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3 May 2017

The friendly hitman: how boxing gave Anthony Joshua a second chance

At 19, he was fitted with an electronic tag. At 27, he is the world’s top heavyweight boxer. 

By Xan Rice

Boxing nicknames usually fall into three categories. There’s the smart, such as Michael “Second To” Nunn. The cool: “Sugar” Ray Leonard. And, most often, the blunt: James “Bonecrusher” Smith, “Iron” Mike Tyson and Roberto “Hands of Stone” Durán.

But when, in 2012, a British coach in the Olympic Village chose a nickname for a young heavyweight prospect with a troubled past, it had nothing to do with his ability to inflict pain. Rather, it focused on his friendly nature, akin to that of the character played by the Australian actor Paul Hogan in a 1980s film.

“I call him Crocodile Dundee, and he was like him when he walked through New York,” the coach said. “‘Josh’ says ‘hiya’ to everyone.”

Fortunately for Anthony Joshua, who went on to win Olympic gold in London, the nickname never stuck – he goes by “AJ”. But his reputation as one of the sport’s good guys did, even as his professional career took off. A multimillionaire, Joshua still lives with his social worker mother, Yeta, in an ex-council flat in north London and is as comfortable chatting to children about the importance of healthy eating as he is mingling with celebrities.

“[He’s] a nice guy outside the ring,” his first trainer, Sean Murphy, told the Daily Star last week, in the run-up to Joshua’s biggest fight yet. “But a nasty motherf***er inside it.”

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So it proved at Wembley Stadium on Saturday night in one of the greatest heavyweight title bouts in decades. In front of 90,000 fans, a postwar record, Joshua fought 11 enthralling rounds with Wladimir “Dr Steelhammer” Klitschko. Physically, it was meeting of near equals. Both men stand 6ft 6in and weighed in at 17 stone, with 47in chests, 18in necks and none of the flab often found on heavyweight boxers. Both are renowned for the force of their punches. “Just imagine someone getting about five bricks, putting them in a pillowcase and hitting you on the head with it,” Ben Ileyemi, Joshua’s cousin and sparring partner, told the Times, describing what it was like to be hit by the Briton.

The difference was age and experience. Joshua, who is 27, had won all 18 of his professional fights, with knockouts. The Ukrainian, the most dominant heavyweight this century, had fought 68 times and is 41. Early on in the fifth round it looked as if youth would triumph when Klitschko was floored. But then the Ukrainian pummelled Joshua, knocking him down in the next round. Somehow Joshua recovered and by the 11th round had Klitschko in trouble again, dropping him to the canvas before the referee stopped the fight. As holder of the IBF, WBA and IBO titles, Joshua is now indisputably the world’s top heavyweight boxer, even if he doesn’t talk like it.

“Massive respect to Klitschko,” he said after the fight. “He’s a role model in and out of the ring…”

Unlikely as it would have seemed six years ago, the same can be said for Joshua. Born in Watford, Hertfordshire, to a Nigerian mother and a father of Nigerian and Irish descent, he grew up on the town’s Meriden Estate. After repeatedly getting in trouble, he was sent briefly to school in Nigeria, returning to the UK in year seven. He was good at football and athletics, running the 100m in 11.6 seconds, but at the time he left Kings Langley School at 16, he had never stepped in boxing ring.Two years later, while working as a jobbing bricklayer, Joshua agreed to accompany his cousin Ileyemi to Finchley Boxing Club. Light-footed and strong, he was a natural.

Yet even as he was winning amateur fights, he was running with a bad crowd. In 2009, aged 19, he spent two weeks on remand in prison for “fighting and other crazy stuff”, and was fitted with an electronic tag for a year. It focused his mind. “I started reading because I learned that so many champions educated themselves. Joe Louis, Mike Tyson, Bernard Hopkins,” he told the Guardian in 2015. “Before it was ‘act now, think later’ – but the discipline and reading changed me.”

Not enough, though. After being selected for the national boxing team he was pulled over for speeding in 2011. Police found 8oz of cannabis in his bag. Joshua was charged with possession with intent to supply a class B drug and sentenced to a 12-month community order and 100 hours of unpaid work. He was also suspended from boxing.

He returned to Watford and started hanging out with his old mates. His career looked in jeopardy. But when Great Britain Boxing called and invited him to fight at the European championships, Joshua jumped at the chance to redeem himself in the eyes of all the people he had let down – the boxing fraternity, his friends and his family, “especially my mum”. He resolved finally to focus instead on clean living – for which he is now renowned – and his sport. If it weren’t for boxing, “I would have been in drug gangs and prison,” he has said.

Instead, Joshua has the chance to become one of sport’s biggest and wealthiest stars. He earned an estimated £15m for the Klitschko bout. And his good looks, intelligence, affability and backstory make him a sponsor’s dream. 

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This article appears in the 03 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Russian Revolution