Those who know him best — trainers, promoters, and his business manager — give the inside view on Briton’s inexorable rise to the top
In eight years since Anthony Joshua won Olympic gold he has matured immeasurably as a fighter. In the words of Eddie Hearn, his long-time promoter, the heavyweight is “five to 10 per cent better every fight”, a rate of improvement that has shocked even those closest to him.
“Anthony has been a work in progress from the start,” says Rob McCracken, who has trained Joshua since his days as an amateur. “He did brilliantly to win Olympic gold and has been able to get better and better with his natural ability and dedication.”
Yet there was a sense that the 31-year-old was relying on natural instinct and raw skill a little too much even as he battled to statement victories over Dillian Whyte and Wladimir Klitschko, the latter of which cemented his reputation. There was no question Joshua had heart – witness how he recovered after being knocked down by Klitschko – but this was a fighter living on his wits rather than through tactical acumen.
When he lost to Andy Ruiz in Madison Square Garden in June 2019 it shocked the world, but maybe we should have known the defeat was coming.
“Joshua went in there with that reckless attitude, let his shots go,” says Hearn. “He didn’t go in there with a game plan and thought he’d just get rid of Ruiz.
“What happened happened but it’s the best thing that could have happened to him. Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman – all the greats lose. It’s how they come back from that defeat and how they learn,” says former boxer Spencer Oliver, who has watched him since his very first session at Finchley Amateur Boxing Club.
And Joshua has clearly learnt. The rematch against Ruiz was calm and clinical, with Joshua leaving nothing to chance.
“The Ruiz rematch was a more important fight than Klitschko,” says Hearn. “It showed he could do it, come back and show versatility. But now he’ll just be more disciplined, break him down and when he smells blood he’ll take him down. You saw in the second Ruiz fight he was under orders. This fight will be different. Once he hurts Pulev there will be no screaming, ‘be careful’.”
McCracken agrees, saying: “Heavyweight boxing shows you you’ve got to have disciplined and be patient. One round at a time and don’t rush anything because it can back fire. AJ’s got to be disciplined and smart – he knows that now – and that’s what he’s trained to do and what I think he will do.”
One thing that has struck this correspondent from spending time with Joshua over the years is how much bigger his entourage is now. That is meant as a compliment, because Joshua is surrounding himself with the very best. Whereas at the start he would have three people around him he will now have more than 20 on fight night. The transition from Olympic amateur to dominant professional is not an easy one but Joshua is mastering it.
“You come from amateur boxing with GB, which is extremely well set up, everything is provided and when you go pro you have to do that all yourself,” explains Freddie Cunningham, his business manager. “You’ve got to build your team. Team GB is a good foundation. He’s taken that pattern and made his own team.”
Key in that transformation is learning from those he has faced, such as Klitschko.
“The training camp started off with Rob McCracken, the strength and conditioning coach, and a nutritionist,” says David Ghansa, Joshua’s training camp manager “We were all in the Olympic set up still. As time went on I think the real changing factor for him was going to Klitschko’s camp and seeing how a real world champion organises everything. Even though it was so early, he took notes and came back and told us what it was like.
“It involved every detail of physical preparation, sports science, and the world’s experts in the field. We built off that and grew the team. He’s had it all in his mind how he wants it to work. It’s always evolving.”
Few sportsmen are as aware of their own brand as Joshua.
“AJ definitely understands his own brand,” says Andy Bell, his PR manager. “I don’t think he did early on. It’s grown significantly, not just in the last eight years but the last four or five years. Post Dillian Whyte, things from a PR perspective exploded.”
Those close to Joshua understood how the building blocks were there. This was an Olympic champion with an underdog story who had the looks of a male model. But the big moment came when he defeated Klitschko on that unforgettable night at Wembley on April 29 2017. The dramatic nature of that win – a genuinely epic contest that more than lived up to the hype – and even the smile that Joshua gave in the moments after the referee signalled the fight was over, launched the Londoner to a place where few sporting stars in this country have gone.
“From a media perspective that’s the moment he crossed from being a big star in boxing to Graham Norton, GQ – that kind [of media],” adds Bell. “He was there at that point.
“He did a campaign for Google over the summer. These are huge brands. Under Armor, Hugo Boss, these are household brands that all want to associate themselves with Anthony Joshua’s brand.”
The key is that Joshua demands his own stamp on what he does.
“Everything he does is about him and putting his own print on it,” says Bell. “No one-size-fits-all, no cookie cutter [approach] – none of that. Everything is built bespoke around him.”
And while Joshua is aware of his brand, he is equally aware of his worth. In the summer of 2020 he launched his own production studio, SPX Studio, which will give him complete control over his image rights.
That desire to understand the business world even struck Hearn at their first meeting.
“He’s always been super sharp in a business sense. But he’s always been quite inquisitive and wanted to know everything. I remember in our first meeting, it wasn’t that he didn’t trust us but he had to take everything in. So I told him to go away and speak to everyone and make his own judgment. He’s always been like that, with sponsorship or investments. He educates himself.”
Forbes declared Joshua the 19th-highest paid athlete in the world back in May 2020, with an annual income of £35.62m, of which £8.34m came from endorsements. Considering his age and the fact that the defeat of Kubrat Pulev was just his 25th professional fight it is an impressive figure.
“A lot of athletes such as Andy Murray, Rory McIlroy and Lewis Hamilton achieved a huge amount and did that towards the end of their career,” says Cunningham. “Anthony saw it early and wanted to capitalise. He did it even before his first world title fight. Over time he’s learned more and he takes information of out every situation and every partner we have. He develops as a person.”
Not just as a person, but as a boxer, a businessman and a brand, too.