Got to see old Joshua this week in Jeddah, says Steve Bunce
Away from the Shangri-La Hotel in Jeddah, there was one night when the referee had to take Anthony Joshua off Dillian Whyte.
It was in a long and lost time in the life and struggles of AJ.
On Monday night at the Shangri-La, which is close to the Red Sea promenade, Joshua was in a side room with his shrunken team. He was relaxed, speaking frankly and smiling. His talks were interrupted every few minutes by the arrival of someone important, someone he had to stand up and joke around with. There are a lot of important people in Jeddah and they all seemed to know which coin Joshua was using.
There is a lot of ceremony here in Saudi Arabia, a lot of protocol attached to meetings and greetings. They can never be rushed, everything is done at a fine pace that suits the heat. And, there must be a fucking cake! And dates and nuts.
Joshua sat in the room, Eddie Hearn at his side, his other loyal men across the table. We talked about the Haringey Box Cup and his fight with Otto Wallin. “People got to see that for about a five,” he said. He smiled at the memory of Olympic gold, which he won almost 10 years ago exactly. He was lively, focused and relaxed. He is always happy to talk about his amateur days. They shaped it and saved it, it’s as simple as that.
The hotel room was his temporary war room, his base for sharing his thoughts on Saturday nights: “Now talking doesn’t matter anymore,” he said. “It’s just the fight.” Then the door would open and a woman or man with three children would come in, AJ would come over, crouch down and give high-fives to the children. He never stopped smiling. It’s a side of the fighter that we rarely see. He’s a father, remember.
Oleksandr Usyk is also a father and he did his two hours of interviews holding and stroking an Eyore stuffed toy, which his daughter had given him when he left Ukraine to start camp. I told him that in Winnie the Pooh, Eyore is a melancholic little guy. “It’s not a boy, it’s a girl,” he told me. I always get the tough questions.
Usyk looked a little heavier, Joshua a little lighter; they each acted about as relaxed as possible during the melee for their thoughts on the fight. And, the war.
Usyk was once again brilliant on the frontline he left behind. The men and women he left behind and the people he will never see again. I asked John Hornewer, perhaps the greatest insider in modern boxing, what he thought of the pressures inside Usyk’s head. “He can compartmentalize,” he said. And that’s exactly what I thought when I talked to him. Usyk also has a coach to work on his mind, to control his emotions. That, in a fight like this and against the backdrop of deadly battlefields, is critical work.
The Monday night gathering was choreographed to make the pair miss each other; rooms for interviews, rooms for photographers and the main scrum area. There was also a buffet. People were talking about the boxer’s dimensions as they put away tiny red cupcakes. “He looks so much bigger…He looks so much smaller…I expected him to be a lot bigger. This kind of useless chatter. There will be other dates this week in the seaside town, they will stand face to face and then, around midnight on Saturday, they will head to the ring.
In the interstices, when the fighters were on the fourth floor, Hearn was quick to dismiss the rumors and talk about Joshua quitting if he lost. “Ridiculous, total bullshit,” he told me.
Joshua and Hearn had spent a lot of time at the table in the room, talking in low tones and then, at some point, Joshua had stood up – checking who was in the room first – and had taken a few punches; Hearn was Usyk in the role play. I did my best to be invisible. It’s always good to be the silent witness to a moment of private conversation in the world of boxing. I looked around and it was a familiar little group. Obviously Robert McCracken left, but Robert Garcia and Angel Fernandez weren’t there. The men in this room were 10-year veterans of the AJ Show. It was also a spectacle.
It was a smooth night, a long night. Joshua was probably done in about three hours and Usyk about the same. I left some of those early week encounters with a prior trepidation, a feeling that a fighter is not right. In New York, a long, long time ago, when Andy Ruiz joined Mike Costello and me on a balcony, we were struck by his confidence. It had new gold, major loot, and it was comfortably gobbling up pedestrians about 20 floors below us. In the land of aftertime, we missed a few clues: Ruiz was fearless and hungry. And, AJ had a stye in his eye, was sniffling and complaining about being tired! Ouch.
That certainly wasn’t the case at the Shangri-La on Monday night. Usyk wasn’t too relaxed and Joshua wasn’t too tense. I felt a real calm from Joshua and a great sense of purpose from Usyk. This whole story of fighting for a nation is very real. However, I’m still not convinced that it’s not a burden for Usyk, an extra weight in his head and heart.
That night, so long ago now at the O2, when Joshua mauled Whyte was on my mind as I left the Shangri-La after about five hours of attendance. Joshua was then carefree, undefeated, beloved by his fans and very dangerous. This man is still there, I could see it in his eyes.