By all accounts Anthony Joshua is a decent human being, an inordinately wealthy young fighter who hasn’t forgotten his roots and who always makes time for the fans. His recent decision to buy his old amateur coach a new BMW was notable in this regard, though the fact that a film was made and released of him doing so says much about a hype machine which after just 18 professional fights against a hodgepodge of journeymen, domestic-level opposition, and fading contenders, sees the 27 year old IBF heavyweight champion faces a 41 year old Wladimir Klitschko at Wembley Stadium in front of 90,000 fans amid more fanfare than your average royal pageant. It is testament to the timeless words attributed to the great 19th century American showman, P T Barnum: “There’s a sucker born every minute.”
The hype with which Joshua is being sold not only as an elite heavyweight, despite his record, but as a sporting icon and national role model in the UK, reaches its nadir with the new ad released by Under Armour. The US sportswear outfit bought over the rights to Ali’s name and image in the wake of his death, and in the ad we see footage of a young Ali juxtaposed with footage of Joshua in action. The inference being made both are cut from the same cloth, that they belong in the same category, is an insult not only to Ali’s legacy but even more grievously to the truth.
Ali, by way of a reminder, faced and defeated the likes of Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier, Ken Norton, George Foreman, and the US government in his career. Thus far Joshua has faced Dillian Whyte, Charles Martin, and Eric Molina. Thus not only does Joshua not belong in the same category as Muhammad Ali, he isn’t even walking on the same planet.
Hype and heavyweight boxing have always occupied two sides of the same coin. The most famous example of a hyped up heavyweight involved the Italian giant Primo Carnera. During the ill-starred 1930s boxing decade, when ringside at championship fights across America you would see more mafia hoodlums than could fit in a black mariah, Carnera was propelled as a great white hope by dint not of his ability in the ring but on the back of one of the most remarkable PR and promotional jobs ever seen. Initially managed and trained by Leon See, the Frenchman who discovered him plying his trade as a circus strongman and wrestling act in France, and who was described by the US sportswriter Paul Gallico as “one of the most intelligence, smart and wily men that ever turned a fighter loose from his corner,” Carnera inevitably fell into the clutches of the mob. Thereafter one after the other his opponents took a dive, allowing the 6’7″ giant to actually believe he was as great as they said he was, a master of defensive fighting who carried TNT in his fists.
It was a lie that ended tragically when his ‘management’ eventually ran out of excuses and they were forced to expose him to genuine opposition. This opposition came most brutally in the person of Joe Louis at Yankee Stadium on June 25, 1935, when despite giving away 65lbs in weight, the Brown Bomber bludgeoned his hapless opponent with merciless combinations until the referee stepped in to save him in the 6th round. Back to Gallico: “He [Carnera] had nothing. His title was gone, his money squandered by the gang. And the one thing he thought he had, an unbeatable skill in defence and an irresistible crushing power in attack that no man living could withstand, never existed. It was a fable as legendary as the great giants of mythology that he resembled.”
Not for a second can Britain’s Anthony Joshua be compared to Primo Carnera. The former Olympic gold medalist possesses genuine boxing ability, power, and has real potential. The point is that at this stage of his career he is yet to achieve the greatness in the ring to match the profile he currently enjoys outside it. Indeed, the disjunction between both is an achievement that belongs to a team of whom the most public face is Matchroom’s Eddie Hearn, a man who looks like he collects Rolex watches like your average 10 year old collects toy soldiers. Hearn is only the latest in a long line of boxing impressarios whose stock in trade is the identifying, packaging and selling of fighters to a gullible general public. As with every promoter who has gone before, his dream, his is to find that rare diamond in the rough in the form of a fighter who is able to cross over into mainstream stardom, it’s the equivalent of winning the lottery. Such a fighter Hearn has clearly found in Anthony Joshua.
But as with Primo Carnera, and as with Frank Bruno when he faced Mike Tyson, hype eventually crashes against the rocks of reality. If Joshua loses to an ageing Wladimir Klitschko at Wembley the ensuing damage limitation will centre on his lack of experience at the elite level compare to Klitschko, and how he deserves huge credit for taking this challenge at such an early stage in his career. However if he emerges victorious he will be regaled as the toast not only of heavyweight boxing but British sport as a whole, with brands flocking to offer him even more lucrative sponsorship deals than those he already has and Eddie Hearn smiling all the way to his local Bentley dealership.
The very prospect is excruciating.