Anthony Joshua’s 2024 mission mapped out by Saudi-fuelled Francis Ngannou megafight

For the first time in the best part of half a decade, Anthony Joshua the heavyweight boxer is enjoying himself. A cynic might say that of course he is, given the unimaginable millions the Saudi state has sent teeming into his bank account.

It will continue to do so after the two-time unified heavyweight champion agreed to face MMA superstar Francis Ngannou in another Riyadh moneyspinner on March 8, 11 weeks on from dispatching Otto Wallin over five one-sided rounds on the “Day of Reckoning” card.

But it runs a little deeper than that. After years of unflinchingly earnest social media posts (“Married to the game” and the like), Joshua gave his confirmation of the Ngannou fight by recycling the “Ahhh, shit. Here we go again” Fortnite meme.

It suggests very little dread and plenty of relish, a man having fun with the very serious business of heavyweights trading blows. The malevolent Joshua that took Wallin apart last month was a fighter who looked like he knew the axis of boxing’s glamour division was tilting in his direction once more.

The first obvious signs of the shine coming off 2012 Olympic golden boy Joshua came towards the end of 2018. The Londoner’s rise from amateur standout to three-belt world champion included a rock ‘em, sock ‘em encounter with Dillian Whyte, going life and death with the great Wladimir Klitschko and a unification against the then-unbeaten Joseph Parker.

MORE: When is Anthony Joshua vs. Francis Ngannou? Rumored date, location, channel, price odds & card for 2024 boxing fight

But the fights the public really wanted didn’t happen. As evidenced by their contrasting experiences last December, the failure to make Joshua vs. Deontay Wilder for all the belts when both were undefeated in 2018 should forever be a source of regret. 

In 2018, the comebacking Tyson Fury elected to face Wilder in a December thriller. For all the animosity that would develop between the Bronze Bomber and the Gyspy King, their imperfect union had the huge payoff of turning Joshua from the face of the heavyweight division to the man on the outside looking in.

AJ was booed when he appeared in the ring after Whyte’s December 2018 rematch win over Derek Chisora, three weeks on from Wilder vs. Fury I. Six months later his world fell apart against Andy Ruiz and critics queued up to stick the boot in. Even as Joshua regained his belts in a rematch, he looked like damaged goods as Fury and Wilder embarked upon their career-defining trilogy. 

Oleksandr Usyk was twice an inscrutable puzzle as Joshua spun through trainers. Fury and Wilder negotiations of varying seriousness didn’t come to fruition. Enter Turki Alalshikh and Saudi Arabia’s General Entertainment Authority. The saviours of boxing as we know it, a demonstration of quite how much money is required to make adults such as Eddie Hearn and Frank Warren behave like grown-ups or a cynical sportswashing landgrab? Perhaps a little from each of columns A, B and C.

Having been the butt of Fury and Wilder’s uttered and implied jokes for some time, the first two heavyweight cards of Riyadh Season flipped the script in Joshua’s favour. First, Fury made a holy show of himself by getting decked and winning a disputed split decision against Ngannou on the Cameroonian’s boxing debut. 
“I think Ngannou won… Bodybuilders up, dossers down,” Joshua chortled in an interview with TNT Sport, throwing Fury’s signature jibe back at him. “He just looked like a flat slob that can’t fight. He said bodybuilders can’t fight, but he got smacked up by one.”

MORE: Top 12 best heavyweights in boxing: Rankings for weight class starring Fury, Usyk, Joshua, Wilder

Why isn’t Anthony Joshua fighting Deontay Wilder?

The wear and tear to Fury’s face, body and ego from the Ngannou encounter meant his undisputed clash with Usyk was shifted from December 23 to February 17, opening up the slot for Joshua, Wilder and the rest to do their stuff.

“The fight is closing in and Joshua has nowhere to run,” the big Alabaman said after his fight with Parker was announced for the same card, ostensibly to set up their long-awaited meeting. As heavyweight boxing’s new powerbrokers are quickly finding out, however, things are seldom that simple.

Joshua didn’t have to run anywhere. As he had his hands wrapped and went through some warm-ups with new trainer Ben Davison, Wilder stunk the place out against a rejuvenated Parker and slumped to a wide points defeat. Like Fury, he’d swaggered into Saudi and ended up looking silly —the grizzled old fight game losing none of its mischief in new surroundings. Despite the largely uninspiring nature of his wins over Jermaine Franklin and Robert Helenius, Joshua ended 2023 three for three and back on song.

Mark Robinson/Matchroom Boxing

Such activity is rare for modern heavyweights in general and certainly athletes with as many commercial commitments as Joshua. But the vast sums of money being thrown around by the General Entertainment Authority mean everyone is getting paid and Joshua will have boxed four times in the space of 12 months by the time he takes on Ngannou. His annual workload has not been that busy since he beat Charles Martin in April 2016 to become champion for the first time. The sharp and spiteful performance against Wallin showed this has only been a good thing.

A lot has happened since he dethroned “Prince Charles”, but Joshua now has a path back to the top mapped out and one that should be fun to follow. 

MORE: Boxing matches in Saudi Arabia: Previous fights and major sporting events as Fury, Usyk set for Riyadh fight

Will Anthony Joshua fight Tyson Fury?

To a large extent, having a man with Ngannou’s lack of experience share a ring with Joshua is preposterous, but his showing against Fury put him in prime position within heavyweight boxing’s altered reality. Looking better against the guy your rival looked bad against is a matchmaking tactic as old as the sport itself.

Given the expectation that the winner of Fury vs. Usyk will vacate the IBF belt to enter into an immediate rematch, there was talk of Joshua facing Filip Hrgovic for the organisation’s vacant title. However, even considering the IBF’s sometimes offensive efficiency when it comes to stripping its champions, Joshua boxing for a belt still warm from the undisputed king’s waist would have felt a little irrelevant.

In this context, a blockbuster with huge global appeal against Ngannou’s still unknown but probably manageable danger makes sense. Perhaps Wilder can redeem himself on the undercard, even if a mooted clash with Zhilei Zhang looks a terrible idea for Wilder at this stage. Then it could be Wilder for glory or Hrgovic for IBF gold in July before a shot at the winner of the Fury-Usyk saga before the year is out.

Oleksandr Usyk - Anthony Joshua

(Mark Robinson/Matchroom Boxing)

Davison has said he wants to help Joshua right his Usyk wrongs, while the Fury fight simply has to happen at some point. That the biggest fight in British boxing history now probably happens in Saudi Arabia if at all is regrettable in the extreme for UK fight fans.

Joshua’s stadium nights on home soil might be gone for good. But Muhammad Ali’s defining wins came in Zaire and the Philippines after dictators decided to pay top dollar. If you squint hard enough, some elements of heavyweight boxing’s brave new era are just history repeating. Joshua’s performances in 2024 will go a long way to deciding where he sits within it. 

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