OLIVER HOLT: What is left of Anthony Joshua's legacy?

OLIVER HOLT: It is difficult to know what is left of Anthony Joshua’s legacy… his reputation has been scarred by his refusal to speak out against human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia – and hopes he may transcend the sport have now been extinguished

  • Anthony Joshua did himself credit despite the defeat to Oleksandr Usyk
  • Joshua lost to a man and a nation, with Usyk fighting for war-torn Ukraine
  • But his reputation has taken a serious hit for his refusal to talk about Saudi issues
  • The build-up to the fight showed that Saudi’s sportswashing regime is working

Anthony Joshua lost to a man and to a nation last night. He did not just lose another world heavyweight title fight to Oleksandr Usyk. He lost a freedom fight as well. Joshua was not overwhelmed here in this ring on the shores of the Red Sea as he had been 11 months ago when he first fought his opponent but he was no match for the vengeful fury of a Ukrainian carrying all the anger of a wronged motherland in his heart.

Joshua did himself credit but if this was his best, it was still not good enough against a supremely skilled technician who is most people’s pick for the best pound for pound boxer in the world. Joshua lost by split decision and afterwards, upset by the judges’ cards and his failure to close the fight out, he launched into a profanity-laced tirade in the ring, praising Usyk’s passion and skill but trying to hit back at those who had doubted him and who had felt he would be humiliated in this rematch. He threw two of Usyk’s belts out of the ring in his pain and his frustration.

And yet the hard facts are that Joshua has now lost three of his last five fights and has fallen away from the summit of the heavyweight division. He fought with courage and with more skill than many thought he possessed but the prospect of him fighting Tyson Fury in a blockbuster bout has receded further and at 32, he will have to think about whether he has it in him to work his way back towards another title shot.

Anthony Joshua did his best but he was outclassed by a supremely-gifted technician in Oleksandr Usyk

Usyk was a deserved winner of the eagerly-anticipated rematch in Saudi Arabia on Saturday

It is difficult to know now what is left of Joshua’s legacy, except the money he has earned. And fighters usually find there are plenty of false friends around to separate them from most of that in the end. His reputation has been scarred not just by the manner of his first defeat to Usyk and his earlier capitulation to Andy Ruiz Jr but by his willingness to fight in Saudi Arabia and his failure to voice any opposition to the regime’s egregious human rights abuses.

‘I’m not caught up in any of that stuff,’ Joshua said in June when he was asked about the murder of Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi, whose body was cut into pieces with a bone saw at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018. ‘I’m here to have a good time, mix with the local people, bring entertainment to Saudi.’

There was a time, after he won the super-heavyweight gold medal at the London Olympics in 2012, blazed a dazzling trail to becoming heavyweight world champion in April 2016 and won a fight for the ages against Wladimir Klitschko at Wembley in 2017, when it appeared that Joshua might transcend the sport but those hopes have gradually faded away and last night’s loss extinguished them altogether.

It is difficult to know what to make of Joshua’s legacy after the second defeat to Usyk

Joshua should have been roared on by 90,000 fans in England – instead the fight was held in Jeddah

Instead of being roared on by 90,000 fans at Wembley or the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, the defining fight of Joshua’s life was fought in the King Abdullah Sports City Arena, a domed 10,000 seat capacity arena in scrubland in the parched suburbs of this port city. Anecdotal evidence suggested very few supporters had made the journey from the UK. The majority of the British fans who were here had flown in from Dubai.

Joshua has fought in the kingdom before, of course, regaining his world titles from Ruiz Jr in Riyadh in 2019, and has shied away from criticising the regime, raising more questions about whether he stands for anything beside the accumulation of cash.

It is hard to avoid the suspicion that rather than using sporting events to encourage progress, the Saudi regime is actually using them to obstruct progress. That is part of the sportswashing playbook. These events are a sheen to woo tourists and win international approbation and provide a gloss of distraction and an illusion of change but beneath the surface, the old persecutions and arcane punishments continue unabated.

So while much attention was being lavished on the fact that Ramla Ali, a British-Somali model and activist, and Crystal Garcia Nova were taking part in the first women’s professional fight in Saudi Arabia on the undercard of Usyk-Joshua 2, the Saudi legal system was sentencing Salma al-Shehab, a Saudi student at Leeds University who had returned home to the kingdom for a holiday, to 34 years in jail for posting her support of women’s rights activists on Twitter.

Ramla Ali, a British-Somali model and activist (R), was on the undercard of the main fight

There is modest progress in women’s rights in the kingdom but to laud it while women’s rights activists rot in jail here feels like a curious inversion of priorities.

That fighters such as Joshua and Usyk, golfers such as Phil Mickelson and Henrik Stenson, and football clubs such as Newcastle United, are being used to ease away western misgivings about Saudi human rights abuses seemed as pernicious as ever in Jeddah this week. The sportswashing is working, too. Eddie Hearn, Joshua’s promoter, said people didn’t even ask him about it any more.

Joshua knew his only way to win was to start aggressive and go for the knockout. And Usyk knew that was what Joshua had to do, too. When the opening bell sounded, Joshua tried to impose himself on the champion but Usyk was just too slick. Joshua struggled to lay a glove on him.

Joshua used his superior reach to good effect in the third, snapping Usyk’s head back with some stiff jabs before landing a jolting right hook but in the fourth round, Usyk moved up a gear, dominating the centre of the ring and dancing around Joshua, picking him off at will. Those were the first clear echoes of the first fight between them.

Joshua exploded into action in the ninth and looked as though he may get a stoppage

In the fifth, Usyk buzzed around Joshua like a bee and Joshua looked like a giant trying to swat him with his great fist. Joshua caught him in the end with a low blow and Usyk hobbled around the ring in pain, crossing himself theatrically as he was given time to recover.

Joshua tried to reassert himself but Usyk dominated the second half of the seventh round. The feeling was that the fight was close as it moved towards the later rounds where most had expected the champion to be the stronger man. Joshua rocked Usyk back with a swinging right in the eighth but as the round wore on, his work began to look wild as Usyk peppered him with blows.

But in the ninth, Joshua exploded into action. He connected with a clubbing right to Usyk’s head and swarmed all over the champion. For the first time in the fight, Usyk looked as if he were in trouble. He retreated in the face of Joshua’s assault, desperately trying to stay out of range and cling on.

Usyk hit back strongly in the tenth, the best round of the fight so far. Now it was his turn to swarm all over his opponent but then Joshua caught him flush on the chin with a stunning right hook. Usyk wore it and then redoubled his attack until by the end of the round, it seemed he was on the verge of victory.

The penultimate round was more even and subdued and Joshua did not have quite enough in the final round to swing the verdict his way. ‘AJ’s a competitor and a winner but Usyk is just too good,’ Hearn said.

Usyk was a worthy winner, with promoter Eddie Hearn admitting he was ‘just too good’ for AJ 

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