The final bell sounded early, but the fight finished late. Even after Anthony Joshua and Jermaine Franklin had finished trading blows, they were trading barbs in the ring. Meanwhile, outside of the squared circle, there was the threat of fists being thrown.
In some ways, it was the most exciting spell of the night, following a cluster of 12 messy rounds. The blood smeared on Joshua’s pristine white shorts, and on the white shirt of the referee, was symbolic of the fight that could have been, rather than the fight that was. And for “AJ”, this was arguably a case of the win that should have been, rather than the win that was.
The Briton entered the O2 Arena in desperate need of a victory, potentially to salvage a decorated but complicated career, off the back of two straight defeats by Oleksandr Usyk. And Joshua, in the eyes of many, needed not only a victory but a convincing one to do that – the kind of knockout that he produced so often in the past to enthrall a generation. Under a rare pressure on Saturday night, that finish eluded Joshua.
At the very venue where Joshua took out Kevin Johnson, Gary Cornish, Dillian Whyte, Charles Martin and Dominic Breazeale in five consecutive fights between 2015 and 2016, fans were forced to feed on nostalgia. In fact, highlights of those knockouts were shown on the big screens at the O2 before the main event began, but Joshua was unable to revisit the past in a way that would have saved his future for sure. As it was, the 33-year-old did ensure that he will fight another day, but he failed to answer some of the most important questions posed ahead of this bout.
As a result of this uninspiring unanimous-decision win, the question of ‘Who is next for Joshua?’ cannot even be answered with ease. Franklin marked a step down in competition, and still Joshua laboured to victory here, meaning a discussed rematch with Dillian Whyte could even be deemed slightly too dangerous to risk.
“I wish I could have knocked him out,” Joshua admitted. “In the next 15 years, nobody will remember that fight.”
That reality is a far cry from the memorable nights that Joshua provided under this same dome, seven, eight years ago. Those halcyon days mark a distant past, and ahead is a blurry future.
In the present, Joshua began the fight sporting a stern expression and sending out snapping jabs. These were no range-finders; Joshua was looking to wear down Franklin from the get-go. AJ was timing the American’s entries, jolting back Franklin’s head and forcing the 29-year-old to pay tax on any shots that he did land. It was a patient but intent Joshua, though the crowd was less patient, greeting the bell at the end of Round 1 with boos.
Frankin was able to bloody Joshua’s nose in the second round, and the tourist grew into the fight further in the third, looking to counter AJ’s lateral movement with leaping, lead left hooks. Both fighters began to open up more as the contest edged towards its midway point, with Joshua landing a lancing right cross with the final shot of Round 3 but Franklin finishing on top in Round 4. In the fifth, it was Joshua who made the more eye-catching connections, though one frenzied exchange concerned the crowd. Still, Joshua remained calm and he disengaged, before doing the same at the end of the sixth after grazing Franklin’s chin with two spiteful uppercut attempts.
Joshua seemed to be labouring, however, and by the time he stuck out his tongue to draw breath in the seventh, it had visibly been painted with a lick of blood. Fittingly, the fight took on a sharper flavour at the end of that frame, as the opponents stared each other down after the bell. In one startling moment, Franklin sent Joshua staggering with a right cross, though it was that same weapon that had been landing to gradually greater effect for AJ, who began to employ it even more efficiently in Round 10, briefly putting Franklin in danger.
Joshua came close to crafting the combinations that defined many of his past finishes, but the final shot always eluded him here.
So did the moment he needed, the one that 17,000 fans in the O2 wanted.
Once the post-fight commotion had died down, Joshua took time to meet fans around the arena. It was a scene of stark contrast to the confused rant that AJ delivered after his loss to Usyk in August.
Nevertheless, Joshua’s future is as confusing as it has ever been.
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