It had already been a tough night for Anthony Joshua.
The two-time ex-heavyweight champ had endured the in-ring equivalent of swatting a mosquito in a windstorm before finally breaking through and landing a series of body shots that set the tide turning.
A third reign, it seemed, was only moments away.
But the would-be rally was snuffed by a gutsy reply from incumbent Oleksandr Usyk, who dominated down the stretch to keep his cache of belts while sending Joshua to a third loss in five fights.
So, if you’re shocked that Joshua’s mood was sour in the immediate aftermath, don’t be.
The guy was entitled to be a bit pissed off.
Still, what happened once the decision was announced was surprising. Even for boxing.
Nimbly blending elements of cordial congratulation and full-on temper tantrum, the 32-year-old Englishman dialed a merely OK event up to memorable with a post-fight tirade that his countrymen received as if it had come from a petulant teen.
He threw Usyk’s championship belts and stormed from the ring after Michael Buffer read the split-decision verdict in the Ukrainian’s favor and then returned to shake hands with his foe before grabbing the microphone and launching into a bizarre ramble in front of a stone-silent Saudi crowd.
“I’m stealing this, Usyk,” Joshua said. “I’m sorry, but it’s because of the passion we put into this.
“This guy beat me tonight. Maybe I could have done better, but it shows the level of hard work I put in, so please give him a round of applause as our heavyweight champion of the world. I’m not a 12-round fighter. Look at me, I’m a new breed of heavyweights.”
He veered from rationalizing his loss to celebrating Usyk’s win to offering a well-intentioned, albeit not particularly insightful, viewpoint on the continuing upheaval in his foe’s home country.
“I was studying Ukraine and all the amazing champions who have come from your amazing country, bro,” he said. “I've never been there. But at the same time, what’s happening there is, I don’t know what’s happening there, but it’s not nice at the end of the day.”
Not exactly Kanye West with boxing gloves, but close.
Either way, it was a remarkable unraveling of a guy once pegged for global stardom.
Though nine title-fight wins across two championship reigns still place Joshua well past the sport’s flotsam and jetsam, it’s no less true that consecutive losses to a blown-up cruiserweight indicate he’s something less than the supernova some hype men claimed as the wave crested in 2017.
“This is the genuine article, a credible world heavyweight boxing champion who can charm a mainstream audience in a way not seen for a generation,” said editor Eoin Connolly, whose SportsPro magazine labeled a then-unbeaten 27-year-old the world’s most marketable athlete. “He’s proved this in the UK and now has a chance to do it around the world in the years ahead. Fans are flocking to him, brands are flocking to him, and that only looks set to continue.”
He carried the label for three fights before getting flattened by Andy Ruiz in a much-hyped U.S. debut in June 2019, defeated Ruiz in a return bout six months later and defended once more versus Kubrat Pulev before Usyk upended plans for a Tyson Fury bout with a surprise decision last September.
Avenging the loss would have rekindled the fire for an all-England showdown, but it was Usyk fielding those questions Saturday evening as Team Joshua began ducking for PR cover as soon as it left the ring.
“I can’t tell you how proud I am of Anthony Joshua,” promoter Eddie Hearn wrote on Instagram.
“I can’t tell you how much he wanted to win (Saturday). I can’t tell you how hard he tried. Don’t be deceived by a brave face or a strong frame, this man has always been under pressure and has given so much to British boxing. The emotion (Saturday) was that of a devastated man, and maybe all those years of pressure finally showed.”
That pressure will be far less extreme now that reality has set in.
Joshua maintained before the rematch he’d continue to fight no matter the result, and it’s surely within reason to suggest he remains among the world’s elite heavyweights even with the loss.
He’s beaten three of the fighters in The Ring’s latest top-10 rankings, which have him second behind Usyk with no mention of Fury, who’d relinquished the magazine’s title belt earlier this month.
A match with fellow ex-champ Deontay Wilder—whom Fury has KO’d twice—had long been talked about and would still be a windfall even as a prerequisite to another title chance with Fury or Usyk.
Or, given the sport’s perpetual cycle of sanctioning body silliness, it’s just a matter of time before at least one of the trinkets now possessed by the two unbeaten champions is vacated or stripped from its current owner, leaving Joshua within range of a third, albeit slightly devalued, championship run.
So, while Saturday’s sulk makes for bad optics this news cycle, it’s not a total loss to Jim Lampley.
“Good news is that he has made lifetime generational money,” the former HBO blow-by-blow man told Bleacher Report. “The meltdown came from how circumstances have conspired against him. But at the same time, respect for Usyk is quite apparent, and hoisting the (Ukrainian) flag was classy.
“A Fury fight would be another epic payday I do not believe he could win. But if he can make the deal, he ought to do it.”