team. McCracken, according to Joshua, was the only one to back him up.

“He saw something in me,” Joshua said. “He saw something when I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I highly respect him for that.”

Added McCracken, “He was driven, very driven for a young man. He was athletic, determined and confident. You're halfway there with the fight, if you've got those attributes.”

Critics have come after Joshua in recent months. A career’s worth of accomplishments, wins over top tier heavyweights Dillian Whyte, Joseph Parker and Wladimir Klitschko have been deemed irrelevant. Despite climbing off the canvas four times against Ruiz, he has been branded a quitter. “Those people, they just want to see me fail,” says Joshua. “People know for a young lad to come into this game and fight the best from the amateurs and fight the best from the pros in a short space of time, they should know that there's no quit in me.”

In preparing for the rematch, Joshua found an unlikely ally: Klitschko. Klitschko, like Joshua, was a decorated amateur, a gold medalist at the 1996 Olympics. He won his first world title in 2000. Then, in 2003, a stunning knockout loss to Corrie Sanders; a year later, he was stopped by Lamon Brewster. The champion became chinny, the prior accomplishments meaningless. Klitschko, though, recovered. He reclaimed a title in 2006—and held it for more than a decade.

Joshua communicates with Klitschko regularly. “Like every other day,” Joshua said. Before facing Joshua in 2017, Klitschko poked fun at Joshua’s physique. He called Joshua a CrossFit champion. Following the loss to Ruiz, Klitschko reminded Joshua of that label. He encouraged Joshua to forego the weightlifting and focus on boxing. He offered Michael Phelps as an example. Phelps, Klitschko said, doesn’t box in the morning and swim in the afternoon. He swims all the time. For this camp, Joshua has cut down on the weights, adding an extra 45-minutes of bag work every day. The result has been a noticeably slimmer physique.

“It’s just getting all my fibers working for boxing,” Joshua said. “All my fibers, that's why everyone said I lost weight, just being in the gym, hitting, hitting, hitting, hitting, hitting, hitting and sparring. It's not like back in the day I'll be like, I can throw a punch, slip it, get back to relaxation, get back to boxing. Throwing a jab now is just second nature. It’s always been there. I just needed to bring it out of me.”

Joshua didn’t replace McCracken. But he did supplement him. He’s long wanted to. For years, Joshua watched Canelo Alvarez, admiring how Alvarez continues to improve. He’s seen advances in sports nutrition and information and didn’t want to miss out. So he started looking. Freddie Roach, the Hall of Fame trainer, was approached. Joe Goosen and Eddy Reynoso were considered. Ultimately, Joshua added two trainers, Jobi Clayton and Angel Fernandez. The idea, Joshua says, is to take some of the mitt work away from McCracken, giving him more opportunity to study Joshua’s technique.

The results, Joshua says, have been noticeable. New trainers offer new styles. Fernandez mixes up the pad work. Clayton is connected to the Kronk gym, the famed facility once run by Steward. Five and six punch combinations have been emphasized. “I understand how Roberto Duran could fight Sugar Ray [Leonard] and come out without scars on his face,” Joshua said. “Back then, they could fight 15 rounds and they'll come out without black eyes. You see guys now doing six rounds with bloody noses, black eyes and stuff. So I've gone back to the fundamentals of the sport. I understand my back foot balance. I appreciate that the point of boxing is to hit and not get hit. Don't just get fit to take a longer beating, get fit to actually give out a longer beating.”

Joshua continued: “There's so much new teachings that we're all on the same page. It’s not as if Rob is singing one thing and this guy singing another—everyone's on the same page. It's like a surgical team, like I've gone in for an operation and Rob's like, ‘Scalpel,’ and this guy, he's polished his scalpel to the best of its capability for Rob to use. They're all working in sync in a great fashion. It’s just creating an environment of greatness because we all come together. And these guys want to prove themselves as well. Even though it's difficult, it is well worth it because my body's in pain, but it's for the right reasons.”

Trainers have become something of an obsession for Joshua. On his phone, Joshua has names of some of boxing’s all-time great strategists. Eddie Futch. Lou Duva. George Benton. Jack Blackburn. Joshua doesn’t study fighters. He studies the trainers who school them. Futch, whose emphasis on the jab helped mold Riddick Bowe into a world champion, resonates. How Futch unlocked weaknesses in Muhammad Ali—Joe Frazier and Larry Holmes, both trained by Futch, own wins over Ali—does too.

“There's clues to success,” Joshua said. “If you want to be great, why not do what the greats have done before? Why do I have to be a guinea pig and try the narrow new stuff? I don't have the time to try the narrow new stuff. I might as well do what the greats did if I want to be a great. So I just look at them and follow their part.”

ANDY RAIN/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

ANDY RAIN/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

In the back room of the training center, Joshua reclines on a massage table, laughing. As the champion going into the first fight, Joshua dictated the terms—including control over the location of the rematch. He could have fought in the UK, in Cardiff, in front of a favorable crowd. If Ruiz balked, Hearn could have tied him up in a lawsuit, perhaps forcing him to vacate the titles. Instead, Joshua took the Saudi money. Which has led to the question: Is Joshua, at 30, cashing out?

“I’m not cashing out,” Joshua said. “I’m cashing in.”

Still: Joshua was roundly criticized for his behavior after the Ruiz loss. He hugged Ruiz in the ring. A few times. To many, Joshua seemed indifferent to losing his titles. Content, even. Hearn suggested Joshua might have been relieved. Later, Joshua admitted he needed to rediscover his passion for boxing.

If Joshua were serious about reclaiming his career, the thinking goes, he would have fought closer to home. Instead, he’s fighting thousands of miles away, in another unknown environment. For a staggering amount of money.

“The money's the business, but the money's not why I'm there,” Joshua said. “And that's me being 100% real with you. I'm not doing anything more extravagantly knowing that I could earn a bit more money in Saudi. I'm going to spend my money before I've earned it.”

Still—why not the U.K., where he has fought most of his career?

“Andy didn't even want to come to Cardiff,” Joshua said.

But you could make him, a reporter countered.

“But if you could earn 10 pounds in Cardiff or 20 pounds in Saudi, what would you do?” Joshua asked.

But is fighting at home not the safer choice?

“No, because I'm going to do great things in my career anyway,” Joshua said. “I just know I can box. I know I'm good at boxing. If the universe and God didn't want me to win and something went wrong December 7—which it's not going to go wrong—I honestly believe I will become a two time heavyweight champion of the world. I just believe that on December 7th I will. So Saudi or no Saudi, I will still fight to become two times heavyweight champion of the world.”

Around Joshua, there’s a belief that a loss was inevitable. In recent years, Joshua had openly wondered what a loss would feel like. Success had come so quickly. He had never experienced real failure. For this camp, team members describe a renewed focus. Questions about a Wilder fight are gone. Ruiz is all that is in front of them. Disgruntled by the disrespect, Joshua seems determined to reclaim his place among the boxing elite.

“I think he's more determined to get it right,” McCracken said. “Listen, every fight means the world to him and he does everything he can. But he’s lost to Ruiz. He's going in with somebody who's beaten him before. There's no more motivation than that.”

No one is making any predictions. “Maybe Andy Ruiz has my number,” Joshua shrugged. Adds McCracken, “It’s heavyweight boxing. It’s Russian roulette with gloves on.” Joshua declines to get into specifics on why he lost. “It would just be making excuses,” Joshua said. But he says he is healthier, physically and mentally, than ever before. “For all we know, Ruiz might win,” Joshua said. “But if he doesn't, I'd know why. That's all it is. If he doesn't win, I'll know why because we've corrected everything that I had issues with before.”

In 2001, Lewis was stunned by Hasim Rahman, surrendering his titles via brutal knockout. He regained them seven months later, blasting Rahman out in the fourth round. Klitschko, too, avenged a knockout loss to Lamon Brewster early in his career. If Joshua erases Ruiz, June’s defeat becomes little more than a footnote. He will be a champion again. And if he does, he wants the respect that comes with it.

“After I lost, I started hearing what people really thought,” Joshua said. “Well if I win, when I win, well, f--k everybody. People talk about Wilder and [Tyson] Fury. I’m the guy out there fighting the best in the division. People are now saying Andy is one of the best guys out there. I hope they keep saying that after the fight.”