EXCLUSIVE — As the old adage goes, a boxer is the first to know when they should retire and the last to accept that reality.
In persuading themselves to go through week after week of gruelling training before trading blows, with all the grave danger that entails inside the prize ring, fighters become masters of self-deception. Of course, they can land these shots, avoid those others and beat that bitter rival.
Rematches serve to undermine this part of the boxer’s armoury. By the time they face an opponent for a second or third time, they know and have experienced too much. It becomes harder to trick the mind.
Heading into this weekend’s revenge mission in Saudi Arabia against Oleksandr Usyk, Anthony Joshua has conceded he got his tactics wrong in their initial fight last September. Esteemed trainer Robert Garcia is a new headline addition to his corner.
Still, once the first bell goes, Joshua will have to solve the puzzle of a man who roundly outboxed him to rip the IBF, WBA and WBO titles from his grasp at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. The ignorance from before their first encounter might feel like a kind of bliss.
“The most important thing is AJ has got to have complete trust in whoever’s in his corner, not be asking everybody else ‘how do I beat this man?’ He’s got to know how he’ll beat this man because if he’s asking people their opinion on what he should do, that’s a little bit of an alarm bell,” David Coldwell, who trained Tony Bellew for his November 2018 fight with Usyk when the Ukrainian master was undisputed world cruiserweight champion, told The Sporting News.
“That’s what I believe he was doing before the first fight. He has to have complete trust in the methods that are being worked on in the gym.”
Coldwell also has experience of helming high-profile rematches. He teamed up with Bellew when his long-time friend stepped up to 200lbs. Their third bout together was a return with bitter light-heavyweight rival Nathan Cleverly at the higher weight class. The passage of three years meant there was not much to be gleaned from the original contest, especially when Cleverly shut up shop and appeared to box for the final bell from the early stages of part two.
But in Bellew’s money-spinning feud with David Haye and during WBA bantamweight champion Jamie McDonnell’s instant rematches with Tomoki Kameda and Liborio Solis, Coldwell had to put together fight plans for swift sequels. Unlike Garcia with Joshua, he was working alongside fighters who won the initial bout each time, but that didn’t mean there was no scope to learn lessons and right wrongs.
“We knew in the rematch with Kameda…I believed that he took Jamie lightly,” he recalled. “He was bred to be this superstar, he had the big backing. I thought, okay, he’s taken you lightly so you can’t afford to go in as the fighter you were in the first fight. You need to step it up a gear. He’s going to be better so you need to be better and you need to beat him more convincingly, which is what he did.”
How can Anthony Joshua be mentally strong against Oleksandr Usyk?
It’s not difficult to imagine similar messaging within Team Usyk over the past few months and the champion’s mental toughness will also come in handy. Although, as Coldwell explained, that trait comes in many different forms.
“Jamie’s a different sort of breed. He didn’t actually care who he was boxing. He wouldn’t watch any footage of them or anything. He’s never done that,” he said of McDonnell.
“Jamie was quite strong mentally and had that ignorance of not watching opponents and not caring about them… he didn’t know who Sugar Ray Leonard was. He didn’t watch Sugar Ray Leonard until quite a long time in the gym. One day he walked in and said, ‘Hey, I watched a bit of that Sugar Ray Leonard, he wasn’t bad was he?’”
It’s unlikely Joshua, who essentially dressed up as Muhammad Ali for the first Usyk fight, is operating with a similar veil of ignorance. He talked about the “sweet science” frequently in interviews when remodelling his approach in the aftermath of his first career loss to Andy Ruiz Jr and posts slogans such as “Married to the game” on social media.
Married to the game 🏁 pic.twitter.com/tebnMZKe1x
— Anthony Joshua (@anthonyjoshua) April 29, 2022
However, there have been few modern fighters who seem as encyclopedically plugged into boxing history as Bellew. The former WBC cruiserweight champion identified ex-WBA heavyweight king Haye as a sort of cash-out option. A glamorous name who he did not view himself as superior to but able to beat, something Coldwell knows is an important distinction.
“The thing about Bellew is he’s very, very driven,” he said. “We shared the same philosophy of just because this fighter is having success against that fighter, he ain’t in with you so it’s not going to be the same way.”
Bellew beat Haye in their initial encounter, stopping him in round 11, but it was a contest shaped by the older man rupturing his Achilles during an action-packed sixth. The earlier smart-boxing and pot-shotting approach from Bellew gave way to him wailing away on a stricken one-legged foe too bloody-minded to bow out.
“The last five rounds of the fight, he wasn’t very good. After the fight, he knew that,” Coldwell explained. “We got the win, which was fantastic, but I was fuming because of how he’d lost his head. In the rematch it was all about staying focused, learning from the first fight.”
When a fit-again Haye reconvened with Bellew in May 2018, 15 months later, Coldwell’s fighter produced a clinical destruction, putting his foe down twice in the third and once more in the fifth thanks to a signature trading left hook, after which the end came.
“He was completely disciplined all the way through,” he said. “When he bounced Haye off the canvas the first time, he came back to the corner and went ‘not yet’. The second and third time are the same. We knew Haye would [walk into the shots] and the ending was very conclusive. But he didn’t go out there forcing it and trying to make it happen.”
Not that this stands as great news for anybody in the Anthony Joshua business, but it’s a reminder that improvement and refinement are often easier to find than complacency in a rematching fighter coming off a win.
“Haye had such a great reputation for power and he took that no problem in the first fight, that could give you a complacent attitude,” Coldwell continued. “But because Bellew’s intelligent he was like, ‘I’ve tasted his power, there’s no way I want to give him the opportunity to switch my lights out.’
“Usyk’s a very intelligent fighter and he’s got a goods read on [Joshua’s] power now. I would imagine that it makes Usyk more confident because he knows he can take the shots. It will also make him sharper mentally and even more aware of just how much power Anthony Joshua’s got. That should make him in even sharper, more alert form.”
What did Anthony Joshua do wrong in the first fight against Oleksandr Usyk?
Coldwell has his suspicions that Joshua’s muddled efforts in the first fight might partly have had their roots in Bellew’s early success against Usyk, where he outboxed the boxer in the first few rounds before the champion took control and found a spectacular eighth-round stoppage.
“I actually think that they looked at what we did with Bellew in that fight and thought ‘if Bellew can outbox him then we can outbox him,’” he said. “Just because you watch footage of a fighter doing this to somebody doesn’t mean you can do that to somebody because it’s not your way of fighting. You’re taking away some of your advantages. Bellew didn’t have those physical advantages that AJ has.
“In AJ being standoffish, trying to box and trying to be smart, he’s never going to outdo Usyk on an intelligent, boxing IQ level. But what he has got is that physical presence — the height, the reach, the power — and I believe that in the way he approached it he took his assets away from himself.”
Coldwell believes turning the tide is possible if Joshua taps into those natural assets, but not in a gung-ho fashion.
“I do think that he needs to put the pressure on but he needs to put intelligent pressure on,” he said. “Marco Huck thought he was going to walk straight through Usyk when they fought for the cruiserweight titles. He thought he could walk forward, throw bombs and deal with Usyk. I think Joe Joyce thought that when he fought Usyk in the amateurs.
“It’s more than just letting your hands go because you have to get your feet in range. AJ is a fantastic combination puncher at that mid-range, probably the best in the division. He’s the best one around and he generates speed and generates power. But in order to get those shots off, he must get his feet into range. That’s a tough task.
“I think part of it is he has to take away Usyk’s legs, he has to get him stood in front of him, he has to tire Usyk out. You have to understand you might not catch him on the chin for a couple of rounds with majorly effective shots, but it’s about getting to that body — right hands to the chest and to the gut, left hooks round to the side.”
Coldwell added: “One thing I would say is that the fighters Robert Garcia has worked with, apart from being lighter, they tend to not mind taking one to land a couple, they don’t mind taking a couple to get in range, they’re very effective at blocking and countering and blocking and walking forward.
“That requires a lot of confidence, it requires a lot of belief in your ability to take a shot and a lot of belief in your defence. That needs to be something that has been worked on and worked on in the months they’ve been working together. And it has to have the full confidence when you go then under the pressure, under the lights on fight night in a must-win fight.”
Whether or not you or I think executing such a plan is plausible is by the by. If hard months of slog behind closed doors mean Joshua really and truly believes Garcia’s game plan holds the key to unlocking Usyk then that might be half the battle won.