In boxing, as in life, anyone can get touched. Nobody is immune to the humbling reality of taking an L. Anthony Joshua knew that before he stepped into Madison Square Garden’s fabled ring in the early hours of Sunday morning, as millions of sleep-deprived Brits tuned in to celebrate what was meant to be his big American splash. If you’ve followed AJ’s story, you know that he knew the reality of loss before he’d even stepped foot in a boxing gym, as an 18-year-old working class boy, making the risky but rational choices that working class boys sometimes make in pursuit of a better life.
AJ’s American debut didn’t work out. Against the odds, Andy Ruiz Jr responded brilliantly to a heavy knockdown in the third round by sticking it on AJ as the champ rushed into finish the job, knocking him down twice. The champ never really recovered and the fight was waved off after a couple more knockdowns in the seventh round.
Professional boxing is a brutal and fickle game, where the elite fighters are massive commodities and being undefeated is fetishised to the max. A loss can have disastrous consequences for the money monsters who pull the strings. So what followed was sadly predictable; fans chucking words like fake, fraud and finished in AJ’s direction while pundits, promoters and rivals ruminated on a potentially ‘destroyed’ legacy.
For some of us, Anthony Joshua’s legacy means way more than that.
I was lucky enough to spend five years teaching in a primary school in my own community, in a part of North London where half the children live below the poverty line, one of the poorest wards in Britain. Being a boxer and coach myself, who is a living testament to the life-transforming capability of the sport, I persuaded our headteacher to let me run an after school boxing club. I knew it would be a sanctuary for children who like me, like AJ, needed something to point their lives towards something better.
My best boxer was a girl. She was from one of our most marginalised, vulnerable communities. She was making risky decisions, her attendance was dreadful and when she did come to school the playground was like her personal fighting arena. Boxing saved her. Her attendance improved. Her justifiable anger towards everything dissipated. It was beautiful to see. Then as she was approaching the end of her time in primary education, she began to seriously unravel. The nurturing, secure environment full of adults she loved and trusted was about to be replaced by the daunting ocean full of sharks that is secondary school.
At the same time, our school was preparing to open a brand new library. One of my amazing colleagues had a personal connection with AJ, who had just made light work of Charles Martin to win his first world title and then successfully defended it in clinical fashion against Dominic Breazeale. The champ agreed to come and open our ‘book nook’ for the children. It wasn’t about media attention. It wasn’t about money. It was a gesture of kindness to a friend.
Of course, we kept the fact that the heavyweight champion of the world was making a visit to our neglected corner of the city secret form the kids, and when he arrived they lost their little minds in the loveliest way. He gave an assembly in our sun-blessed playground and stressed the importance of reading widely and with purpose. Then he opened our library and did a meet-and-greet for children who had been specially selected by their teachers, the one’s apparently most deserving of meeting a sporting hero. Of course, my boxing badass, who’d spent the previous few weeks lashing at out at everything and anyone because she was terrified of the looming change that awaited her, wasn’t chosen. But I wasn’t having that.
I had a brief conversation with AJ. I told him I’d been doing a lot of work with a young boxer, who had fantastic potential but was struggling to manage her emotions. He told me to go and get her. What followed was an exchange between a man who had started from the bottom and through sheer determination made it above the clouds, and a scared little girl who couldn’t yet see the sun. He asked her if she knew about Nicola Adams and told her to check out videos of her fights. He told her that she didn’t need much to be a great boxer, other than a good coach (thanks, champ) and the hunger to do it. He signed a picture for her and posed for a photograph.
That was exactly what she needed. That exchange reignited the positivity she had worked so hard to build and she finished school doing all the right things, with the photograph of her and the champ laminated and Blu-tacked to the inside of her desk, and the autographed picture in her pocket.
A few months after she left us, we got the devastating news through her younger siblings that the family had lost a parent, in a very sudden way. My boxer, at 12 years old had stopped attending her secondary school and taken on a lot of responsibility at home. And like I knew she would, she returned to the sanctuary she knew, to our after-school boxing club. Her younger siblings joined too. Together they put on the gloves, and worked through some of the unimaginable pain they all felt. And I swear down, inside the pocket of her puffer jacket was the autographed picture of her and Anthony Joshua.
That is why AJ’s legacy means more than being undefeated, more than being champion of the world. That’s why a surprising defeat to an unheralded fighter with underrated hand speed destroys nothing. Because he’s one of us, he already knew loss and struggle. If anything, it makes him even more relatable.
He found boxing relatively late in life, way later than the majority of his opponents, and achieved greatness through sheer determination to live differently. He was essentially learning on the job when he won Olympic gold in London. He was learning on the job when he climbed off the canvas to beat the legendary Wladimir Klitschko in one of the great heavyweight bouts. And he will learn from this setback, because that’s what boxing teaches us to do. We take adversity and shape it into something better.