Anthony Joshua is still three weeks from his professional debut but the Olympic super heavyweight champion already knows where he wants to end up. In the ring, another Muhammad Ali, out of it, David Beckham.
Sitting in his promoter Eddie Hearn’s Matchroom offices in Essex, Joshua has just been telling me how, while learning to box in a Finchley gym, he watched a lot of Mike Tyson. But he quickly adds: “I am not going to be Tyson. I’m going to be completely different.”
With that he points to a picture on the wall of Ali, next to a framed pair of the legend’s autographed shorts, and says: “My goal? To be like him.”
Then, for good measure, Joshua adds: “And yeah, definitely I would want to become a celebrity like David Beckham. He’s done really well.”
Joshua begins his professional career in a heavyweight bout at The O2 on October 5 when his opponent will probably be 31-year-old Canadian Jarred Kilkenny, who has won four of his seven fights. Joshua would do well to avoid the fate of another London-born boxer Audley Harrison, who after winning super-heavyweight Olympic gold in 2000 turned professional amid much hype only to crash and burn.
But the 23-year-old, whose early childhood in Watford was filled with thoughts of wanting to be a bricklayer, says: “I have confidence but not the arrogance of Audley Harrison. I am not going to go down that road. I want to follow Lennox Lewis.” It is then that Joshua reveals that he went to see Lewis in Jamaica in March before deciding to turn professional.
Pride of Britain: Joshua is now ready to embark on his professional careerLewis, also born in London, provides the great contrast with Harrison. After winning Olympic gold at the 1988 Seoul Games for Canada, he turned professional and remains the last undisputed world heavyweight champion. “Lennox told me that once he had won gold he knew it was time to turn professional.
“When I turned down the offer of becoming a professional [after winning the ABA Championships in 2010] I said, ‘I didn’t take up the sport for money, I want to win medals’. But winning gold in 2012 satisfied my lust for medals. And Lennox thought it was best for me to turn professional.”
However, there is one piece of advice Joshua disregarded. Lewis, who was the same age as Joshua when he left the amateur ranks, was careful only to fight journeymen in his first 12 professional bouts.
“That’s the same route he wanted me to take,” says Joshua. “But I’m not coming up under the radar.
“I’m in a good weight category and I’ll be able to handle the pressure. This is because of what I learned as an Olympian.”
Skills: Joshua on his way to Olympic successJoshua then quickly takes me through his amateur career which was marked by his ability to upset more fancied rivals. “I wasn’t supposed to win Olympic gold. I wasn’t supposed to qualify for the Olympics at the World Championships.”
It was the 2011 World Amateur Boxing Championships in Baku that marked his arrival on the global stage. He beat Italian Roberto Cammarelle, the then world and Olympic champion before losing in the final by a point to Mahommedrasul Majidov. Joshua repeated his triumph over the Italian at London 2012 to win gold.
“When I met Cammarelle in the World Championships, I went in with belief. The coach said to me, ‘You can beat Cammarelle. We wouldn’t put you in with him if we didn’t think you could beat him’. To beat him in the Olympics again was really good as it was a grudge match for him. There is less pressure in professional boxing than for an Olympic gold because, in the Olympics, the whole nation is willing you on. It did make you want to perform but that put pressure on me. This is entertainment.
“[In professional boxing] it’s a bit more glitz and glamour. This is just chilled show time. I’ve just got to think I’m there to entertain. It’s no pressure. I want to embrace it.”
In trying to acquire this new frame of mind, in the last three weeks Joshua has learned to play chess. “A boxing match can be a bit like chess. That’s how the Cubans fight, like a game of chess. They’re clever and that’s what I’ve got to be. Before I used to rely on my strength, speed and power, now I’ve got to rely on my smartness.”
He has also taken to reading books — Think and Grow Rich, The Secret, Freakonomics and Rich Dad, Poor Dad — an activity not normally associated with fighters.
Seeing my surprised look, he quickly explains: “We all have questions we want to ask about life. I want to find out about the Egyptians, their history, because they lived before us. I want to know what went on in the past.”
It was a shrewd sense of modern boxing reality that made him choose Eddie Hearn over Frank Warren. Joshua had contacted both promoters, ringing Hearn up three months after his golden 2012 moment.
“Eddie just said, ‘Congratulations’ but he did not sign me straight away, he had his plans.”
Hearn did not break the bank to sign Joshua but the fighter has no regret choosing him ahead of Warren. “Eddie’s bringing a new era to boxing. I know boxers that have gone with Eddie Hearn that haven’t got a bad word to say about him.”
Honour: the boxer at Buckingham Palace for his MBECompared to Warren, the Hearn stable is not as experienced but Joshua says: “People look from the outside and don’t ask what’s really going on. I have Tony Sims. Tony has trained a world champion [Darren Barker, IBF world middleweight champion]. I still have connections with the Olympic boxing team and Matchroom Sports, so that’s a pretty strong team.”
But what about those who say Joshua lacks the power Lewis had?
“No,” he says firmly. “As my technique improves, my punch gets harder because a punch isn’t just an arm punch. I’m learning to put my hips through it from the feet. I’m punching a lot harder. If me and Lennox had started boxing at the same time, with the same coach and same technique, I’d punch just as hard or harder than him. If I’d learned what I’m learning now five years or 10 years ago, I’d be miles ahead. I’m just playing catch-up.”
And does he really believe that, when he catches up, he will emulate his hero Ali by predicting the round in which he will win?
“No, not just yet,” he says with a laugh. “But in the future I will. You need to believe in yourself, have a cockiness. Before I used to put pressure on myself, saying, ‘Oh my God, I’ve got to fight, I’ve got to win’. But, with all the training I’m doing, I don’t have to worry about winning.
“I don’t think fighting is a pressure. What really makes a difference is what I do behind closed doors. That will determine what is shown to the world. That’s why I need to get it right.”
And with that he gets on his phone to arrange another chess match, no doubt hoping to hone his tactical skills.