I drove past Sagamu, the ancestral home of the global boxing sensation, Anthony Joshua, last night.
Honking my way through the rowdy and bustling traffic cum roadside market formation that defines the expressway intersection to this ancient town reminded me again of the epochal heavyweight boxing match between UK-based Anthony Joshua and American heavyweight fighter, Jermaine Franklin, slated for midnight later today.
Forget the lingering sullenness of his teeming UK fans which is reported to have somewhat depressed ticket sales for this non-title fight, Anthony Joshua’s duel with America’s rising sensation, Jermaine Franklin, tonight at the O2 Arena, in London, is indeed a significant fight of historic proportions.
Millions in the UK and indeed around the world are rooting with bated breath for the Watford-born boxing icon to unleash his newly rediscovered mojo on the American heavyweight.
That global family of AJ devotees certainly includes millions of Nigerians who, thanks to spirited efforts on the part of the two-time Unified Heavyweight Champion of the World to identify and integrate with his Naija roots, have deep longings to see their megastar compatriot dominate world boxing once again.
As I left the receding lights of Sagamu behind me, it occurred to me that the entire city, from His Royal Highness, the Akarigbo, to thousands upon thousands of Sagamu youth, would be literally in AJ’s corner tonight as new trainer, the globally acclaimed Derrick James, seeks to navigate a decisive win for his mega celebrity ward.
Indeed, this April fool’s day slugfest is historic. The least because, whatever groundswell of anger might have risen against Joshua in the wake of his anguished loss to Ukrainian Southpaw Oleksandr Usyk, last August, the boxing world knows in unison that Anthony Joshua is nobody’s fool. Anthony Joshua’s talents, technical solidity, physical credentials and character are as authentic and are as manifestly true as April Fool pranks are false.
Anthony Joshua, perhaps the most celebrated boxing sensation of this past decade, remains a study in the mystique of ascension to greatness and a pivotal reference on how a gifted human, irrespective of initial environmental impediments can find unassailable traction, for pace-setting success.
AJ, as he is fondly called, rose with phenomenal speed into global domination after his fortuitous Olympic Heavyweight gold medal win as an amateur on the 2012 UK Olympic team.
In the euphoria of Joshua’s mega-celebrity, few now remember that Joshua as a precocious young boxer with authentic Nigerian blood in his veins, had excitedly approached leaders of the Nigerian Olympic delegation earlier that year, in hope of finding a spot on the Nigerian team. It is to the eternal shame of Nigeria, and a sad reminder of the impossible hurdles many gifted young Nigerians across vocations and crafts face daily in our perennially dysfunctional governance setting, that Joshua was summarily rejected by the Nigerian Olympic bosses. But for uncommon tenacity, but for that ferocious self belief and self propulsion, unknown and unsung Anthony Joshua might have simply crawled back home, all bloodied ego and traumatized psyche, dissolving into anonymity and nothingness.
Thanks to the providential mediation of the legendary British Boxing Coach, Robert McCracken, who took the lad under his wings, sharpened him to Olympic gold glory that same year, propelling Joshua into global dominance in his craft.
Together, they wracked up a mind-numbing number of knockout wins in elite boxing matches that featured an intimidating succession of some of the world’s most gifted and most lethal-handed heavyweight athletes, leading to the historic snatching of the Unified World Heavyweight Title from the long reigning legend of the trade, the inimitable Wladimir Klitschko of the Klitschko brothers fame in 2015. In one night, and in a stupefying haul of glory, a valiant Anthony Joshua had three World Heavy Weight golden belts strapped to his heaving chest – IBF, WBA & WBO world heavyweight championship belts – to forever seal his name, and Nigeria’s in the world’s book of boxing athletics.
As Anthony Joshua charges into the hallowed boxing ring at the O2 Arena tonight, it should help to remind him that long before the nightmarish upsets of the Usyk fights, a far less experienced AJ had suffered a debilitating knock down in the legendary duel with Klitschko in 2015 and nothing but that ferocious self belief could have brought him back to his feet, to finally wrest a career changing crown from the iconic Ukrainian master pugilist.
A rediscovery of that fiery fire of self belief is what AJ needs tonight.
Emerging from the dark shadows of the Usyk interruption, it is reassuring and deeply comforting to the bruised psyches of legions of AJ fans to see Anthony in great spirts again, in the lead up to the O2 Arena showdown tonight.
Without a shadow of doubt that in the masterly hands of Derrick James, AJ’s rugged physicality has lately received elite-level re-conditioning to extreme tolerances, he needs that bestial focus tonight to ignite the fire we all know still rages in his bones and to step up to a clinical and systematic decapitation of the obstacle placed before him in that ring tonight and in the path of his retrieving global glory.
Eddie Hearn, the boss of UK’s leading boxing promotion firm, Matchroom Boxing, and Joshua’s indefatigable promoter, has shown incredible steadiness and empathy as his stable’s prized signee endured an atypical breach to his mental and emotional fortitude. Eddie, studiously leveraging the promotional talk show route in the lead-up to the Joshua-Franklin fight, had spoken with renewed faith about the austere atmosphere in Dallas where Derrick had had the onerous task of deconstructing his mega star student. The promise is that the iconic boxer and the new drill master had found the chemistry enabling the American master trainer to put his new signee through the paces afresh for a hopefully blitheringly brilliant new incarnation of the globally adored Anthony Joshua. While this writer would fall if but touched by a feather, it is clear to one that for those elite clubs of primal athletes who are gifted with the requisite mental, emotional and physical constitution to find their purpose in boxing, the sport is a combination of strategy, science, art and soul – an alchemy of martial performance that only the truly gifted and the obsessively dedicated get to excel in.
With firm faith that the little Usyk hiccup is now firmly behind Joshua, it is a sobering yet inspiring lesson for all humans that even a prime specimen of the male hood and a global model of strength, power and resilience like Anthony Joshua can have a little reality check in their storied trajectory, yet find themselves again.
In the elite halls of boxing fame, as in many other spheres of human endeavour, many stories abound of great legends who bounce back from the brink, after devastating setbacks. From Mohammad Ali to the forever incomparable Mike Tyson, to Evander Holifield, to Lenox Lewis, to Tyson Fury, the reigning WBC world heavyweight champion, boxing greats have had monsters in or out of the ring that seemingly put paid to their career but against which monstrous determination and faith in self prevailed to roaring success.
From all appearances, seeing all we have all seen in the last few days as Anthony made the pre-match publicity rounds, AJ has found himself again.
Hopefully, he has found something more – that simple faith to hedge against an obscured view of his own inner essence – the matchless greatness that almighty God himself purposely packaged in a humble African boy for the edification and strengthening of everyone on earth who hope for a better day in spite of circumstances and hindrances.
While we wish the equally talented Jermaine Franklin the very best, we without any qualms certainly root for our very own Anthony Joshua. Should Joshua reach deep down tonight and find his lethal weapons again, even the forever taunting WBC heavyweight champion, Tyson Fury may soon find his hide being asked for by a newly assertive Anthony Joshua.
Unyielding self-belief, brutal self-assertion and providential grace.
May Nigerians rejoice in the morning after.
Omotayo Suleiman, a public affairs analyst, wrote through firstname.lastname@example.org