THE LEAD singer of The Killers, Brandon Flowers, walked on to the John Peel stage at Glastonbury Festival in 2017, looked around at the thousands in attendance and delivered a poignant message. “They say you play the John Peel stage twice in your career; once on the way up and once on the way down,” he said. “It’s great to be back.”
It has been suggested, that by going over old ground against Dillian Whyte, Anthony Joshua’s career is on a similar trajectory. “He’s come at the right time,” Joshua countered on Monday. “He’s a competitor who has been relevant throughout my career.”
Life skyrocketed for Joshua after he stopped Whyte in seven rounds in December 2015. He won a world belt in his next bout, settled into superstardom, and within 16 months he’d ended the career of Wladimir Klitschko in one of the biggest contests in history. But it all changed for Joshua in June 2019 when he lost to Andy Ruiz Jnr. Since that shocking encounter at Madison Square Garden, though he’s subsequently won more fights than he’s lost, he’s struggled to regain that old momentum.
Going back to Whyte would appear the perfect way to move forward again. In the opening Whyte contest, Joshua came through the first genuine crisis of his professional career in round two to score what remains one of his most impressive finishes in the seventh. It taught him a lot and it’s a contest that was staged in a different time, when everything was less complicated, that he still remembers with obvious affection.
“That was a tough second round,” Joshua recalled. “I threw a lot of punches, but that little break, the second wind you need sometimes, it was good. The last one [fight with Whyte] took us into the stratosphere. Hopefully the same thing can happen with this one and give boxing the fight that it needs.”
Some fans – though far from all – have criticised this rematch, yet, when talking to Joshua, it’s easy to understand why this is the right fight for him, win or lose. Score another spectacular KO and that momentum returns. Should he lose, a result he insists won’t bother him, then the Joshua journey, at least the one we’ve all been invested in for over a decade, is as good as finished. He will know it. We’ll all know it. There might even be a sense of relief for Joshua, who has been burdened with incredible pressure since he claimed Olympic gold in 2012.
With a Deontay Wilder showdown in the works for December in Saudi Arabia, Joshua – always keen to test himself – could undoubtedly have handpicked less troublesome opposition. Joshua, approaching 34 years old, is acutely aware that he’s not the same fearless fighter he used to be, he’s merely trying to get the best out of the fighter he has become. And money, though clearly important, is no longer his driver. If it was, he would have gone a different route to the riches that a fight with Wilder will bring. It would have been easy for him to do that, whether in the form of a lesser opponent or not fighting at all.
That’s why it’s wrong, at this juncture, to suggest that Joshua no longer wants to fight. There’s an obvious desire within him to continue, if only because he doesn’t know any other way of life. Yet he’s unquestionably on the lookout for clues as to where he goes, if anywhere, after this. Deep inside, he understands he might only be one punch away from the end. He accepts that, while remaining hopeful that he can still reignite the fire that used to burn within.
Unlike Jermaine Franklin, a fringe contender who he admits he looked “terrible” against while outpointing in April, Whyte instantly stirs excitement in his belly. And if Wilder is to follow, Joshua goes into that hazardous encounter with his self-belief fully restored. There are mountains left to climb.
“I can keep on going [boxing] for a long time, and I do want to,” he said. “I want to win the championship [again] but this time I have to do it for myself. That’s the difference. It’s all for myself.”
Incidentally, one year after Flowers and The Killers turned in a sublime comeback on the John Peel stage, they were invited back – at the very next festival – as headliners of the entire weekend. Should Joshua trounce Whyte with similar panache, both he and fans will be clamouring for a return to the highest stage, too.