The first thing you notice about Anthony Joshua is he looks happy. Not comfortable. Joshua hates media events, Wednesday’s press conference to promote his matchup with Jermaine Franklin on Saturday included.
“It’s entertainment,” Joshua said. “I prefer normal stuff.” But he’s happy. Flanked by his new trainer, Derrick James, Joshua smiled repeatedly during the half hour he was onstage. Of his fight with Franklin, Joshua said, “We’re ready to rock and roll.”
It's notable, if only because against Franklin, the stakes couldn’t be higher. In boxing, rhetoric can be hyperbolic. Must win is a phrase repeatedly written. But Joshua (24–3) is riding a two-fight losing streak and has dropped three of his past five bouts. He has not trusted his chin since he was knocked out by Andy Ruiz in 2019. Maybe longer. Must win is fitting. Even Joshua admits a loss could force him to retire.
“The reality is AJ wants to fight for the heavyweight title,” said Joshua’s promoter, Eddie Hearn. “If he loses, that puts all of that in jeopardy. It would raise that question about carrying on and what you are in the sport for. In that respect, there is a lot of pressure on Saturday night.”
The road back to the heavyweight title begins against Franklin, a fringe contender who earned a fight against Joshua after a competitive, though ultimately losing, effort against Dillian Whyte. Franklin (21–1) is an ideal opponent for the DAZN-streamed main event, credible (thanks to his performance against Whyte) with a glossy record that lacks true knockout power. Franklin’s promoter, Dmitry Salita, has pushed the comparison to Ruiz, but the stocky, 6'2" frame is where the similarities between Ruiz and Franklin end.
But this isn’t about Franklin. It’s about Joshua. It’s about if, at 33, the ex-Olympic gold medalist, former two-time heavyweight champion, longtime British wrecking ball still has it. Joshua enlisted James to train him for this fight. He flew to Texas, hitting the same bags Errol Spence Jr. and Jermell Charlo pound away at. He marveled at Spence’s work ethic. He liked that James, who retired from boxing in 2008, had a fighter’s background.
“Derrick James,” Joshua said, “is one of the best trainers I’ve ever seen.”
By all accounts, camp was a success. Joshua liked Texas. “It’s warm, out of the way,” Joshua said. He connected with James. “The knowledge he spits is phenomenal,” he said. Physically, he focused on his nutrition. “Weights don’t win fights,” Joshua said. Technically, he worked on power, particularly that right hand. James, Joshua said, told him to “put some d--- on it,” emphasizing the need to use his whole body when throwing his knockout shot.
“It’s not so much about changing him but adding to what he is already doing,” James said. “I’m not taking anything from him. He’s who he was before. I just want to add a little more to what he is doing.”
James didn’t do a deep dive on Joshua. He didn’t watch a second of Joshua’s first fight against Oleksandr Usyk. He watched “bits and pieces” of the rematch. He liked Joshua’s size. He liked his mobility. In the weeks they have worked together, he says he has been impressed with Joshua’s thirst for knowledge. He said Joshua’s defense has improved. Counterpunching, too.
“We’ll see the beginning of something great,” James said. “That guy who fought Usyk is a different guy than I believe he is today.”
Rebuilding Joshua, though, goes beyond the physical. Usyk didn’t just beat Joshua. He may have broken him. After losing the rematch, Joshua grabbed a microphone and delivered a bizarre speech. At the postfight press conference, Joshua broke down in tears. For years, decades even, Joshua has been one of the UK’s most scrutinized athletes. “The pressure has been crazy,” he said. He’s financially motivated to fight. It remains to be seen whether there is anything else that fuels him.
On Saturday, we’ll find out. The Joshua-Franklin bout has been titled “A New Dawn.” It could be called “That Last Stand.” Losses tend to be overrated in boxing, but Joshua can’t afford another one. There’s a path back to the top of the heavyweight division. Franklin first, then a summertime rematch with Whyte that, if successful, could propel Joshua into an anticipated showdown with Tyson Fury before the end of the year. A loss to Franklin, though, could end it all.
“I’ve got to focus on this Jermaine Franklin guy,” said Joshua. “With that being said, if you were to ask me what my ambitions are, one would be to fight for the heavyweight championship of the world. Motivation is to make money, and the last ambition is to fight Deontay Wilder, Tyson Fury and Joe Joyce.”