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For the British-Nigerian boxer, it was going to be just another day in the office. He was a world heavyweight champion with twenty-two victories under his belt, many of them achieved by knocking his opponent flat on the canvas. This opponent was a virtual nobody, shooed in at the last moment because the real opponent who had been scheduled to fight the champ had failed a drug test.
Nobody, it seemed, had heard of the man, Andre Ruiz, or cared much about him. It was enough to know that he was a Mexican-American who had jumped at the chance of stepping into the ring with a master who held three World Heavyweight belts and was itching to add the fourth to make his suzraignty complete. For the champion, it was going to be his introduction to America, the real home of world heavyweight boxing. He would, for the first time in his career, be fighting in Madison Square garden, a venue where the greats of boxing – Mohammed Ali, Joe Frazier, even Mark Tyson had walked onto the ring in the klieg lights to the bloodthirsty braying of thousands of fans. There they had enacted boxing duels that were the stuff of legend.
There he was – handsome, voluble, winsome, the man who had beaten everybody in sight. For his exertion, on this evening, he would be earning twenty million pounds sterling – a handsome purse, far more than even the great Mohammed Ali had won for ‘the rumble in the jungle’.
Andres Ponce Ruiz Jr was a stocky, paunchy man with unsightly tattoos all over his body. He looked ugly and mean. He was born in 1989 in California, USA, of Mexican immigrant parents. He began professional boxing ten years ago. He had had 34 fights, out of which he won 33. His solitary loss was a close points decision.
There were certain things about the man that, in retrospect, should have made any opponent wary of him. One these was that computer analysis had repeatedly shown that, despite his stodgy stature, he had the fastest hands in heavyweight boxing.
But Anthony Olufemi Joshua was not just any man. He was known to be very proud of his Nigerian ancestry, which he regularly flaunted. He had been in Nigeria a number of times and talked his home-country up at every opportunity. He was the face and the voice of the popular GLO advert that had words such as ‘We Nigerians are proud warriors…”. He was active in the social media, with 2.6 million ‘likes’ on Facebook and 9.3 million followers on Instagram. The Nigerian people, and their government apparatchik, had taken to claiming him as their own. It was good, it seemed, for everybody’s morale.
On the night of the fight, you had gone to sleep, confident of Joshua’s victory. In the morning, you immediately called your brother who had watched the match live and demanded, with a tone of accusation, as though this was his fault.
His voice was flat.
‘Our man was gone from the third round. I saw it coming’.
To date, you have not had the stomach to watch the full seven rounds. All you have been able to handle are snippets, and the excruciating pathos of the champion kneeling on the canvas, before his adversary, at the end.
Anthony, who likes to be called ‘Femi’, was born in the UK. His father is of mixed Nigerian and Irish stock, while his mother is Nigerian. He started secondary school at Mayflower School, Ikenne. His parents divorced when he was 12, and he returned to the UK to continue his education. He learned a trade as a bricklayer and had a few minor brushes with the Law in his early years.
He began boxing in 2007. He won a silver medal at the 2011 World Amateur Boxing Championships, and gold at the 2012 London Olympics.
He turned professional in 2013. From then he has been unstoppable. He won all the 22 fights he had before he met the Mexican blob.
Joshua is a likable young man, given to quotable witticisms and clichés. Days after the fight, he would say ‘Don’t let success get to your head or failure get to your heart.’
If there is one thing that has always worried you about Joshua, it is that he is ‘too nice’ for boxing. The heavyweight boxing division has always been populated with people who look ready to eat their mothers for supper. But what would our Joshua do, after the fight, in which he endured a humiliating loss? Joshua embraced Luiz.
That is who he is, and that is how he has always been.
But who does that in the world he inhabits? Luiz himself looks like a hitman for a drug cartel. Joe Frazier looked like a killer, even when he wore a suit outside the ring. Iron Mike Tyson – you want to run away from him when you meet him on the street. Mohammed Ali, undoubtedly Joshua’s idol, who was handsome and voluble like him, did not embrace his opponents – he insulted them into a towering rage before he entered the ring with them, in order to take advantage of their anger and knock them out.
‘Femi’ loves his Yoruba heritage, and it is apt to recommend to him a Yoruba adage that says, literally,‘if a person is attacking you with a snake, you should not attack him with a mouse’. He lives in a world of mean men who fight to kill in the ring. He may be the most skillful boxer in the world, but if he wants to get back to winning ways, he needs to get a killer instinct into his head. Anthony Olufemi Joshua will come back. He is too good to stay down. If he gets his head right, he will beat Luiz when they meet in November.
All the world is waiting.