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Anthony Joshua is harnessing a challenger’s mindset and a life of second chances

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Joshua rolls the dice in the desert this Saturday, as the former world champion looks to reclaim his heavyweight jewels in Diriyah. 

BOXING-HEAVYWEIGHT-RUIZ-JOSHUA Photo by FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP via Getty Images

“When I beat that court case, I got into boxing, and I focused,” Anthony Joshua told the assembled media at the start of a career-defining fight week in Diriyah, Saudi Arabia. “The same thing with Ruiz. Give me a second chance and see what I can do.”

On Saturday night, the 30-year-old Briton aims to become a two-time heavyweight world champion in his 24th professional contest. In his way stands the champion, Andy Ruiz Jr – the physical antithesis to the sculpted adonis that Joshua has become renowned as since turning over in 2013, but more importantly, his potential boxing kryptonite.

On June 1, inside the distinguished Madison Square Garden, an underdog fighting under the Mexican flag announced his name into the history books of our sport. Ruiz’s fairytale of New York saw the “Destroyer” take a bite out of Anthony Joshua’s legacy under the glare of the Big Apple.

Claiming the WBA, WBO and IBF heavyweight marbles via a seventh-round stoppage, Ruiz Jr became the man to beat overnight in the most heralded and talked about division. As the 31-year-old leapt up and down, gyrating on the bloodied canvas, the work in the opposing camp had already started as Anthony Joshua and Eddie Hearn began devising a plan for the contracted rematch.

One hundred eighty-nine days later and both men meet again in a fight titled “Clash on the Dunes.” In an attempt to piggyback into the boxing annals clinging on to the famed shoulders of the “Rumble in the Jungle” and “Thrilla in Manilla,” Matchroom Boxing have sold 2019’s marquee fight to the highest bidder. Fifteen thousand spectators from across the globe are expected to ascend on The Diriyah Arena this Saturday, dispelling the fear of a deserted desert.

For Joshua – reportedly taking home ~$80 million from his dance in Diriyah – it’s another opportunity to rise again, benefitting from a life and career of second chances.

”I’ve lost before. I’ve lost a few times, and I just keep on going,” the Watford-born fighter continued, as the surrounding media circle densified with dictaphones, notepads and hand-held cameras. “The good thing about boxing is that I had the same passion when I wasn’t known, so being known or not known doesn’t define my passion or what I want to achieve, or me as a person.”

This philosophical narrative has embodied Joshua’s approach to a compelling rematch. Deciding to concentrate on an inwards self-appraisal speaks volumes of his strength of character and a relentless desire to grow. It’s a tactic that is emboldened by a belief that he should be beating fighters like Andy Ruiz Jr; a belief that the best Anthony Joshua beats the best Andy Ruiz Jr.

“Andy Ruiz is good, but I don’t think he should beat me twice,” Joshua told the BBC when speaking candidly on his preparations. “Yeah I lost, I’m not perfect, but I’m gonna try again. I just need to add more to the cup.”

“I’m not perfect, but I’m trying,” was a catchphrase first bellowed by Joshua in the aftermath of his 2017 Fight of the Year win over, his now confidant, Wladimir Klitschko. The Wembley Stadium contest saw Joshua dropped for the first time as a professional, rallying through exhaustion to stop the Ukrainian luminary in the eleventh round. It was the making of him as a heavyweight; some regarded that win the passing of the torch in the heavyweight division.

Despite getting the win that April evening, Joshua decided to look forward instead of behind. Unwilling to rest on his laurels, basking in the glory that becoming the unified heavyweight champion yielded, “AJ” honed in on an obsession to improve, still harnassing a challenger’s mentality.

”You still need to keep that challenger’s mindset. I’m still the challenger in my head,” Joshua explained before adding a third belt to his collection against Joseph Parker in 2018. “Sometimes, I try and not be seen with the belts too much; I let other people do the enjoyment because I’ve got to do the challenger mindset.”

Saturday marks the first time Joshua will enter the ring as a challenger since April 2016. A decapitation of “Prince” Charles Martin saw the Briton become world champion in his 16th fight, laying the foundations of the path that followed.

Ring walking first, appearing on the right-hand side of the posters and being addressed as the challenger hasn’t phased Joshua in the time that has passed since June 1. The hunger to succeed burns deep, with a renewed focus evident in his mindset.

“It’s a great mindset to have, and you can’t lose that,” Joshua responded when asked about his appetite for the immediate rematch. “The minute you lose it, you’ve got to retire. You’ve got to be hungry. I had a blip. We go again. I’m not shy. No fear.”

Immediate rematches in the heavyweight division are steeped in history which favours the winner of the first duel. “Repeat vs Revenge” is a fiercely contested debate whenever a duo decides to duke it out again, with limited time available to make the necessary adjustments to flip the result. Only Floyd Patterson (vs Ingemar Johansson between 1959-60), Muhammad Ali (vs Leon Spinks in 1978) and Lennox Lewis (vs Hasim Rahman in 2001) have successfully implemented “revenge” for a version of the heavyweight title. An esteemed list that Joshua will be looking to add his name to come Sunday morning.

Boxing - Madison Square Garden Photo by Nick Potts/PA Images via Getty Images

Saturday’s rematch marks another second chance for Joshua, who has utilised the previous occasions inside and outside of the ring.

“When I had that second chance at life when I was getting in trouble, I just dedicated myself,” Joshua explained as he began reminiscing on a time that could have shaped his path very differently. “I said I would put myself on a 15-year prison sentence to boxing and have that focus.”

This “prison sentence to boxing” started at age 18 for Anthony when he strolled into the Finchley ABC as a young, skinny, confused adolescent. His tale isn’t one of childhood graft and a boxing destiny to fulfil through family lineage, more one of the right time, right place, a willingness to learn and a fear of the alternative.

Training and developing under the experienced wing of GB coach Robert McCracken, Joshua has learnt to bounce back from setbacks in his rushed amateur career. Defeats to Dominic Winrow, powerful southpaw Mihai Nistor as well as Dillian Whyte and Magomedrasul Medzhidov – who share Saturday’s ring with “AJ”, featuring on the undercard – have all added strings to the bow of the former heavyweight champion. In most cases, these strings were used in stretching his professional record to 22-0 before meeting Ruiz Jr.

A possible asterisk belongs at the side of Mihai Nistor’s name. Joshua was hurt by several left hooks during their bout in the European Amateur Boxing Championships, not dissimilar to the punch from Ruiz that changed the fight inside the Garden.

“When I got back from New York, I didn’t lose any heart or fire in my belly and started punching the heavy bag preparing for this day. There is no fear in my heart, my eyes or mind; I am confident,” Joshua declared after Wednesday’s press conference. This raw passion for the sport has allowed him to see past the belts and facilitated a revitalised hunger as a challenger. “I didn’t feel like I lost anything as a man,” he has previously told the BBC – alluding to his confidence in continuing to bounce back from setbacks.

Joshua’s story is one of inspiration in the United Kingdom. His name is a brand. Multi-million-pound companies pay through their noses to have their logo splashed over the apparel of the 30-year-old. However, this territory comes with the inevitable backlash. Us Brits like seeing a sportsperson achieve success — but not too much. We build the star and then break them down. It’s a fascinating contradiction of thought that has become engrained on our culture, and one that Joshua is well adept at coping with.

“That’s what makes sports interesting, history repeats itself, but it’s the strong ones that survive and come through it,” he admitted to Sky Sports cameras. “I appreciate the critics; I want them to keep digging me out because I always say it gives me the chance to perfect myself.”

“You could be feeling $100, and then your mate comes and in and says ‘Bruv what shoes are they? They look dead’, and you’re thinking ‘what? I was feeling like the man!’ But then you try on your second pair of shoes, and you realise, hang on a minute, these are a better fit. It gives you a chance to search for perfection.”

There is an evident desire for Joshua to quench the thirst of a historic sporting comeback this weekend. His previous narrative – centred around driving on a “Road to Undisputed” – hit a 268-pound speed bump in the summer. Still, with tweaks to his conditioning, training camp and mindset, the tracks may be being laid for a smoother journey over the years that follow.

The wider sporting world isn’t lost on “AJ”, regularly citing Tiger Woods’ return to the top inspiration to his future career. “If I’m in it for the long haul, you’ll see me reign again.”

As the clock strikes midnight in Diriyah on Saturday, we’ll begin to find out.

Follow Lewis Watson on Twitter @lewroyscribbles