BOXING

3 reasons AJ will not regain his heavyweight titles in Joshua v Usyk 2

The British-Nigerian's bid to become a three-time heavyweight champion will ultimately fall short against the Ukrainian pound-for-pound technician.

Anthony Joshua lost a unanimous points decision to Oleksandr Usyk

Three years ago, the then-unified heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua suffered the first defeat of his professional career in a stunning upset loss at the hands of Andy Ruiz.

He immediately confirmed his desire to run it back, and despite many insisting – on account of the nature of the loss – that Joshua was irreparably damaged, I backed him to regain his belts for a couple of reasons. He promptly did, comprehensively outboxing Ruiz over 12 rounds in Saudi Arabia.

Three fights on, Joshua finds himself in a similar position: once more, he is bidding to regain the titles he lost in convincing fashion to a fighter many picked him to beat the first time around. On Saturday night in Saudi Arabia, he will come face-to-face with Ukrainian pound-for-pound fighter and former unified cruiserweight champion Oleksandr Usyk for a second time.

This time, however, I am less enthusiastic about his chances of wresting the WBO, IBF and WBA belts back from Usyk's grasp. For a couple of reasons, naturally.

While I am not of the persuasion that Joshua's win in the rematch against Ruiz was solely down to the Mexican's lack of preparation for the rematch (there are those who swore by this), it certainly did not hurt his quest that Ruiz enjoyed his upset win a little too much.

Ruiz noticeably and admittedly was in poor physical shape for the second fight, and that only made an already strong AJ game plan easier to implement.

Usyk is cut from a different cloth.

The 35-year-old is one of the most skilled boxers on the planet – a whole other level than Ruiz was or will ever be – and there exists a substantial skill gap between him and Joshua. In addition to that, he is a consummate professional with no bad habits and no harmful appetites, save for boxing.

As if to further forestall the slim prospect of Usyk taking his eye off the ball, the former undisputed king at 200 has been a part of the Ukrainian military effort in warding off the Russian invasion, and lobbied specially for his countrymen to be able to view this fight free.

Unlike against Ruiz the second time around, Joshua's adversary is the picture of focus.

Ahead of the rematch with Ruiz, everyone knew what Joshua had to do in order to win: avoid a pocket forming on the inside in order to stay out of range of the Mexican’s lightning-fast hands. The question was whether the British-Nigerian had the ability to adopt that style.

He proved he did, using lateral movement and his strong jab to coast to keep Ruiz – whose feet are slow – constantly resetting, and therefore coasted to victory.

This time around, no one is quite sure what the best strategy for Joshua is. Usyk, stylistically, is simply a nightmare to figure out: a slick southpaw with elite-level movement, accuracy and speed who, by virtue of his many years spent as an amateur, has fought pretty much every profile of opponent and knows every trick in the book.

How does anyone get around that?

Even worse, Usyk is still undefeated as a pro, so there is no real blueprint to follow.

Some quarters say he needs to be more aggressive and physical, some say he needs to pick his shots and moments, and others say he needs to throw with volume. None of these is without attendant risk: too aggressive and AJ could walk into something heavy; too patient and his opportunity could slip away; too loose with his hands and he will gas.

Usyk is not infallible, of course, and the answer is probably a combination of all of these at different points during the fight, but in what proportions?

As if there was not enough uncertainty as to what route to take, Joshua is himself undergoing an evolution as a fighter.

The recruitment of Robert Garcia as a trainer is ostensibly with a view to making a more front-foot version of himself, and the Mexican coach has echoed those same sentiments in a number of interviews. However, that is a lot to do in one camp, and really it has begun to seem like Joshua really does not know the kind of fighter he wants to be.

Some of that are understandable enough on the basis that the 32-year-old came into boxing really late, and essentially has spent his career so far going from fight to fight, learning on the fly.

There is a pro and a con to this approach. The pro is that, coming into any fight, AJ is ultra-prepared for the challenge in front of him; the con is that, if something goes wrong with the chosen game plan, as it did in both first fights with Ruiz and Usyk, the Watford boxer can look completely lost. Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth, and all that.

This seems like one of those fights where, no matter how well Joshua prepares, he will need to reach deep within his soul to pull something out. It is a fight that will challenge him on an existential level. So, underneath it all, what kind of fighter is Joshua really?

There was a time when that question was easier to answer. Now, not so much. It does not bode well for Saturday night.

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