|Venue: King Abdullah Sports City, Saudi Arabia Date: Saturday, 20 August|
|Coverage: Follow live text commentary and reaction on BBC Sport website & app from 21:30 BST.|
The term ‘must-win’ is used far too often in boxing but on Saturday night, on the coast of Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea, Anthony Joshua is in a fight which will determine which path his career takes next.
Joshua faces Oleksandr Usyk in a bid to recapture the WBO, WBA (Super) and IBF heavyweight titles he lost to the Ukrainian in London last September.
He describes the rematch as the “biggest” of his 26-fight professional career, adding: “I’ve got to take this one the most serious.”
Should Joshua win, he will rightly reap the benefits; silencing the doubters, proving his credentials as an elite heavyweight and setting up a potential all-British super fight with Tyson Fury.
While there is no shame in losing back-to-back bouts against someone of Usyk’s calibre, a defeat will direct Joshua back to the drawing board. His promoter, Eddie Hearn, has said ‘AJ’ will not retire but may never get another world-title shot.
Beating Usyk may not be must-win for Joshua’s career, but it is a must-win for his legacy.
Will new trainer freshen things up?
Joshua, 32, was outclassed, outpointed and far from outstanding when he lost to Usyk at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.
Something needed to change. Earlier this year, Joshua appointed American trainer Robert Garcia, who replaced Rob McCracken.
Garcia is a former super-featherweight champion. As a coach, he has worked the corner for the likes of Marcos Maidana, Brandon Rios, Nonito Donaire and younger brother Mikey Garcia – training 14 world champions.
“It’s the biggest fight I’ve ever been involved with,” he says.
McCracken trained Joshua through his amateur and professional career. Is it possible for a new coach to implement changes into a fighter’s game in just three months?
“A lot of the time it does take a couple of camps and fights for changes to take place,” says British trainer Dave Coldwell.
“I’m not sure how the two have gelled, but AJ is a student. He seems to drill and work really hard in improving himself all the time.
“He’s always working on things. So they’ve had a good stretch to drill and adapt.”
A reinvented Joshua?
Joshua faced criticism from the boxing fraternity for being “gun shy” against Usyk.
Gone was the explosive combination puncher who knocked out his first 20 opponents. What we saw instead was a tentative fighter who tried to outbox arguably one of the sport’s greatest technical boxers.
“It was like AJ didn’t want to throw the jab or the right hand unless he knew he was going to land it,” Coldwell says.
Former two-weight world champion Carl Frampton adds: “I just found it so bizarre, AJ stood off him so much and allowed Usyk space.
“If I was Joshua I’d rather go out on my shield and get chinned than lose in the manner he did last time.”
Joshua says he wants to reinvent himself. Throughout fight week in Jeddah, he has exuded a level of focus and calmness through his demeanour, body language and matter-of-fact words
“I am going to listen to my corner,” Joshua says. “I’ve listened to them for the last eight months of training with them. Now it’s about instinct. I’ve got to go in there and want it myself. “
The Londoner appears to be more comfortable as the challenger; Garcia says Joshua is “the happiest he has been throughout camp”.
Garcia, however, is under no illusions of Joshua’s capabilities.
“The whole boxing world knows he can’t outbox Usyk. So we have to put on a little pressure, in a smart way,” Garcia says.
“Joshua is a very talented fighter. Combinations are beautiful. Great jab, great right hand. We need to try and do it more often.
“But we’re not going in there to become a brawler, a Maidana type of fighter, we have to do it smart”.
‘Landing on Usyk isn’t impossible’ – Coldwell
Offering a technical insight, Coldwell says Joshua’s work to the body will be crucial.
“He has to put Usyk in a position where he is going to land shots. It’s not a case of loading up on single weapons,” he adds.
“Use the jab at range and then throw shots to the body to slow Usyk’s legs down. The heavier Usyk’s legs become, the more chance Joshua has of trapping him.
“Joshua is one of the best combination punchers in the division, but he has to get in range to do that.”
The trainer was in Briton Tony Bellew’s corner when he faced Usyk in 2018, and does see a few vulnerabilities to the former undisputed cruiserweight champion’s game.
“Usyk is sensational, don’t get me wrong, but landing on him isn’t an impossible a task,” Coldwell says.
“Both Tony and AJ landed right hands on Usyk. Joshua just needs to increase the volume of his heavy right hands.
“They don’t have to be booming knockout punches, but they will slow Usyk down and put him off balance.”
The fighter who has faced them both
Usyk is competing at heavyweight for just the fourth time. He has recorded 13 knockouts from 19 victories, but also went the distance in a testing fight with Derek Chisora.
British heavyweight contender Joe Joyce – who is eyeing up the winner of rematch – has faced both men in the amateurs, and feels the champion is growing into the weight.
“When I fought Usyk they were snappy, fast punches, different than the thudding, slower punches at heavyweight which are stronger,” Joyce says.
“But I saw him walk through fighters in the World Series of Boxing at my weight. As a pro, he seems to be getting bigger and stronger now.
“In terms of facing both men, they’re totally different approaches. Usyk is a lot more technical. [He has] better headwork, foot movement and he’s a southpaw. That’s a challenge.
“Joshua, however, is bigger, stronger, with more damaging punches. I’m more likely to get knocked out by Joshua than Usyk. But it would be easier to hit Joshua than Usyk.”
‘If AJ loses, Fury will be laughing at him’ – Frampton
Hearn says his fighter is the “best heavyweight on the planet”, predicting Joshua to deliver a devastating knockout.
Coldwell believes Joshua is more than capable of reinvention, considering he was knocked out by Ruiz Jr and then beat him in their rematch six months later in 2019.
“He was written off by the whole world going into the rematch. He completely turned it round,” Coldwell says.
“He’s proved to himself that he’s capable in a matter of months he can change his style, take instructions and drills on board and then taking it into a fight to turn over the result.”
Many boxing fans from all corners of the world are clamouring for a mouth-watering, undisputed, historic clash between Fury and Joshua.
Even Joyce may be willing to momentarily put his own world-title aspirations to one side. “If Joshua can get the belts back, I’d still like to see Fury and Joshua face each other,” he says.
WBC champion Fury says he has retired. Not many believe him, but all will be revealed in a week’s time. Usyk and Joshua will fight for the Ring Magazine title he vacated and he has been given a deadline of 26 August by the WBC before he is stripped.
Such is the lucrative nature of the fight, AJ-Fury – or Fury-AJ depending on your loyalties – will always be mooted, even if Usyk’s hand is raised on Saturday.
“If AJ loses, Fury will laugh at him for losing to Usyk twice, will say that he lost to Andy Ruiz and tell him to go away because he’s not on the same level,” Frampton says.
A rebuilding job will be needed if Joshua suffers a third loss in five bouts. There are big-money fights out there for him; Joyce, a rematch with rival Dillian Whyte or WBA ‘regular’ champion Daniel Dubois.
Joshua says a win would mean more to others than himself, saying: “I’m just going to be chilling, go back home, kick back, get back in the boxing gym. It ain’t that big of a big deal.”
But for AJ to even be considered as Britain’s greatest heavyweight, he must, for the second time in a nine-year professional career, avenge a defeat and reclaim his world titles.