When Anthony Joshua crashed to the canvas for the fourth time last Saturday night, the immediate reaction was one of absolute shock – with many pundits quick to label it the biggest upset in the heavyweight division since the relatively unknown, Buster Douglas, usurped the supposedly invincible ‘Iron’ Mike Tyson back in 1990.
As the UK’s golden boy, AJ was the man many were predicting would be the first undisputed champion since Lennox Lewis, but now both his boxing career and marketing lure lie delicately in the balance…
When AJ stepped into a packed arena at the iconic Madison Square Gardens, it was supposed to be his crowning moment, a chance to announce himself on the global stage and to American sports fans – but instead of the ‘American Dream’, what AJ was left with resembled more a bloodied nightmare.
The move to conquer the other side of the pond is a path well-trodden in the sport of UK prize fighting, with the likes of Joe Calzaghe, ‘Prince’ Naseem Hamed and more recently Tyson Fury, all making blockbuster debuts in the US. So with Joshua’s unexpected loss, where exactly does that leave his career both inside and out of the ring now?
It’s not an understatement to say that AJ is one of the most marketable sport stars in the world – boasting lucrative deals with Beats by Dre, Lucozade and Under Armour to name just a few. His whole story works – a boy who turned away from a life of crime to reform himself through the sport of boxing and become both an Olympic Gold medallist and Heavyweight Champion. The smile, the physique, the grounded demeanour – it’s what makes him stand out as the perfect role model in a sport of perceived brutality. But make no mistake, a huge part of what made him so marketable was the fact he seemed invincible. That’s gone now.
The fallout to Joshua’s loss has been a mix of incredulity, finger pointing and mounting suspicion. Whilst his camp and promotor, Eddie Hearn, have been quick to squash accusations of complacency, it’s done little to stop the spread of rumours surrounding sparring defeats and even a panic attack pre-fight. In fairness to Joshua he took defeat as gracefully as he takes a win, saying he’d be back to reclaim the belts – but what if the unthinkable were to happen and he lost to Andy Ruiz Jr for a second time. Hearn stated in the aftermath that a second loss could land a knockout on AJ’s career – which whilst perhaps ill-timed, could hold a certain truth. The sport of boxing is naturally unforgiving, but sponsorships can be equally fickle. So while AJ will always be a marketer’s dream, that’s not to say that a second loss could put a significant dent on both his image and aspirations of heavyweight supremacy.
However, there is a school of thought that this loss makes Joshua even more commercial valuable then before – it shows that he is fallible, he is human. In combat sports it’s often true that people love to see a favourite fail – the fallout on social media after Conor McGregor tasted his first defeat against Nate Diaz was crazy, with many quick to dismiss him as a ‘fraud’. There were certainly parallels with AJ’s loss, with many rushing to call out the Watford born heavyweight as a pure hype job. But when someone shows the grit and determination to comeback stronger in life then it inevitable makes for a story more people can relate to.
This is something Joshua’s manager Freddie Cunningham has spoken about – claiming that “the comeback story could long-term add to his overall commercial value.” You only have to look at Tyson Fury to see the truth behind this – a man once mocked as a bit of a joker is now seen as the ‘people’s champ’ after his performance against Wilder. Hearn has previously spoken about AJ being a ‘commercial freak’ due to his ‘perfect story’, so you could argue that a loss adds a new chapter to AJ’s tale, it creates a sense of drama and a feeling of redemption. Even the great Muhammed Ali lost and came back. If AJ were to do the same, anyone can get behind that.
That’s not to see that the rematch with Ruiz doesn’t come without its pitfalls. It almost seems like a game of Russian roulette for AJ. A loss and you could argue that it would effectively end his chances of the real big money fights with Wilder and Fury. For so long Joshua’s camp held all the aces, they had three belts and Hearn boasted of AJ’s commercial prowess in comparison to Wilder’s. One more slip up, one more heavy blow and all the work that went into building Joshua’s profile could be derailed.
One thing is for sure though, all eyes will be on the AJ-Ruiz re-match, and whether it takes place in November or December, you can be sure that sponsorship managers – as much as boxing fans – will be on the edge of their seats waiting to see whether the final chapter in AJ’s story is written that night or if it is the beginning of a brilliant sequel that Rocky himself would be proud of. Personally, I hope AJ can bounce back and prove he is a true champion.