It is only a short walk from the dressing room to the ring at The O2, another tangible reminder that those stadium nights under the lights are long gone. Anthony Joshua did not just have to win against Jermaine Franklin – he had to seize a moment in time to reinstall himself as “the best of the rest”, if no longer one of heavyweight boxing’s elites.
Having failed to do so with a lukewarm display, though handed the result by unanimous decision, Joshua turned court jester. “Who do we want?” “Tyson!” they replied. “The ball’s in his court,” he yelled back.
If it felt a little more Butlins than O2 arena, the noise was at least a welcome distraction from the messages he will have heard being hurled at him from the fans paying the big money ringside. “Get on with it,” shouted one. “This is bollocks”, interjected another.
Joshua concedes that “I could have let my hands go” more. In fact, Franklin threw more punches but also landed fewer, testament to a gulf in skill if not in spirit. Franklin, with his slower hands, ought to have made Joshua look brilliant. He occupies that strange space where he is not a novice nor your average journeyman, with one professional defeat but with little reputation.
So the path ahead for Joshua is suddenly that bit murkier. Boxing politics dictate he may not fight Fury anyway. Joshua has hinted that he would be willing to take a 70-30 purse split in the WBC champion’s favour, which was one stipulation that led to the collapse of Fury’s fight with IBF, WBA and WBO belt-holder Oleksandr Usyk.
Fury may see Joshua as easier prey, his susceptibility to Franklin’s quick combos and his lack of aggression suggesting he would be in real trouble were he to enter the ring with a fighter so much closer to their prime. Fury is actually the older man by a year but looks nowhere near finished.
In a press conference afterwards, Joshua described Fury as “the pot of the gold, the WBC heavyweight champion of the world”. He batted away suggestions that a rematch with Dillian Whyte, who he knocked out in seven rounds back in 2015, would be a more sensible option.
Whyte too could sense that Joshua is now “apprehensive”, a trait which would see him knocked out by Fury or Deontay Wilder. At any rate, it is hard to shake the feeling that the moment has passed.
In Joshua’s defence, what do rankings, even belts, matter right now? When Fury will not fight Usyk, or Usyk will not fight Fury, and Fury and Joshua have had multiple opportunities to fight each other and have chosen not to. The chances of establishing a first undisputed heavyweight champion since Lennox Lewis look slim.
Some have always accused Joshua of cherry-picking. It is hard to reconcile now, but when Joshua took the first Usyk fight, there was an accusation that he saw it as a natural win because his opponent was so much smaller and had only fought twice since making the step up from cruiserweight.
The cherry-picking claims do hold a little water. If he wanted Wilder, why not fight him at his peak in 2016? Negotiations fell through, which Hearn has blamed on Wilder’s team, but talks stalled on both sides. The Bronze Bomber’s recent blitzing of Robert Helenius suggests his power has not diminished either despite a punishing trilogy defeat to Fury.
Who will Joshua fight next?
- Dillian Whyte rematch: 10-11
- Filip Hrgovic: 3-1
- Deontay Wilder: 6-1
- Tyson Fury: 8-1
- Oleksandr Usyk trilogy: 16-1
Odds via Betfair and correct on 2 April
Once, a Joshua-Fury showdown was not even just about the belts, but about establishing the pre-eminent British heavyweight of the 21st century. That is no longer a debate; if it was, he would not have been fighting Franklin and struggling to sell tickets as late as last Thursday.
Fighting Fury would entail serious risk – especially for a fighter that looks so damaged by 24 gruelling rounds with Usyk and a knockout by Andy Ruiz Jr – and not much reward, except financially.
It is no longer the match-up the boxing public demand, however many of them would tune in. But each passing fight is beginning to feel like another Alastair Cook England duck, a sad footnote on the end of a career that has given so much. Fury could end that career once and for all.
Those around him are incentivised for that not to happen. Eddie Hearn wants him to fight three times this year, once at the end of summer and again in December and if Saturday night had the feel of a quasi-exhibition, Matchroom will hope it was not a signifier of things to come.
For Joshua’s remaining devotees, it is hard to get too excited about what is next – but it cannot be Fury, even if he is running out of other credible options.