ANNOUNCED yesterday, having been rumoured for a while, the April 1 heavyweight fight between Anthony Joshua and Jermaine Franklin is neither an April Fool’s joke of a fight nor, on the flipside, one of any great relevance or meaning in global terms.
It is instead a fight that falls somewhere in the middle; a whatever shrug of a fight.
No doubt backers and fans of Joshua will understand the reasons why he has picked Franklin as his so-called “comeback” opponent. Yet, equally, Joshua’s detractors will feel entitled to argue that Franklin, given his lack of experience and a recent loss against Dillian Whyte, is maybe, on paper, the poorest opponent Joshua has faced since 2016.
In a way, both those arguments carry weight. Certainly, one could argue Joshua’s choice of Franklin is one made with an acceptance that this could potentially be the Londoner’s last run as a title-chasing heavyweight. Lose this fight, in other words, and any chance of rising to the top for what would be a third time could very well go up in smoke.
Caution, as a result, was always going to be the key word when picking this opponent; the first Joshua has encountered since back-to-back defeats against the great Oleksandr Usyk. We heard some time ago that there was no hunger on the part of his new training team to box a southpaw again – not when Joshua’s immediate targets are apparently Dillian Whyte and Deontay Wilder, two orthodox heavyweights – and we can also assume that another requirement when it came to selecting his next opponent was familiarity. For who, after all, wants to return from two defeats against Oleksandr Usyk only to find themselves presented with an unknown entity possessing a style just as awkward as the left-handed Ukrainian?
That Team Joshua ultimately picked Franklin suggests these two things were very much on their minds. Because not only is Franklin an orthodox fighter, but he is considerably smaller in stature than Joshua, and is not deemed a big puncher, either, at least not at any level remotely close to world-class. Furthermore, having watched Franklin go 12 rounds against Whyte last November, Joshua has all the evidence he needs, both from a style point of view and also from the point of view of his confidence, which, understandably, will have taken a knock following 24 rounds in the company of Usyk.
Here, against Franklin, he will know he is facing a man Dillian Whyte, someone Joshua stopped in seven rounds back in 2015, has already beaten. It was a close fight, most would agree, yet still it showed, regardless of who you believed won, that there is not much between Whyte and Franklin and therefore, in theory, not much for Joshua to be concerned about, irrespective of which one he fights.
Essentially, in the context of him being a tune-up opponent, picking Franklin, 21-1 (14), is perfectly fine. It ticks boxes, as previously mentioned, and there is a chance, too, that Franklin remains ambitious enough at 29, and angry enough following that Whyte loss, to bring to Joshua the kind of fight he wasn’t able to get from some of his prior opponents, all of whom may have carried bigger reputations than Franklin but very little in the way of ambition and desire.
Clearly, in going after Whyte the way he did last year, Franklin is a man who believes the reputations of British heavyweights are somewhat inflated and one can only assume, especially given Joshua’s recent form, that the American will therefore take this same mindset and approach into his next fight over here on April 1. Should he do that, the fight could become more than just a tune-up fight for Joshua. It could, like the one Franklin had against Whyte, become interesting; perhaps even dangerous.
And therein lies the confusion with a fight like this. Take into account the potential for it to go wrong (which exists in most heavyweight fights), as well as the unlikelihood of Joshua receiving credit for any sort of win, and it seems a fight more trouble than it’s worth. Beat Franklin quickly, for instance, and Joshua will simply be told he has achieved what he was meant to achieve. Beat him on points, meanwhile, and Joshua has done no more than match what Whyte, a fighter supposedly beneath him, managed to do back when Franklin was unbeaten. In short, neither of those paths to victory will suffice in the eyes of those quick to judge Joshua, and neither of them, moreover, will herald the return of a man we are told is operating at the very highest level of the sport.
And he still is, isn’t he? Some even believed Joshua’s second performance against Usyk in August was an improvement on the previous one he produced in 2021. They said it was a sign of progress and development and that Joshua, in being taught a lesson first time around, had since grown as a fighter and would in the long run be all the better for having been challenged and taught by Usyk. If true, then, why the need to now step back so far? you might ask. Did the result itself really matter that much in light of how well Joshua apparently performed in defeat?
Well, I’d argue it did actually. I’d argue, too, that Joshua’s now infamous reaction to that defeat in Saudi Arabia said more about him and his future prospects and his need to be looked after than anything he produced in the 12 rounds he shared with Usyk. Beaten, yes, of that there was no doubt, but what Joshua also looked in the aftermath of that fight was broken, and a broken man will always need to undergo a period of repair before they are back on their feet and anything like their former self.
Which, I suppose, is what this fight against Franklin represents. It is, for Joshua, the first toe back in the water following a near-death experience at sea. It is the first slow trip around the block following an awful car crash. It is therefore, as a one-off, totally acceptable.
The only issue with it, in fact, when analysing its worth, is how it will inevitably be served up as a tune-up fight in order to swerve criticism before eventually being served up as a pay-per-view event (which is still what it is, despite yesterday’s claims to the contrary) in order to ensure Joshua, 24-3 (22), receives the money he is now accustomed to earning every time he sets foot in the ring. Uglier still, we know Joshua, because of the trend of big-name boxers rarely fighting, will likely box just once more this year, presumably against Dillian Whyte, which would mean he would have spent 2023 beating the two men involved in one of the least interesting heavyweight fights to have taken place in 2022.
That, no matter which side of the argument you find yourself, is hardly legacy-making stuff. Nor will it seem particularly clever or productive if, as expected, Joshua, 33, then enters his third “comeback” fight in 2024 – let’s say 18 months on from the second Usyk loss – having merely beaten the same man he once beat in 2015, as well as one of that man’s recent victims. Put another way: there’s going back to square and then there’s going back to square one.