It’s a good job Anthony Joshua has broad shoulders. Not only does the 6ft 6in undefeated heavyweight champion of the world carry the hopes of British boxing fans, but currently he’s also carrying his entire sport.
In recent years, boxing has suffered from too much hype, its image further tarnished by the Floyd Mayweather v Conor McGregor circus, when a former champion came out of retirement to take on a mixed martial artist for huge bucks in Las Vegas.
Against that backdrop, Joshua is a man born to make the public fall back in love with the noble art. A homegrown hero, the former bricklayer won gold at the London 2012 Olympics. After turning professional, he spectacularly defeated Wladimir Klitschko in front of 90,000 people at Wembley Stadium in April to become world champion.
The fight proved that Joshua, who turns 28 on Sunday, was indeed a force of nature in the ring. But more than that, it confirmed him as someone capable of transcending his sport. Out of the ring, he is articulate, humble, handsome and engaging: a role model who practises the values of honesty, hard graft and respect for everyone – including his opponents.
But is Joshua a different animal when the cameras are off? One man who knows is Tony Pastor: “I’ve got to know him well over the past three years while we’ve been filming him.” Pastor’s latest documentary is Anthony Joshua: the Fight of My Life, which follows the build-up to the Klitschko fight.
“He’s the most down-to-earth, relaxed, funny, intelligent boxer you could hope to meet,” says Pastor. “We had unprecedented access and, even when the cameras were off, I never saw anything other than charm and good humour.”
But as a boxer, surely he must have a vicious streak? “Anthony clearly doesn’t mind going to war in the ring,” says Pastor. “He’s completely comfortable about hurting someone and being hurt, but he’s able to compartmentalise it. Outside the ring, you’ll see zero aggression.”
But it wasn’t always so. Born to Nigerian parents in Watford in Hertfordshire, Joshua grew up on a council estate. He was a promising footballer and sprinter but, drawn to local street gangs, there were skirmishes with the law. In 2009, Joshua was put on remand in Reading prison for “fighting and other crazy stuff” and on his release was made to wear an electronic tag.
He credits boxing with turning his life around, after his cousin took him to Finchley Boxing Club. “Anthony admits that boxing kept him out of jail,” says Pastor. “It gave him a discipline and a focus for his huge physique and natural talent.”
But in 2011 he nearly threw it all away again after being arrested for possessing cannabis. He was handed a suspended sentence and 100 hours of community service helping elderly people with their allotments.
“All the grief from my friends and family had a huge effect on me,” he said. “There’s no way that will ever happen again, but I’m glad it did because it woke me up.”
If Joshua needed boxing then, boxing certainly needs him now. Preparing to defend his title against Bulgaria’s Kubrat Pulev later this month, the charismatic heavyweight continues to breathe life into his sport. His defeat of Klitschko was the biggest pay-per-view fight in British history, with 1.5 million people paying £20 a time to watch. And for his forthcoming title defence in Cardiff, 70,000 tickets were sold in just one hour.
“Fans love Anthony because his approach is pure entertainment,” says Pastor. “I don’t think you’ll ever see him have a dull fight where he finds a way to win on points. In the documentary he says that, after knocking down Klitschko, he looked back across the ring to see him rising like the Terminator. I think he sees the whole thing as a movie in which he’s been given the starring role.”
Anthony Joshua: the Fight of My Life is on Wed 10.45pm BBC1 (11.40pm Northern Ireland)