London Feud: Joshua vs Whyte

In Essex, just outside of London, there lives a boxing promoter prone to the most fantastic commentary. The scion of a sports empire forged in billowy snooker halls, Eddie Hearn wears the promoter’s hat with aplomb; dapper, garrulous and accessible, he gushes as though he’s being paid by the compliment. This is especially true when discussing the prospects of his prized heavyweight, for whom no blessing is too fanciful. Anthony Joshua, whose divinity Hearn has long foretold, is a genius we’re privileged to worship.

In the past Hearn said that Joshua (14-0) might become the greatest fighter ever. Should he be chastized for his hyperbole? Likely no, since it’s his job to rhapsodize. The only person Hearn’s truly hurting is Joshua himself, who must contend with overblown expectations created by the man who stands to lose the most should Joshua not fulfill them. Hearn’s exuberance hasn’t troubled the young man yet, however; by way of clever matchmaking, fine marketing, and a streak of violent knockouts, the 26 year old has transformed into a juggernaut. This Saturday things become more interesting when he meets Dillian Whyte in London for the British title. It should be the harshest test of his career.

Hearn, right, has been hyperbolic in his praise of Joshua.

Whyte (16-0), from Brixton, seems to genuinely dislike “AJ”, who he’s repeatedly called a phony and about whom he said “[Joshua] gets very, very nervous around me.” The two are not without mutual history. In 2009 Whyte knocked down and bested Joshua in a three round amateur fight at a community center in North London. Were it not for YouTube, this might be an apocryphal tale spun to sell the fight, but evidence of Joshua’s vulnerability has eternal life on the boxing internet, and has doubtlessly been watched by scores of fans this week. It would be a mistake to use this footage as a template for how Saturday will unfold, though. In it, both fighters are almost comedically green, coming at one another with the frenzied rushes of game amateurs who pay no heed to caution. When Joshua is sent to the mat, Whyte stands overtop of him with his groin thrust out in phallic triumph.

Six years later Joshua is the most hyped English heavyweight since Lennox Lewis. Whyte, meanwhile, has endured several missteps, including a long ban for ingesting a banned supplement, which the fighter maintains was an innocent mistake. “The Body Snatcher” went two years without a professional bout, and since returning last year he’s recorded six stoppages. While none of his victims are fighters of repute, the same could be said of Joshua, whose rampage has met little resistance. “AJ” smashed Kevin Johnson, a historically-durable fighter, in May, and just recently stopped mammoth highlander Gary Cornish, but in both instances these men fought with little self-belief. Neither Whyte nor Joshua has travelled into deep waters as a professional, where the current picks up and becomes harder to swim against.

Whyte, right, hopes his right hand will put Joshua to sleep on Saturday.

The prospect of testing Joshua’s limits, and breaking his will, is where the “Body Snatcher” believes he’s advantaged. Whyte thinks his constitution is harder and his personality more authentic than Joshua’s. He is, within his own matrix of self-belief, more real, and continually invokes this qualitative difference. “He’s a robot and does what he’s been told to do and says what he’s been told to say” Whyte said, in another one of his insulting missives. For Whyte, Joshua’s calm bearing is a façade hiding an empty house. This form of speculative psychologising is either a reach or a form of rare insight. After all, to an outsider, Wladimir Klitschko was a monument to stoicism before meeting Tyson Fury. He proved himself glaringly unconfident during the actual fight, boxing with the timidity of a man walking across a frozen lake of cracked ice. Whyte, who like Fury is a firestorm of words, is banking on Joshua also being a man of mental weakness.

Whyte should hope his assessment is correct because the obvious advantages belong to the other man. Joshua is larger, faster, and more technically correct; despite his long, hypertrophied body, he has a compact build that allows him to throw balanced power shots with swift efficiency. “AJ” has also shown a fine understanding of distance and doesn’t over commit himself by lunging in his quest for a knockout. Instead, he boxes patiently, cognizant his opponent is always one mistake away from being stopped.

Of course, Joshua can look so calm because he’s never been flustered. Not once has he been forced to regroup, mid-round, and rely upon that alchemy of nerve, concentration, and self-belief required for staying afloat. Each of his fourteen opponents have been felled within three rounds, and Joshua’s latest ring introduction, in which each knockout was presented in sequence and stylishly set to ‘Still Dre’, was a homage to their slaughter. It was an effective montage, and undertaken to reinforce the myth of invincibility that Hearn is both the purveyor and beneficiary of.

Their relationship is less cordial than this picture would suggest.

In having Joshua face Whyte, a true power puncher, right now, is the promoter gambling with “AJ’s” future? Some British fight people believe this is destined to become yet another Joshua rout. Their confidence is presumably rooted in “AJ” being too overwhelmingly complete for Whyte, whose bravado will prove insufficient before a vastly superior blend of skill and athleticism. Still, even the most ardent Joshua supporter must feel a twinge of anxiety at the thought of a flush power shot catching his chin. It is genuinely exciting, then, to consider whether mature versions of the two bucks that brawled so energetically in North London six years ago—before Joshua became a media darling with a gold medal and Whyte a dangerous prospect beset by bad luck – can stage a competitive bout.

The promotion is called ‘Bad Intentions’. This is not another nod to Dr. Dre, but to the enmity shared by two London lads who’ve grown up in mutual discord.  Whyte seethes with contempt when Joshua is discussed, while “AJ’s” face turns a stony gray whenever forced to answer one of challenger’s insults. Though Joshua has tried hard to convey an Olympian reserve, both seem to be taking this personally, as if neither can move on without first having inflicted maximum pain on the other. While “AJ” is the clear favourite, is it foolish to at least hope for a surprising result?

Two weeks ago, confident prognosticators were taught another lesson in humility when Tyson Fury upset Wladimir Klitschko. Was Hearn wizened by their mistakes? As a man whose job it is to generate interest through artifice, probably not. Because he’s a boxing promoter, hype must always succeed reality, and this is fitting for a cultural era that fetishizes the comic book hero. On Saturday, we’ll get another chance to see whether Hearn’s creation is equipped to become superman.

            — Eliott McCormick 

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