I want to fight.
This is what Anthony Joshua, unified heavyweight champion, boxing’s most recognizable global star, told me during a trans-Atlantic phone call recently. Not, I want to fight … but only if I can pack 80,000 into a U.K. stadium, as Joshua regularly does. Not, I want to fight … but only if my purse stays static, which is unlikely while boxing adjusts to the new reality of the current pandemic.
I want to fight.
“It's all about growth,” Joshua says. “I would definitely fight for the love of my sport. I've got that hunger in me. Even if I drop five dollars or five pounds on the floor, I'm turning back to get it. I'm never too big to earn a buck. It's a godsend to fight for that kind of money that I do … it would be difficult to fight without the crowd there to entertain, but a win's a win, and it goes down in history.”
Sports has entered a new reality. The spread of the coronavirus has ground live events to a halt. When sports returns, it will do so in empty venues. That will have financial consequences. Baseball is already feeling it, with players and owners battling over how to share the burden. The NBA could be next. Boxers, especially the high profile ones, will have to decide if moving their careers forward is more important than maximizing profit.
“If a fighter said ‘no, I don’t want to fight without an audience’ or you have to pay me more, that’s okay,” Hall of Fame promoter Bob Arum says. “I respect that. But it’s next man up.”
Listening to Joshua, it’s clear he doesn’t want to be left behind. Last year was the most challenging one of Joshua’s career. In June, he was knocked out by Andy Ruiz in what was the biggest heavyweight upset since Buster Douglas stopped Mike Tyson. Joshua lost his three world titles. He lost his perfect record. All the accolades he had earned to that point disappeared under an avalanche of criticism. Six months later Joshua avenged the defeat, out-pointing an out-of-shape Ruiz to reclaim his belts.
“It was a one-sided fight,” Joshua said. “It was a classic display of the sweet science of hit and don't get hit, take the belts with ease, and get back on the gravy train. Andy couldn't keep up. He couldn't move his feet. He couldn't throw his hands fast enough to keep up with me. I think I won 11 out of the 12 rounds, if I was to be generous. I made history in Saudi Arabia, and I became two-time heavyweight champion of the world.”
Indeed, though the criticism of Joshua didn’t stop. In victory, many wondered—was this a new AJ? Had the ferocious knockout artist who had knocked out 20 of his first 21 opponents, a list that included Dillian Whyte, Wladimir Klitschko and Alexander Povetkin, been replaced by a more guarded, defensive-minded fighter in the mold of Klitschko or Lennox Lewis?
“If I wanted to go for [the knockout], I would have gone for it in certain times,” Joshua said. “From the first round, I'd already busted his eye, but that was going against my discipline and my tactics. Tall fighters against short fighters don't mix it inside. It's like Rule 101 that I went against in my first fight. That's a tactical point of view. From a tactical point of view, it was give him the sweet science, the Lennox Lewis versus David Tua. I wouldn't say the Tommy Hearns versus Sugar Ray [Leonard] because you know how that went, but the rangy boxer versus the shorter arm boxer, there's a way you go about getting a victory, and it's not going in there looking for a knockout. It's if the knockout come, then you take it, but don't go in there looking for it.”
As the world has begun to stabilize, sports have begun exploring avenues to return. UFC became the first major U.S. sport to come back last weekend, when UFC 249 went off in an empty arena in Jacksonville. Despite facing heavy criticism for returning mid-pandemic, the event had a massive audience, picking up more than 700,00 pay-per-view buys, according to Sports Business Journal. Boxing appears to be right behind it. Top Rank is preparing to hold closed door shows in Nevada, according to Arum, with featherweight titleholder Shakur Stevenson set to headline one, according to The Athletic. Veteran trainer Manny Robles told SI.com he has multiple dates in June for his fighters, while Golden Boy Promotions has submitted a plan to its broadcast partner, DAZN, to re-start in July.
Yet it’s one thing for Stevenson-level fighters to jump back into the fray. Joshua is among a rare group of super earners whose live gates can generate north of $10 million. The rematch between Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder earned a $17 million gate, while middleweight kingpin Canelo Alvarez’s last two fights cleared more than $8 million at the box office.
Joshua, though, says he is ready to forego that income. Joshua is slated to defend his titles against Kubrat Pulev in July. With the U.K. still on lockdown, Joshua’s promoter, Eddie Hearn, has begun to explore alternative locations. A return to the Middle East is a possibility. Pula Arena, a Roman amphitheater on the coast of Croatia, is another. Joshua made it clear that not only is he willing to face Pulev in a smaller setting, but if he was presented the opportunity to face Fury—a unification fight between Fury and Joshua is the biggest fight that can be made in boxing—he would do that behind closed doors, too.
“I would take it because if I don't take it now, I don't think Tyson Fury would probably be around by the time this will come around again when big hall shows are available,” Joshua said. “I have to take the opportunities while they are there.”
Boxing is coming back. And Joshua intends to be a part of it.