The advice from all quarters for Anthony Joshua to find redemption on the Red Sea against Oleksandr Usyk and become a three-time world champion was for the taller, heavier Briton to impose himself and thus he did.
But it was not quite enough as Usyk retained the world titles by split points decision in a thrilling fight, the last three rounds the key as the clever southpaw imposed all his boxing skills on Joshua, who had gone to the body time and again, hurting Usyk without finding the punch or the combination to being home the glory.
In a sense, Joshua has regained respect and showed his emotional intensity afterwards in an impassioned speech, firstly marching out of the ring and then returning to address the crowd.
“I am giving you my story,” said Joshua. “I was going to jail. I got bailed and started training my arse off, because if I got sentenced then I would not have been able to fight. I could have done better, but it showed the hard work he must have put in to beat me. Please give him a round of applause as our heavyweight champion of the world.”
I’m not a 12-round fighter. I am a new breed of heavyweight, Mike Tyson, Sonny Liston – they say ‘he doesn’t throw combinations like Rocky Marciano,’ because I am 18 stone, I am heavy. It is hard work.This guy here is a phenomenal talent. We’re going to cheer for him.”
On my card, Joshua had led 5-4 after nine rounds. The desire looked there, as it had all week here. Joshua walked the ring with no frills this time his demeanour that of the challenger, the underdog, the words of Mike Tyson and his trainer Cus D’Amato ringing out in the arena, and the message clear: mindset and intent. Joshua paced his side of the ring as MC Michael Buffer regaled his career resume. Usyk stayed in his corner, head bowed, arms and hands at his side.
This contest, an intriguing sequel which had far-reaching implications for the heavyweight division did not disappoint. A huge fight, nuanced with its taking place in the Middle East, bought and brought to Saudi Arabia through a £100 million money grab. But for all that, the atmosphere in the arena grew to a crescendo of electricity, both protagonists seemingly enjoying equal support. Both anthems were belted out vigorously, the latter, for Ukraine, a reminder of a different, very real struggle back in Usyk’s homeland.
As a precursor to the big show, peviously unbeaten heavyweights Filip Hrgovic and Zhilei Zhang indulged in a see-sawing battle of the bulge. It was an intense, exhausting battle with Hrgovic, rated No. 9 by The Ring, and one of the division’s brightest young stars, having the toughest fight of his career as he was drawn into the trenches by the 20st Chinese southpaw. Hrgovic, the winner on points, gains IBF mandatory challenger status to challenge Usyk.
So much hung on Joshua around this event. And in a sense, his stock has risen. This was not victory for Joshua, but it was a redemption of sorts. Eddie Hearn, his promoter, told Telegraph Sport afterwards that he agreed with the judges’ decision, but wants his fighter out again this year “maybe against Dillian Whyte.”
Joshua failed in his ultimate task here, but he revealed a new side to himself as a fighter, improved, and showed his true colours afterwards. This experience will have changed him as a fighter. And a human being. And he will be back.