Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Can Anthony Joshua, Citizen of the World, Become the Next Muhammad Ali? 

by Eddie Goldman

Anthony Oluwafemi Olaseni Joshua does not want to be mentioned alongside the likes of Muhammad Ali.

"Can I ever see a time that it will be Ali, Foreman, Holmes, Joshua? Nah," the 27-year-old heavyweight champ reportedly said.

"There are too many opinions now. They didn't give Klitschko the respect he deserves, you know what I mean. I just try and keep some distance from it and stay in my own lane," he went on.

"As long as I'm happy, that's what matters. I'm not perfect but what I do, I do good. I'll keep improving on it and if that's good enough to get me through in boxing, then I'll be satisfied. I know I can get better."

Despite his most modest self-assessment, there are many of us who argue that he is precisely suited to become potentially as big as was The Greatest.

Back on January of this year, in what now seems like a different and earlier era in boxing, you just didn't hear comparisons of Anthony Joshua and Muhammad Ali. At the January 31 Joshua-Klitschko news conference in New York hyping their April 29 bout, when I told Gareth Davies of the UK's Telegraph that Joshua had the potential to become as popular as Ali, this view ended up exploding onto headlines in the British and Irish media.

Now, after Joshua's momentous and historic 11th round TKO victory over Klitschko this past Saturday before 90,000 fans in London's Wembley Stadium, such comparisons are flooding the general sports and sports business media.

Yes, visions of this fight may still be sharp in many people's minds and the emotions it evoked may still be powerful just days after it made its way into boxing, sports, and cultural history. But that does not mean that these comparisons, and the projection that Joshua could become the next Ali, are simply infatuations which will fade in less giddy times.

Nicely juxtaposed photos of Joshua standing over a downed Klitschko alongside Ali standing over a downed Sonny Liston in similar poses have been plastered all over the British media.

No less than the business publication SportsBusiness Daily, whose audience is far different from that of the British tabloids which promise secret shots of naked celebrities, ran a piece called Anthony Joshua Drawing Comparisons To Muhammad Ali.

Sure, Joshua is only 19-0 with 19 knockouts, with a growing queue of undefeated fighters vying to fight him, including Deontay Wilder, Tyson Fury, Joseph Parker, and Luis Ortiz. But do you know what Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, did in his 19th fight? After being knocked down in the fourth round, he stopped Henry Cooper in the fifth -- before 35,000 people in Wembley Stadium. The more noteworthy, and still controversial, fights with then-heavyweight champion Sonny Liston were fights numbers 20 and 21 in Ali's career.

Of course, besides his years of heroics in the ring, Ali was both adored and hated for what he did outside the ring. (At a media event in 2002 to publicize a one-off Ali magazine, before a crowd of New York boxing and media types I asked Ali which he was proudest of, his accomplishments in the ring or outside the ring. To the amazement of almost everyone except me, he said, in what was left of his voice, "outside the ring.")

Ali's conviction for his refusal to be drafted into the US Army on the grounds that he was a conscientious objector on religious grounds, later overturned by the US Supreme Court, and his stern denunciation of American aggression in Vietnam as racist, led him, then with a record of 29-0, to be stripped of his heavyweight title and banned from boxing by the devils who control it. Almost all the mainstream writers of this supposed classic era of sportswriting condemned him and even refused to call him by his chosen name, Muhammad Ali, with the most notable exception in the mainstream media being Howard Cosell.

He also proudly and loudly trumpeted the Black separatist line of the Nation of Islam he believed at that time, and even broke ties with his mentor Malcolm X, whom many believe was assassinated in a plot concocted with the cooperation and/or participation of Nation of Islam leadership. Ali did later admit regret for his break with Malcolm and apologize to Malcolm's family, and the most moving speaker at Ali's 2016 funeral was the eldest daughter of Malcolm X and Betty Shabazz, Attallah Shabazz.

While Ali's political views clearly moderated after he broke with the Nation of Islam and became a more traditional Sunni Muslim, and culturally he was more or less mainstreamed, he remains an icon for those struggling against war, oppression, exploitation, and discrimination around the world.

What do we know of Anthony Joshua's political beliefs? Not much, publicly at least. What he thinks of Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn, or Trump, Le Pen, Macron, Putin, Assad, Xi Jinping, and Kim Jong-un, or the 2015 elections in Nigeria, has not been publicized. Where he stands on Brexit, refugees, and LGBT rights is also not publicly known.

But we do know that he is trying to be, whether he calls it that or not, a humanist.

Shortly after defeating American Charles Martin in April 2016 to win the IBF heavyweight belt, his first major world title, Joshua was interviewed by Nigerian journalist Oma Akatugba at the 2016 Laureus World Sports Awards in Berlin. In that video, which has recently gone viral, Joshua, with a laugh, said "the secret of the success" was that he eats the popular Nigerian dishes of eba, pounded yam, and egusi soup.

But more seriously he addressed the issue of his nationality. His mother, Yeta Odusanya (with whom he still lives), is from Nigeria, and his father, Robert, is of Nigerian and Irish descent. He was born in Watford in the UK, but spent part of his youth in Nigeria.

Asked whether he considers his nationality Nigerian or British and "Where does your heart lie?" his response was this:

"We're citizens of the world. All this political stuff where this is British, this is Nigerian, this is -- we're citizens of the world. That's the most important thing. But my heart is with Nigeria, my heart is with Britain. I'm a Nigerian man by blood, yes."

Joshua the internationalist is already a worldwide attraction for boxing and sports fans viewing his fights in many parts of the planet. The Joshua-Klitschko fight was reportedly screened in 140 countries.

According to numerous media reports, promoter Eddie Hearn has already claimed that this fight has shattered the UK record for pay-per-view buys, with numbers still coming in. In Germany, where it was aired it on the RTL network and not pay-per-view, the fight had an average viewership of 10.43 million people. In Poland, where it aired on Polsat Sport, the average viewership was 920,000. It also aired in Russia on Match TV, with no figures available at this time.

In the US, which is becoming more and more a backwater of boxing, the premium cable networks Showtime, which has a deal with Joshua, and HBO, which has a deal with Klitschko, wrangled for months over how to share the TV rights for this fight. They only announced their arrangement less than two weeks before the fight itself, with Showtime airing it live, meaning in the afternoon in the US, and HBO showing a replay that night. Even with all the delays which no doubt handcuffed the proper marketing of this fight in the US, both telecasts drew impressive numbers.

The live Showtime telecast averaged 659,000, and peaked at 763,000, amazing numbers for a fight outside the US that started at about 5 PM EDT/ 2 PM PDT.

One might think that viewership would be hurt for the HBO replay because the results, recaps, analyses, and even YouTube videos could be easily found by anyone who has ever seen the letters "http". Nevertheless, the replay averaged 738,000 viewers on HBO and peaked at 890,000 - making it higher than any of HBO's live boxing shows this year.

Just imagine the number of viewers in the US if the TV suits had put it live on the free CBS broadcast network instead of on premium cable on Showtime. On CBS at the time of the fight was a live broadcast of golf (lol), whose organizers booked the time months in advance, unlike the boxing promoters whose anarchic system requires a separate deal for every fight. This golf showing got 1.5 million viewers, surely far fewer than a well-publicized live broadcast of this fight would have received.

Now Anthony Joshua is in demand all over the world. He reportedly turned down an offer to do a blitz of appearances on American TV talk shows this week, preferring to stay in the UK with his family and friends, and also prepare for some public appearances there.

The Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has announced that he will soon invite Anthony Joshua to Nigeria.

Anthony Joshua is indeed a citizen of the world, as was Muhammad Ali, and his reign as the universally regarded top heavyweight in the world is just starting. But unlike Ali, his ascendance to an iconic status like him will not be as dependent on him being recognized as such as widely in America. "America First" hysteria may work for Trump voters, but not in world boxing.

Back at that January 31 news conference, I asked Joshua how he was handling all the hoopla around him and talk about him being the future of boxing. He replied by summing up his situation, matter-of-factly:

"I think it's just going to come with the territory, provided I keep on winning. If I'm getting banged down in my next five fights, we don't hear this talk anymore. So I think, right now I'm winning. This is what we'll continue to hear. Boxing is all based on winning. Boxing is based on winning. It's not as if, 'Oh, he lost three fights. That's good, and ....' Nah. It's based on winning. If I'm winning, we'll talk about unification. We'll talk about Vegas. If I'm not winning, the next man comes up and takes that position."

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Sunday, April 30, 2017

One Love: The Message of Anthony Joshua 

by Eddie Goldman

It may have been logistically impossible for those who attended Donald Trump's rally Saturday evening at the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to have watched the live TV showing of the Anthony Joshua-Wladimir Klitschko fight from London. But in the unlikely event that they did see it live, or saw the televised replay later that night, they would have heard diametrically opposed messages.

Trump gave a speech which CNN senior political analyst David Gergen, who had been a top presidential adviser under Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton, said on CNN was "a deeply disturbing speech" and "the most divisive speech I have ever heard from a sitting American president." In the speech, Trump returned to his campaign's ultra-nationalist, anti-scientific, anti-immigrant, and anti-media themes. Presented on his 100th day in office, Trump has thus far had zero major legislative achievements and has the lowest approval ratings of any new president at this stage of his term since World War II. And his faithful cheered him like a rock star.

Trump even lied about the attendance at this meeting, claiming the building couldn't fit all the people who wanted to enter inside, even though there were visibly entire rows and sections of empty seats, easily seen in photographs of the event.

Across the Atlantic, in a world normally as or more sordid than politics, a boxing match was taking place, and this one legitimately had filled up 90,000 seats in London's Wembley Stadium. It also, according to promoter Eddie Hearn, broke the UK pay-per-view record of 1.15 million for the 2015 Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao fight. We are awaiting what are expected to be record or near-record numbers from the German telecast on RTL, as well as the live US telecast on Showtime and replay on HBO later that night. And we know a lot of folks watched it online, legit or not.

On Twitter, its hashtag, #JoshuaKlitschko, was trending number two in the US even before the fight started, and trended (or some spelling variation of it) first in the world and the US for some time after it ended.

This battle, of course, featured the UK's superstar, 27-year-old Anthony Joshua, in the toughest test in his brief career, defeating the former champion of the heavyweight division, 41-year-old Wladimir Klitschko of Ukraine, who also spends time living in Germany and California.

As you likely know, this was an epic fight which saw both fighters knocked down and hurt. The climax and culmination had, in the 11th round, Joshua score two massive knockdowns on Klitschko, followed by a fierce barrage while a battered Klitschko was up against the ropes, causing American referee David Fields correctly to halt the fight.

The TKO victory for Joshua was not only a successful defense of his IBF belt and gave him the WBA belt, but it showed that Joshua could come back from adversity and after being seriously in trouble, to overcome a vastly more experienced fighter like Klitschko.

This was without question one of the greatest heavyweight fights in history. It is a bona fide fight of the year candidate. And it included a round of the year candidate in the fifth, where Joshua dropped and hurt Klitschko early on, only to be hurt himself and almost dropped as the round progressed. In fact, Joshua clearly was winning the fight when he scored his fifth-round knockdown, but it was in that round that the momentum changed and Klitschko rallied for a significant portion of the rest of the fight, until he met his doom in round 11.

There has already been lots and lots of poignant analyses of the ups and downs of this fight. I recommend checking out what Frank Lotierzo and, when it comes out probably this week, Charles Farrell have to say about it. It would be pointless for me to try to duplicate, even if I actually could, what they said and wrote.

More important than the breakdown of these 11 rounds, and even that Joshua is now obviously the top heavyweight in the world and probably the most popular fighter in the world today, are the cultural and even political significance of Anthony Joshua's rise to such prominence.

While much of the West descends into the flames of xenophobia and anti-immigrant hysteria, from Trump to Le Pen to Brexit and on and on, while Putin and the Mullahs of Iran prop up the genocidal Assad regime in carrying out its countless war crimes and killing and displacing of millions of people, while the various Islamic terrorists such as Daesh/ISIS and others remain active forces, here comes a boxer, the British-born son of Nigerian immigrants, who has captivated the hearts of so many diverse people from all around the world.

In his postfight comments, of course, Joshua discussed the fight itself, whom he may want to fight next, and so on. He continued his entirely respectful and almost reverential approach to Klitschko, as did Klitschko towards Joshua.

George Orwell may have written in 1945 in his essay The Sporting Spirit that "sport is an unfailing cause of ill-will." He may have been right much of the time, and especially in boxing, but not in Wembley Stadium this past Saturday night.

Using several social media platforms, Anthony Joshua posted a short video while still in the ring shortly after the fight. Along with his mates, he said he hoped his fans enjoyed the fight, and added, echoing Bob Marley, "And onto the next one. I'm saying, we don't rest. Let's keep it going, people. One love. Peace."

One love. Peace. From the heavyweight champion of the world after a brutal boxing match with the former champion who topped that division for over a decade.

At the postfight press conference, Joshua explained again, as he has done on other occasions, his views on life and boxing:

"I'm a champion outside of the ring, first and foremost. With or without the belts or boxing, I'm a good man, I'm a family man, and I love life, so that's what's important.

"The fighting is fun, I say it to you again. I don't box just for the belts. I don't box for money. I just enjoy it, the discipline."

Again, these are the words of the heavyweight champion in one of the most dangerous if not THE most dangerous and bloody sports in the world.

There are far more reasons to like this guy than just his boxing skills, proven courage, good looks, and cheerful attitude. Whether by design or merely by the way he has developed as a person, he is attempting to bring people together around the world, regardless of where they come from or reside.

Soon he will begin a world tour to enrapture fans and non-fans alike on continent after continent. Sure, it is almost a sure bet that he will soon have his first fight in the US, probably against the undefeated WBC champion Deontay Wilder. That Joshua had no easy night against Klitschko and almost tasted defeat for the first time in his professional career, only to rally for his 19th knockout win in as many fights, only makes a Joshua-Wilder showdown that much easier of a sell and a virtual guaranteed record-setter once again. It is a serious possibility that since both Joshua and Wilder are contracted to Showtime, which is part of CBS, that their fight could air live in prime time on the CBS Broadcast Network. Get ready for more television records to be made.

While others stand in line for Joshua, including Klitschko for a rematch, the still-unlicensed and obese former champion Tyson Fury, the unbeaten WBO champ Joseph Parker, British opponents like Tony Bellew and even David Haye, and the two sanctioning body mandatory challengers Kubrat Pulev and Luis "King Kong" Ortiz, Eddie Hearn wants to take the Joshua show on the road, and fast and far.

"The plan, rather than just keep going in the UK, is to explore and break new markets and boundaries," Hearn told Reuters.

"Like the Middle East, China -- I could see him fighting in the Bird's Nest Stadium -- and Africa. I want to go worldwide with him. Ali was one of AJ's inspirations. He knows everything he did."

Whether or not the Bird's Nest Stadium is ready for a major world title fight, Anthony Joshua now has an open path, not only to being the most popular boxer and best heavyweight in the world, but to becoming the best known athlete in the world, and the most revered since his and countless millions of others' idol, Muhammad Ali.

Yet these years have a far different atmosphere than the 1960s, when that era's rebellious spirit was seen in so many people including Muhammad Ali. Anthony Joshua has as of yet shown no public signs of being a rebel. He has talked about becoming boxing's first billionaire. But he still lives in the modest working class and racially, nationally, and religiously mixed neighborhood of Golders Green in London, and with his mum, Yeta Odusanya, who is a social worker. He sports high-end headphones, but they are labelled with a map of Africa, an outline of the borders of his parents' home country Nigeria where he also spent some years of his youth, and the word "Wisdom". This same map and message is on a prominent tattoo on his right shoulder.

So Anthony Joshua is a man of two worlds: the modest life of a first-generation son of immigrants, and the custom-made luxury of a multi-millionaire worldwide star who just made at least £15 million (over USD $19 million) in one night's work.

Right now his message of "one love" remains undiluted. Who knows how he might change if or when he fights on the continent of his ancestors in a bout which would rightly or wrongly be compared to the iconic "Rumble In The Jungle" of Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. You could even envision Foreman being involved in such a promotion.

Joshua already has connections in the Middle East. He spent some time this winter in the United Arab Emirates, where local Emirati promoters have been trying to land a major fight for a few years now. He posted online a photo of himself praying in a Muslim mosque in Dubai, even though he is not a Muslim. He knows how to make friends, and with integrity in his own beliefs.

China may be a tougher place to open up for him fighting, but remember that the 2008 Summer Olympics were in Beijing and the 2022 Winter Olympics will also be there. Again, he is just 27 and says he expects to fight for another decade.

By that time, Donald Trump will no longer be President of the United States, however sooner or later that may occur. Trump still may be able to get TV coverage of speeches in partially-filled farm show buildings in predominantly white areas, but if the opposite trend continues, by then, Anthony Joshua may be far more admired and listened to than the whole lot of presidents, prime ministers, kings and queens, and dictators throughout the world.

But what will be Joshua's message as he enthralls the world? One love? Show me the money? Or some combination of those, or something else?

We have plenty of time to find out, so enjoy the ride. Let's just hope, and even encourage him, always, to quote the words of Bob Marley's One Love, to "hear the children crying".

(Photo of Anthony Joshua by Esther Lin/Showtime)

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