It’s now or never for Anthony Joshua.
The former two-time heavyweight champion of the world is confronting his sporting mortality for the second time in his career.
For the second time, he’s retreated to Saudi Arabia to launch what he hopes to be his comeback performance, winning back his belts and continuing to cement his legacy.
This time though, he isn’t facing a man like Andy Ruiz, whose focus wavered and waistline expanded between bouts.
This time, he’s up against a pound-for-pound great in Oleksandr Usyk (19-0), a man of impeccable pedigree, who is fighting with the backing of an entire country under siege.
The stakes will be high at the Jeddah Superdome in Saudi Arabia, and not just because the winner will take home the WBA (Super), IBF and WBO belts, as well as the lesser IBO title and The Ring strap.
Should Joshua lose again, the British star will be a long way from being able to challenge for a world title again any time soon.
On the undercard in Jeddah, unbeaten Croatian fighter Filip Hrgović (14-0, 12KOs) meets China’s Zhilei Zhang (24-0-1, 19KOs) in an elimination bout for a shot at the IBF belt.
Then, in September, New Zealand’s Joseph Parker (30-2, 21KOs) — who took Joshua the distance for the first time in his career when they met back in 2018 — meets Britain’s new hope, Joe Joyce (14-0, 13KOs).
The pair, ranked 1 and 2 by the WBO, will face off in yet another eliminator in Manchester — and will undoubtedly want their piece of the champion too.
Then, in Brooklyn, the WBA’s number two Robert Helenius (31-3, 20KOs) is set to meet the Bronze Bomber, Deontay Wilder (42-2-1, 41KOs) in October in Wilder’s first fight since being knocked out for the second time by Tyson Fury.
That all being said, Joshua, the 2012 super heavyweight Olympic gold medallist, rubbished claims that he would retire if he lost, but even he would have to accept the road back to the top would be brutal, long, and perhaps beyond what a 35-year-old should risk.
Incidentally, should Joshua beat Usyk, all those pretenders would likely be put on the backburner in case WBC champ Fury (33-0-1, 23KOs) can be tempted to come out of retirement again to contest the biggest fight in British boxing history — but let’s not get overexcited here, once bitten, twice shy and all that …
Anthony Joshua’s vulnerability at risk of unfairly defining his career
Joshua stands at something of a crossroads.
His record of 24-2 (22 KOs) is not the unblemished card many associate — rightly or wrongly — with a modern champion.
That is a misguided view at best, this being Joshua’s 12th-straight heavyweight world title fight — a record few have matched in the modern era.
And partly it’s that vulnerability that makes Joshua all the more intriguing, as is the case, somewhat paradoxically, with most boxers, particularly the heavyweight behemoths that stalk the square circle.
Fury’s apparent invincibility in the ring is offset by the vulnerability exposed by the mental demons that plague him out of it — and how he came back from the brink to return to the pinnacle of the sport.
Anthony Joshua is the opposite.
The laid back assuredness of Joshua and his brand as Britain’s golden Olympian and heavyweight champion hits hard against his recent fallibility once he steps through the ropes.
That’s either through the thrilling aggression he exhibited in his early professional fights or the muddled tactical confusion that’s plagued his reign as champion and champion-elect.
Usyk out-boxed the champion by a margin that exceeded most people’s expectations, fully deserving his unanimous points win.
“I’ve got to go change the narrative,” Joshua told the BBC earlier this week.
“I’m the author of my own movie, I can change the narrative.
“I took myself to the United States, worked with some new trainers … I want to try something new, I want to revamp myself, reinvent myself.”
Usyk fighting for Ukraine at war
Joshua has previously spoken of how, in the ring, a boxer has to become uncivilised, to go to dark places.
But there will be few fighters around who have had to go places as dark as Usyk has been forced to over the past few months.
While Ukraine has been ravaged by Russian aggression, Usyk has been back in his homeland, bearing witness firsthand to events taking place in Kyiv and was even pictured taking up arms to defend his home.
How paltry the phoney war of pugilism must seem after being told to arm yourself with a rifle and defend your homeland.
Has the inevitable and unavoidable distraction of what’s happening in the war focused Usyk during his training camp, or played on his mind throughout? Both can be true.
Usyk sang the Ukrainian resistance song “Oi u luzi chervona kalyna” on stage after the first face-off with Joshua, clad in traditional Cossack garb and sporting a traditional haircut.
He had earlier offered to buy the rights for the fight so that it would be shown free of charge on Ukrainian TV — and offer that was rebuked by the Saudi organisers, who picked up the costs themselves.
He’ll be hoping to inspire his countrymen and compatriots in the armed forces with victory.
“We have to go ahead, be strong and keep moving,” Usyk told the BBC this week.
“This fight is very important. The people of Ukraine need to feel the pride. To become happy.”
Who is going to win?
Joshua has come to this fight with a new trainer in Robert Garcia, perhaps portents of a new outlook to how he’ll approach this contest.
In London he was tentative, cagey, and almost allowed Usyk to dictate the pace of the fight.
For the rematch, he has come in at 110.9kg, heavier than last time and a full 10.4kg heavier than Usyk, who weighed in just 0.2kg heavier than the first fight.
While Usyk may have outboxed Joshua in north London last year, his face was seriously marked at the end of the fight, indicating that it was no cakewalk for the Ukrainian.
“The whole boxing world knows he can’t outbox Usyk,” Garcia said this week.
“Joshua is a very talented fighter. Combinations are beautiful. Great jab, great right hand. We need to try and do it more often.
“But we’re not going in there to become a brawler … we have to do it smart.”
Usyk is elusive and hard to hit, but if Joshua can ignore that and work the body then the weight of those shots should start to take their toll on a man who is only fighting at heavyweight for the fourth time in his career.
When is the fight on?
The fight will take place in Jeddah on Saturday night, or early Sunday morning Australia time.
The main card coverage starts at 2am AEST.
However, the main event will likely take place closer to 7:15am AEST.
How can I watch Usyk vs Joshua II?
You’ll have to have a subscription to online streaming service DAZN or fork out $49.95 to Main Event to watch the fight in Australia.
Alternatively, you can follow all the action in the ABC Sport live blog.
Who is on the undercard?
On the undercard, as well as a couple of world title eliminators, will be the first women’s professional bout to take place in Saudi Arabia.
Ramla Ali, the unbeaten Somalian fighter who combines her boxing career with modelling and activism, will take on Crystal Garcia Nova.
The other two main bouts on the undercard feature heavyweights Filip Hrgović against Zhilei Zhang in the IBF title eliminator and Callum Smith vs Mathieu Bauderlique in a WBC light-heavyweight title eliminator.