Heavyweight champion has harnessed left-hand-only sparring and power of the brain to take on the southpaw challenger next Saturday
Anthony Joshua has left no stone unturned in his preparation for defending his heavyweight world title belts against southpaw challenger Oleksandr Usyk next Saturday. He has even been “sparring with just his left hand” to enhance his elusiveness against the unbeaten Ukrainian and former undisputed cruiserweight champion of the world.
Joshua, holder of the International Boxing Federation, World Boxing Association, World Boxing Organisation and International Boxing Organisation belts, meets his fellow London 2012 Olympic Games gold medallist at Tottenham Hotspur Football Stadium, in front of a sell-out 60,000 crowd.
Joshua was without his head trainer for a month of the 10-week preparation camp because Rob McCracken was leading the GB Olympic team in Tokyo to two gold, two silver and two bronze medals. But master and disciple were in constant contact, the world heavyweight champion comparing the practices of former middleweight boxer McCracken to Manchester United’s long-serving manager, Sir Alex Ferguson.
“We missed the structure Rob brings,” said the 31-year-old, who has one avenged defeat to Mexican-American Andy Ruiz on his 25-fight resume. “We all want to work for Rob like everyone did with Sir Alex Ferguson. When you want to play for the coach, you have a good team there. With Rob, he’s someone you want to fight for, he motivates you. Rob was still heavily involved even though he wasn’t there.”
One of the training practices was Joshua facing southpaw – right hand-leading – sparring partners in the lead-up to this contest, mimicking the smaller man in Usyk, who has great dexterity of movement and in creating angles from the opposing stance.
“When Eddie Hearn [Joshua’s promoter] came up [to the English Institute of Sport, Sheffield], he saw me spar one partner when I was only allowed to use my left hand,” Joshua explained. “It was challenging against a southpaw who could do whatever they wanted. I could not use my size or power. Putting yourself in vulnerable situations brings the best out of you.”
Indeed, ‘“AJ” – to give the 17st, 6ft 6in fighter his ring sobriquet – took the opportunity in the long lockdown periods to hone his craft and learn about his needs, both athletic and psychological. “I realised [in lockdown] that I like basic things, I don’t need a lot to make me happy. I also learnt about the power of the brain. Our brain is like plastic, forever changing, brain cells dying and developing new brain cells, so you can actually train yourself.
“I’ve learnt the power of deep practice, I am training on the edge to put in a defining performance on Sept 25 and beyond.”
Joshua may need that fluidity, as well as his power, against Usyk, with the former cruiserweight king making the step up to the blue riband division as Evander Holyfield and David Haye did before him, in an attempt to claim two-divisional championship status.
Usyk has a vast amateur pedigree, having won 335 of his 350 fights at that level, and became Olympic heavyweight champion and amateur world champion. He is also undefeated as a professional in an 18-fight career. In London, in 2012, Joshua began his journey claiming super-heavyweight gold after just 35 amateur bouts.
“Usyk is a good fighter, he comes from a good pedigree,” Joshua said. “Look at the Ukrainians – Wladimir Klitschko, Vitali Klitschko, Vasyl Lomachenko, and he is trained by Vasyl’s father ‘Papachenko’ [Anatoly]. Usyk was the [amateur] world champion in Baku, Olympic gold medallist and we know the importance of an amateur pedigree.
“If it was just about being the bigger, stronger man, I wouldn’t be motivated to get out of bed, to train, to put the yards in, to fatigue myself physically and mentally, to recover in the space of six or seven hours and go back and do it again in the morning.”
“I have looked at the attributes I need for this fight – the feet positioning, the hand positioning, the feints, the control. Positive affirmations, deep practice, practising on the edge, being vulnerable. All of these kinds of things make a good fighter, it’s not just about being the bigger man.
“If it was just about being big then I’d go in that ring and knock him out in the space of 20 seconds,” added Joshua assessing the 6ft 3in rival who is likely to be around a stone lighter than the champion. “If you follow your As, Bs and Cs it leads to your KOs.”
Joshua will be looking for a statement performance, which means Usyk off his feet at the end. Only then will the focus turn again to the potential heavyweight blockbuster with Tyson Fury, who has his own assignment to get through against Deontay Wilder on Oct 9.
Anthony Joshua v Oleksandr Usyk is live on Sky Box Office on Saturday