Anthony Joshua faces a crucial turning point in his career. Elliot Worsell examined how big names in boxing have approached making changes and the lessons Joshua needs to learn
THESE, in case you somehow happened to miss them, were just some of the sounds emanating from Anthony Joshua’s corner during the 12 rounds he shared with Oleksandr Usyk in London on September 25: “Brilliant, AJ… brilliant, AJ… brilliant, AJ…” They were heard, these sounds, when Joshua either landed a punch, missed a punch, was hit by a punch, or was hurt by a punch. They were issued by a voice belonging not to Robert McCracken, Joshua’s long-time head coach, but a voice rarely heard in other corners, on other nights. They were as prominent in the last round as they were in the first. Round one: “Brilliant, AJ.” Round 12: “Brilliant, AJ.”
Such encouragement would have been fine, or at least less conspicuous, had the rallying cry soundtracked a dominant Anthony Joshua victory. Yet the constant affirmation being delivered to Joshua that night appeared wholly out of place, coming as it did during a fight in which the heavyweight was soundly outboxed and seemed at no point to be in the ascendency, much less ‘brilliant’. Which is to say, to hear someone assert Joshua’s brilliance throughout – a decisive loss, remember – was akin to hearing someone start yelling congratulations and applauding at a funeral. It was, at best, misguided and confusing, while, at worst, an indictment, perhaps, of Joshua’s need to be fed mistruths when reality strikes.
Either way, Joshua, like so many before him, finds himself now taste-testing the gyms of America in search of different voices and different faces to see him through a potential second fight against Usyk in 2022. Whether or not he continues working with McCracken, the architect of so many great Joshua nights both as an amateur and a pro, one thing seems clear: to achieve a different result, Joshua understands the importance of being armed with fresh ideas.
A well-trodden path, especially following a defeat, it might not be a bad thing, either. For, in the end, as much as we laud fighters who stick with one coach throughout their career, there is probably something to be said for trying new things and looking to maximise potential by collecting as much experience and information as possible. When done right, it appears the wise, mature, and brave thing to do. When timed correctly, it can sometimes elevate a fighter to a whole new level.
Tony Bellew, another Brit familiar with Oleksandr Usyk’s artistry, decided he needed a change in his career when losing a fight for the WBC light-heavyweight belt against Adonis Stevenson in 2013. As well as knowing that would be his final outing as an 175-pound light-heavy, Bellew conceded fresh ideas were required for him to later fulfil his potential as a cruiserweight. “He lost to Stevenson and then in the December asked me to go have a chat with him at his house, which was when he asked me to coach him,” said Dave Coldwell, the man whose fresh ideas Bellew sought. “The fighter has to respect the trainer. That’s so important. Our first fight was against [Valery] Brudov and in that fight he was pi**ing it after about six rounds and then he started swinging and once he started doing that he got caught and all of a sudden it was a real fight and Brudov fancied it. “He came back to the corner and I gave him a massive boll**king. But he understood and then got back to it. He responded to it in the right way rather than think, ‘Who are you to talk to me like that?’ That happened a few times with Tony but, to his credit, he always responded the right way. If he didn’t respect and trust his coach, those instances would have got his back up. It’s one thing knowing what a fighter needs to do but it’s another thing getting them to trust you enough to then do it.”
Though established, and though having fought for a major belt at light-heavyweight, Bellew remained malleable enough and hungry enough to still be open to both learning and constructive criticism. His baggage, scars, and preconceived ideas did not affect the intake of new information.
“It’s like when Ryan Rhodes came to me after spending 22 years with the Ingles,” Coldwell said. “They kind of have to see it as a fresh start and new chapter rather than constantly questioning and doubting and being closed to new ideas.
“When I’m teaching somebody in training, and showing them what I want them to do, I explain to them why I want them to do it. I ask them, ‘Do you understand that?’ I then have them demonstrate it and it’s then a case of, ‘Do you feel that? Do you feel the difference?’ When they say ‘yes’, they believe in what you’re trying to do. It’s not just a case of telling somebody they need to change this, this and this, and then that’s it. They have to feel it. Once they feel it, they believe it. Then they want to work at it more. They trust it. Tony had 100% trust in what I wanted him to do.”
Sometimes trust is a result of familiarity, while other times it could be a by-product of awe or the respect a fighter has for their coach. Certainly, with Chris Eubank Jnr and Roy Jones Jnr, a relatively new fighter-trainer partnership, one gets the sense a lot of the trust there stems from the years Eubank Jnr spent watching videos of Jones Jnr growing up and admiring his skills as one of the greatest boxers of the modern era. To a lesser extent, too, the same could be said for Callum Smith and James ‘Buddy’ McGirt, another recent fighter-trainer link-up few would have seen coming this time last year.
“At this point it’s just about finding something you see that he can do and get him comfortable doing it, but doing it his way and fitting into what he does,” said McGirt. “Once he gets that, we’ll then make minor adjustments. He practices things over and over, and asks me about it over and over, and I say to him, ‘Listen, you don’t have to do it exactly the way that I do it. The key is to get the same result.’
“One, Callum has a good work ethic, two, he is willing to learn, and, three, there is more to him than meets the eye. This guy has the ability to do everything. He’s very athletic. I just think he’s been getting away with his power, which is good, but he has the ability to do so many other things.
“His combination punching, for one. I think he has a tendency to favour that left hook. There are also other things he can do that he hasn’t needed to do. He was winning fights with what he had and he didn’t need more than that. The key now is to add a little flavour to it and show people a different Callum – not different, but the same with a little more added on.”
McGirt and Coldwell were blessed, in many ways, by the fact they had, or have, time to play with when getting hold of established fighters coming off losses. There was, for them, a natural rebuilding process. There were comeback fights planned. Bellew boxed six times under Coldwell before knocking out Ilunga Makabu in three rounds to win the WBC cruiserweight belt, whereas Smith has boxed once since losing to Saul ‘Canelo’ Álvarez, stopping Lenin Castillo inside two rounds, and will presumably have additional fights before again challenging for another title.
“You need a lot of patience on both sides,” said Coldwell. “In sparring, Tony would be fine, patient, smart, and then if he got cracked, the red mist would come down and he would want to take their head off. It took a lot of talking and a lot of boll**king and a lot of time to change that and for him to realise he could take a shot and understand that it had happened and not immediately look to rush back in like an idiot and get them back. That took a couple of years but once the penny dropped it was so much easier and it worked.”
Anthony Joshua, in contrast, won’t be granted this same grace period. He will instead be thrown right back into the arms of his abuser, this person from whom many feel he should be protected. That decision could prove problematic not only for Joshua, the one who ultimately has to make the necessary improvements to garner a different result, but also whoever finds himself in Joshua’s corner that night. “When George [Groves] came to me, it was probably for two reasons,” said Paddy Fitzpatrick, the Irishman who cornered George Groves for his two fights against Carl Froch, the first in 2013, the second in 2014. “One, Adam [Booth, Groves’ previous coach] had decided their relationship had run its course, so he had to get somebody and he had to do it with only nine weeks to go. Maybe if he had months and months, he would have gone for somebody else. But – and this is number two – he came to me because he knew that I had added in bits over time – for the [James] DeGale fight, and for the [Glen] Johnson fight – and he felt comfortable thinking I could add something to him for the Froch fight.
“While that belief was there, I believe we made improvements. When that goes, though, you stop making improvements. You could be trained by God Himself, but if you start to not like God, you’ll stop listening. “The worst thing a coach could do with AJ now, with four or five months to get him ready, is try to change him technically. You will, at this point, just be trying to change him mentally and make him believe he has every one of the tools required to beat Usyk.
“Whoever is there, whether it’s McCracken or someone new, they have to be a coach and psychologist all in one. If they understand that, they’ll be a psychologist first and boxing coach second. Otherwise, they will point out all his technical limitations and he will doubt everything.”
“As a coach you can’t have an ego and think you’re going to completely strip a fighter down and rebuild them,” Coldwell agreed. “You can’t go in there thinking everything they did before was bulls**t and you now have all the answers. You’ve got to understand what they are very good at, and what has made them successful, and maintain that. You then look at the mistakes they have made, the things that have stopped them getting where they want to be, and eradicate them while enhancing what they are good at. Both fighter and coach have to be open to change and compromise.
“If you like training fighters who are very slick and use plenty of footwork, but you’re dealing with a fighter whose key attributes mean he goes in there trying to knock his opponent out, you can’t take that away from them. But you’ve got to put intelligence into the aggression.
“With Tony, I used to call it ‘intellectual bombing’. He was known as the ‘Bomber’ and his intention was to always go in there and knock somebody out but I wanted him to be smart about it. He was still intending to knock people out, we never changed that, but we did it in a much smarter way as he went along.”
As for Joshua, Fitzpatrick feels the smart thing to do would be to place a greater emphasis on having him believe he can beat Usyk in the return with the tools already at his disposal as opposed to convincing him he can, at 32, become something else entirely.
He explained: “Freddie [Roach] used to say to me, ‘If you ever take on an experienced fighter, it will take you longer to adjust him than it would an inexperienced fighter because if you try to change him too much, even if it’s the right thing to do, mentally he will put up a block. He will think, ‘No, the fighter I am already got me to where I am.’ AJ is a two-time heavyweight champion of the world. If you’re telling him that A was wrong all along, and he has to now change to B, he won’t accept that. He won’t allow you to start him again like that.
“What you have to do is gradually tweak the technical things that need to be tweaked and hope that the more he starts to believe in you, the more you can tweak from week to week. But it needs to be mental adjustments in the main. In fairness to Rob, he’s not going to get the big mental adjustments because Rob is still the same dude.
“In the rematch with George, Carl [Froch] did the best thing he could do, which was stay with Rob but take on a psychologist. It made him believe he had done something to deal with George’s mind games. It allowed him to feel more mentally settled so he could go into that rematch with the full belief that the way the first fight went had more to do with his own issues than anything George did well.
“Ultimately, whatever mentally Rob can give Joshua, he has already given him. He would have given him his best from the very beginning and he has known him going back to the amateurs. That is a fantastic thing, because both men know each other completely, but when the fighter then hits not one but two road blocks there’s something mental there that needs improving because it’s too late to improve anything technically. Now he needs something completely different from a mental point of view.”
While it is unlikely to be something Joshua will admit, there’s every chance he has looked at the recent success of Tyson Fury, his great rival, and begrudgingly learned a thing or two. Fury, after all, although previously criticised by Joshua for his questionable training habits and fluctuating weight, has in the past couple of years made the necessary changes to his own team and reaped the rewards.
“Tyson and I would talk very sporadically,” said Andy Lee, one of two coaches Fury brought onboard after drawing with Deontay Wilder in 2018. “If we met in person we would have a chat, of course, but we wouldn’t be regularly on the phone to each other or anything like that. One day I got a call from him – his name popped up on the phone – and it took me back a little bit. I answered it and we were talking, and I was thinking, ‘Right, where is this conversation going?’ We were shooting the breeze, but I wasn’t sure what it was really all about. He then says, ‘Andy, I need a new coach. I need to bring somebody into the camp with a bit more experience.’
“What you’ve got to take into consideration is the personalities, the egos and who can work with him, keeping in mind that Ben [Davison] was [at the time] to still be involved. We talked though everybody and the one person I said after a while was Sugar Hill. He then said, ‘Andy, that was exactly who I was thinking about myself.’ I told him I thought it would be a good match and that the personalities would get on well. I said, ‘You know him already, so that’s sorted, and he will work together well with Ben. But he will have you punching correctly, your balance will improve and you’ll be a lot more imposing.’ He then asked me to call Sugar Hill for him.
“A few days later, once Tyson and Sugar Hill agreed to work together, Tyson texted me and asked if I would come and help as well. As a very young coach, an infant of a coach, training two guys at very different levels to where Tyson is, I just couldn’t say no.”
Fitzpatrick found himself in a similar position when asked by Groves to start training him nine weeks before fighting Carl Froch. He then also experienced the other side of the fighter-trainer merry-go-round when Groves, after losing three major fights, jumped shipped to Shane McGuigan in 2016.
“In George’s mind he did not lose that first [Froch] fight,” said Fitzpatrick. “Howard Foster stopped it. He still considered himself undefeated. Even after that fight he was telling people, ‘I won’t ever lose.’ That’s the type of man George was mentally and that’s a really healthy point of view for a fighter. If you’ve fully convinced yourself of that, you’re a hard man to beat.
“After we parted ways, George was intelligent enough and also knew he wasn’t weakening himself if he told himself everything that had happened in his career up to that point – all the negatives – were not his fault. That means he still was the man he was and still had what it took to move forward and win a world title. The first loss was because of Howard [Foster], the second was because of a punch from the gods, and the third was because of me.
“He then changed himself. When coming to the ring for that first fight back [after losing to Badou Jack], he was wearing black and it was like he had shed the old George. He got rid of all his old attachments. It was clever. He was almost playing a game with himself. But he did it in a positive manner to psychologically improve himself.
“That’s the same situation AJ is in right now.”
Rest assured, whether what follows is a change of coach or a change of shorts, the last thing Anthony Joshua needs to be told right now is that he is brilliant. Comforting though that may be on down days, a better idea, in the long run, would be to instead remind him of times when he was previously brilliant and then, crucially, teach him how to be brilliant once again. It still might not be enough to secure victory in the Usyk rematch but, having been bereft of them in September, it’s an idea at least.