The central focus for boxing fans this weekend will be on Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where the rematch between Oleksandr Usyk and Anthony Joshua takes place. While the WBA, WBO and IBF belts are on the line, something else that is much bigger for Joshua is at stake.
While he has been a two-time heavyweight champion and certainly one of the biggest attractions in the sport (which is why this bout is taking place in the Middle East), there has always been a bit of doubt regarding just how good 'AJ' is.
Is he truly an elite heavyweight, or just a product of slick marketing and a rabid British fan-base?
You get the feeling that unless he defeats the skilled Usyk, that he will be branded as a boxer who was a better as a box-office attraction, than a boxer. Which admittedly, is unfair, but that is how he will be largely perceived.
So yeah, this is a must-win situation for the telegenic Joshua. No, a loss wont end his career, or even dim his popularity all that much. But a win would be huge for his reputation and legacy (for whatever that means). And guess what? He agrees with this assessment.
"It's a ‘must-win’ fight," Joshua stated earlier this week. "Preparations have been tough, but I like the pressure. Robert Garcia, Angel Fernandez, members of my previous team as well; they’ve been pushing me, challenging me, ensuring I stay focused, and positioning me to get the job done and emerge victorious come Saturday night."
For this contest he enlisted the services of the respected Garcia., who's tasked with pushing Joshua to a more aggressive approach where he can enforce his advantage in size and strength. There are some who believe that he has never really been the same guy after his memorable back-and-forth battle with Wladimir Klitschko in 2017. Last September it was Usyk who commanded the ring, both boxing and punching, to take the titles in impressive form from Joshua, who at times seemed befuddled by the tactics of the Ukrainian.
Joshua to his credit, was able to avenge his defeat to Andy Ruiz, who was rather rotund for their rematch, after taking a victory marathon after his monumental upset victory over him in 2019. The quirky Usyk is a different animal, one that is always honed for battle inside that ring. Which is why he comes in as the betting favorite coming into Saturday.
Yet, Joshua remains undaunted, "This is what competition is all about; setting goals I want to achieve and being disciplined enough to follow them through. That's competition with myself. As you mentioned with the belts, they mean something but that's all at the end of the target. It's not like I'm skipping the process. I'm focused on the process."
The feeling is that Joshua will have to take more risks than he has in recent bouts. Perhaps overcoming his own anxiety and self-doubt will be his toughest opponent, as he faces one of the most self-assured boxers in the sport. There are two foes he is facing this weekend -- Usyk and himself.
"I'm looking forward to it. I want to compete. I'm looking forward to it. I can't really say much else but you've got to have a competitive spirit. I’m prepared to do whatever it takes and I’m looking forward to competing this weekend."
Later that night from the Pechanga Arena in San Diego, Top Rank and ESPN have a card that features the return of WBO featherweight titlist, Emanuel Navarrete, who defends his belt against Eduardo Baez.
There was a time when Navarrete was the most active world champion in the sport, but this will be his first outing since last October (where he out-worked Joet Gonzalez) in the very same building he'll be performing on Saturday night.
There was some talk of his facing unified 130 pound champion, Shakur Stevenson, but that didn't come to fruition. So he gets back to work against the durable Baez(21-2-2/7 KOs) who has never been stopped as a professional.
“I’m ready to come back after a long layoff. Sometimes you start getting doubts when you spend so much time away from the ring. But as soon as training camp starts, the positive mentality returns," stated Navarrete(35-1/29 KOs).
At around the same time on Showtime from the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Hollywood, Florida, we have a main event that features a pair of familiar names in Omar Figueroa and Sergey Lipinets. This figures to a be fan friendly affair.
Lipinets steps in for Adrien Broner, who cited mental health issues for pulling out of this assignment.
We certainly wish Broner well, his personal problems outside the ring are well documented throughout the years. But there are some that are very skeptical of this whole situation, which quite frankly, is understandable.
If the sport of boxing wants to take this issue seriously, my view is that any fighter who cites mental health, should be come with a proof of diagnosis. Then be forced to sit out a period of a year to get treatment at a facility.
Anything else is just empty rhetoric and virtue signaling.
This week on 'the 3 Knockdown Rule' on Triller, Mario Lopez and I discuss the return of Teofimo Lopez, and preview Usyk-Joshua II, also 'ask Mario' and 'Final Flurries':
Golden Boy has announced the signing of highly regarded prospect, Floyd Schofield....Top Rank will formally announce the rematch between lightweight champion, Devin Haney, and George Kambosos on Monday. Their rematch will take place on October 15 in Melbourne, Australia....Juan Francisco Estrada will make his return to the ring on Sept. 3 on a DAZN card taking place in Mexico. The expectation is that he'll then face Roman Gonzalez before the end of the year...The Manti Te'o documentary on Netflix is well worth the watch....Enjoying this season of 'Industry' on HBO even though I can't understand half of what is being said....I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org....