‘Man, the first time was so nice, I had to do it twice,’ Anthony Joshua bellowed after avenging his shock defeat to Andy Ruiz Jr to become a two-time heavyweight world champion in 2019.
Raising his belts aloft at the Diriyah Arena in Saudi Arena, having been rocked, dropped and ultimately shocked by his, on paper, significantly lesser opponent just six months prior, the Briton was once more the rightful owner of the WBA, WBO and IBF belts, and stood as the man to beat in the heavyweight division.
Three years later and Joshua finds himself in a near-identical situation: once again traveling to Saudi Arabia looking to bounce back following a painful defeat, once again looking to reclaim his collection of belts, and once again looking to get back on the road to undisputed.
Parallels, yes, but a different challenge entirely. Against Oleksandr Usyk, arguably boxing’s current pound-for-pound best, a man who not only beat but schooled Joshua in their first bout last year, there is no quick fix; staying out of range against a largely immobile opponent is not a viable game plan this time.
Nor is remaining disciplined and avoiding a firefight, which Joshua did at his own peril last September at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. If the 32-year-old is going to join the likes of Muhammad Ali, Vitali Klitschko and Lennox Lewis in becoming a three-time champion, that big right hand will most certainly be needed.
Joshua was warned by many not to jump into an immediate rematch – just as he was after losing to Ruiz Jr. But, as it was then, the risk is certainly not without reward. Forget retirement talk, rematch victory would, you’d hope, finally cement an undisputed clash against Tyson Fury in what would be the biggest fight in British history.
Repeat or revenge is the therefore question, and on August 20 we’ll have the answer. But while repeat is widely deemed the more likely outcome, both fighters acknowledge the second fight will be different to the first.
Indeed, while it’s less than a year since the pair last shared the squared circle, so much has changed in that time – for both fighters.
For Usyk, everything has shifted: his purpose in life; what he’s fighting for; what victory means – that all changed when Russian troops entered Ukraine on February 24 and war broke out on European soil.
The 35-year-old quickly abandoned all thought of a rematch against Joshua as he joined Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko and longtime friend Vasiliy Lomachenko in joining the Ukrainian army.
He left the forces in March to begin training for the rematch, but the Ukrainian plans to return to the front line immediately after the bout.
‘I did not want to leave my city. I really did not want to leave my country,’ he said in June. ‘But when I went to the hospitals where our wounded soldiers are being rehabilitated they told me to go. Go to fight this fight not only for your pride but for Ukraine. You will do even more for our country fighting in the ring than fighting here.
‘So now I want to bring some kind of joy to those soldiers and to those staying in the front line by doing what I do.’ He added: ‘Immediately after I defend my titles against Joshua I plan to return to Kyiv. I must be in my country.’
Usyk, who insisted ‘I’m not fighting for money or recognition’ at the launch press conference in Saudi Arabia, now has more than titles on the line going into the rematch. He’s even teamed up with an NFT platform in a bid to raise £1.64m for Ukraine ahead of the bout.
For Joshua, much has also changed. He admits his approach was totally wrong in their first encounter – even insisting he thought he was winning the fight throughout – and has parted ways with long-term trainer Rob McCracken as a result.
Joshua had a host of options to replace his former mentor, having visited numerous prolific trainers out in America, but it was Robert Garcia who pipped Eddy Reynoso, Virgil Hunter and Ronnie Shields to the job.
Garcia has established himself as a world class trainer over the past two decades, guiding his fighters to 14 world title wins and helping brother Mikey – a former four-weight world champion – become one of the best fighters on the planet.
Working alongside Angel Fernandez, an existing member of the Joshua camp, Garcia is looking to implement an aggressive game plan, having described his ‘special’ fighter as having ‘insane power’.
The question now is whether Joshua can land that killer blow. Usyk certainly felt his power on occasion last September, and it’s known the Ukrainian is susceptible to a body attack, but whether the Briton can assert his pressure, and avoid gassing out in doing so, remains to be seen.
The heavyweight landscape has also shifted since their first encounter, with Tyson Fury now claiming he’s retired. Of course, he’s also claimed both that he’ll only return for £500million and that he’ll return to fight Joshua for free, all while conveniently clinging onto that WBC strap of his. Most of us have learned to take what he says with a pinch of salt.
More importantly is that Fury defeated his mandatory challenger in Dillian Whyte and is under no pressure from WBC president Mauricio Sulaiman to make his next defence. Essentially, he’s free to watch on as the action unfolds and make his next move accordingly.
Of course, the British public will want to see Fury and Joshua go head-to-head, but a clash against either fighter will be a historic event nonetheless.
One man who will be desperate to be a part of it – other the fighters, of course – is Matchroom chief Eddie Hearn, for whom a Joshua defeat would be disastrous.
Having signed Joshua to a big-money, long-term exclusive deal with DAZN, it was then announced that the impending bout will be shown on Sky Sports Box Office.
Joshua’s stock will once again rise should he beat Usyk, but it would arguably plummet with defeat – as would the value of that DAZN deal.
And with Usyk heading into his final outing as a Matchroom fighter, with a break from boxing following the bout also on the cards, another loss would be devastating for both the UK fighter and promoter.
For Usyk, however, victory would be a symbolic and historic triumph during a horrifying period for his country. And for Joshua, victory would revive his career and setup one of the biggest fights of all time. For both, defeat leaves you wondering what next.
While Usyk heads into the fight as the favourite, the bout – which surely will be drastically different from the first – could in truth go either way. As could the direction the heavyweight division moves in, with not only Joshua’s legacy on the line, but also the opportunity to finally seal the biggest fight in British history.