A battered body and a toasty perineum: that’s how my time with Anthony Joshua starts and ends.
In between there’s a brutal workout in and out of the ring, some punishment planking, a mini-road trip in a luxury motor round the suburban north London the boxer knows from his youth, wistful memories of his days raving, fighting talk about Tyson Fury, and heavyweight enthusiasm for the hefty last issue of The Face.
“It’s a big mag, innit?” the WBA, IBF, WBO and IBO heavyweight champion says, weighing in his mighty paws a copy of The Face with Naira Marley on the cover. “A lot must go into it,” approves an athlete who knows a fair bit about putting everything into everything.
He’s thumbs-up to the choice of Marley, too. For Joshua, tunes are “a massive aid” to his training. It’s one of the reasons his new car – a personalised Range Rover SVAutobiography – comes equipped with 29 traffic-rattling Meridien speakers.
“You’re gonna hear me coming,” he chuckles.
“I hate walking into a gym and training in silence. If you can’t train in an environment of music, how are you gonna perform in front of thousands of people screaming and that energy?” asks the 30-year-old who, in December’s Clash on the Dunes in Saudi Arabia, beat Andy Ruiz Jr. in a unanimous victory that was a global pay-per-view TV smash. “So it’s the same type of environment you try and create in the gym. Music brings the buzz, the life, the rhythm and soul [to] the gym.”
More specifically, Peckham-via-Lagos coverstar Marley gets the Joshua seal of approval: “Nigerian Afrobeats, or 50 Cent on repeat – those are my two go-to’s. The Afrobeat is non-swearing, instruments like pianos, saxophone, drums – that’s real music,” notes a boxer known for hard-charging efficiency in the ring and gentlemanly courtliness out of it.
“I like Fela Kuti, Seun Kuti, Femi Kuti – the Kuti family,” he smiles. “Then the 50 Cent is a bit more hardcore rap that gets you through a hard workout.
Unfortunately, it will take more than In Da Club turned up to 11 and on repeat to get me through my own hard workout with AJ.
It’s World Book Day, and I’ve come to school dressed as an unfit no-hoper. Anthony Joshua OBE, meanwhile, has returned to the London gym where he learned the ropes, and where he’s both part of the furniture and local hero.
Finchley and District Amateur Boxing Club is where an 18-year-old AJ, encouraged by his cousin Ben Ileyemi, first put on a pair of gloves, quickly establishing his credentials as a natural-born fighter. The Watford native is still based nearby, and still calls this gym home, which is why it’s the perfect location for him to unveil his flash new whip.
This Range Rover, number one in a series of one, was fitted out to Joshua’s own specs.
“The style of seats – airline – the signature on the headrest, the fridge, all the detailing,” he nods as we sit side by side in the back, the late winter rain battering off the roof. “What do you reckon this car’s worth?” he wonders. “I reckon about 100-and-something grand.”
“They start about 170,” replies a rep from makers Jaguar Land Rover, who’s sitting in the front seat.
“One hundred and seventy! Are you serious? They start at that?”
“Yeah, this is top, top of the range.” A quick google brings up the precise figure: £179,000.
“I can’t believe that!” says a gobsmacked Joshua, a millionaire sportsman with a refreshingly down-to-earth attitude to money. “I didn’t realise how expensive it was.”
“It’s the pinnacle of luxury,” notes the man from JLR.
Still, this is comfort with a cause. Joshua spends some of each week boxing at the English Institute of Sport in Sheffield, which is a three-hour journey each way. Generally, his life is simple, even when he’s not staring down the barrel of a fight: training, some more training, some more training. So it’s a bit of luxury, especially if it’s functional, that gets him to Sheffield…
“…isn’t a bad thing,” he chips in. “I agree. A lot of what we call luxury is only to be an assistance to the hard work. It’s not like you have this car to go meet your mates on weekdays and go meet girls on the weekend. It’s just so you can enjoy getting to and from the hard, gruelling training sessions.”
It sounds like he needs the respite.
“Honestly there’s times after training I’m sitting in the car and I start overheating. I feel like my brain’s gonna explode out of my head or my body’s just gonna collapse and give up on me.”
Reader, I know of what he speaks, writing this feature as I am with the two fingers that are the only bits of me that aren’t still aching after a session with Joshua and the proper, old-school Finchley trainers who took the teenage AJ under their wings. Shout out to Sean Murphy and Gary Foley: you tough old bastards, thanks for demonstrating how catastrophically out-of-shape I really am.
Luckily six-foot-six Joshua, who sparred with me in the ring (well, threw some giant, gentle punches in my general direction that nonetheless near knocked me into next week), was on hand with sustenance when the bell – finally – rang.
“I think that water saved you,” he grins, his cornerman duties duly discharged. “I was actually worried about your health!”
You and me both, mate. So I’m relieved, post-session, to go for a relaxing drive with Joshua round Finchley and Barnet, his cousin in the driver’s seat. I ask the boxer about his first motor.
“A Vauxhall Astra. You know the ones police used to drive? I had one of them at 17.”
That was their clubbing car when they frequented The Opera House in Tottenham, or Ileyemi’s mum’s Peugeot 206. They used to park their mumsy cars a couple of roads away from the club, though, to save face.
“But them cars back then were life, man,” Joshua beams at the memory. “It’s what we had, what we used, it was life. The Opera House was ten out of ten. The guy who takes the money here [at the boxing club] was the head bouncer there. So when we walked in we felt like we were the boys, know what I mean? Probably more than likely get into a little scrap there,” he acknowledges with a grin, “but it would be the other guys getting chucked out, so we always thought we were safe.
“It was just a great crack to be out with the lads. They had two rooms in there, hip-hop and garage. I liked both – the hip-hop room was more like hardcore, and the garage room was more bouncy, people had more fun.”
Those musical passions are with him still, notably for garage. Kurupt FM are right: it’s the genre that will never die.
“Never dies!” he echoes. “I was at Garage Nation the other week, just randomly, at The Scala [in King’s Cross, London]. The garage environment is a really good culture, always a really good night. It will never die, hundred per cent.”
They also clubbed at Oceana in Watford, Club Batchwood in St Albans. “It was more Opera House then north – we never ventured into south or east. This was our neck of the woods round here.”
He never followed a particular DJ, but now he’s big on playlists for training.
“I’ve actually just downloaded a music app last night, because that was one of my issues: I was playing the same songs over and over again.”
What’s the name of this cutting-edge new app?
“Yeah, I just got Spotify last night,” he grins, sheepishly. “I know, it’s crazy.”
To be fair, he has been busy. His big victory in December is already fading in his rearview mirror. Now his sights are firmly on his June bout with the Bulgarian “Cobra” Kubrat Pulev (who managed five rounds with Wladimir Klitschko back in 2014 before losing the fight).
Four months out from the fight, he’s not quite ramping up the training yet, but he’s been continuously on his toes.
“I don’t need to go from one session a day to three, because that’s only gonna cause injury. But there are so many different stimuluses – shadow boxing, pad work, bag work, sparring. So we’re just getting into the sparring phase and the heavy bag phase.”
In early April he’ll decamp to Sheffield, “and get ready for really tough training. That’s where I do a lot of my open sparring, where it’s just me and five other guys, going head-to-head. Obviously it’s technical, but we’re still trying to knock each other out!” he laughs.
The fight is being held at Tottenham Hotspur’s stadium, which might mean White Hart Lane will finally see some winning ways this year. How does it feel to be fighting in his near-home ’hood of north London?
“Mmmm,” he nods through a mouthful of juice. “It’s been a long time since I been back here. Last year I was out in New York,” he notes of his shock defeat to Ruiz Jr. in Madison Square Garden last June, “then out in Saudi. But now it’s back home, which is a blessing, especially for all the local kids, ’cause they can come out [and watch]. So it’s good to be back home.”
Pulev, he allows, is “a good fighter. He’s only lost to [Wladimir] Klitschko. He’s ranked, he’s up there. He’s not a pushover. He’s someone I have to fight, he’s a mandatory challenger, meaning he’s got himself in a position, so credit to him.”
Even more tantalisingly is the talk of an Anthony Joshua-Tyson Fury fight in December. Both, obviously, are riding high, with Fury still to come down from his stunning February victory over Deontay Wilder. But Joshua cools the chat over what would be perhaps the greatest homegrown heavyweight blockbuster bout in British boxing history.
“That’s the promoter talking. From a fighter’s point of view, I’m not gonna look at it, I’m just gonna focus on myself. But from a fan’s point of view, I think it’s something I’d be buzzing for. But obviously I have to get past Pulev, so that’s my only focus.”
And Fury has to get past his rematch with Wilder.
“Exactly. That’s what I mean. So there’s a few hurdles before we get to the fun times.”
What did he think of Fury’s victory over Wilder?
“Ah, brilliant victory. But I think: of course he’s gonna do it to Wilder. He’s had ten title defences. He had two against Bermane Stiverne. Two against Luis Ortiz, [where] in the first one he struggled and in the second one he was losing every round then he knocked him out. The fifth one against Dominic Breazeale, who I don’t class as a world heavyweight. And the other five, who were they against?” he asks rhetorically.
“So I thought: when he’s gonna step up, he’s gonna get found out. And as soon as he stepped up, he got found out. I would have gone in there and done the same thing to Wilder.”
As the rain batters off the windows and we slide through suburban London’s golf courses and woodland, I ask Joshua to name Fury’s strengths and weaknesses as a fighter.
“Strengths: his mindset, his size. And his weakness is he’s clumsy and… Just a big clumsy fighter. I’m a bit more sharp-shooting.”
So he’s beatable?
“Yeah, 100 per cent,” he shoots back. “Hundred per cent. Hundred per cent,” he repeats. “I don’t even know his strengths. I just think he’s got a strong mind – he just believes in himself.”
Compared to the tall-walking, motormouth, giant-sized personality of Fury – compared to most big-league boxers, really – Joshua prefers the quieter road. He clearly has huge self-belief, but he’s calm with it, and he’s certainly not one for trash talk. Something that, for a lot of fighters, is part of their game.
“Yeah, that’s part of their game,” he echoes. “They got to continuously talk about it, outwardly – ‘I’m great, I’m this, I’m that.’ And it’s like, you got to tell yourself that constantly, how great are you really? And that’s why I think [Fury] might have had his mental breakdown,” he suggests.
“You’ve just got to be confident inwardly and know who you are inside. Don’t worry about having to explain yourself to everyone. That’s how I operate. I just know who I am, know what I mean, and I don’t have to tell the whole world for me to believe it.”
It’s a solid, grounded approach that’s echoed in the solid, grounded team around Joshua. He’s a world champ with natural friendliness and humility. When, earlier that morning, he entered the gym, crowded with photography and video teams, car people, caterers – and a very unfit southpaw journalist who was more used to feeling like a plank than doing it – he went round every single person, saying hello and shaking hands.
In the ring and out of the ring, his outlook was simple: “If one of us makes it, we all make it. Fury’s success is my success – it’s British boxing, at the end of the day. That’s the mentality we take to the whole world.”
It’s an attitude forged within the no-frills, all-sweat, total-commitment walls of Finchley and District Amateur Boxing Club.
“Finchley is so important as a base for me,” Joshua tells me as our road-trip nears its end and we approach his home gym. “I believe you should never disconnect yourself so far from where you started. You’re always gonna need to go back there. So no matter what happens in life, how far you go, if you ever fall, these people have known you for who you are.
“That’s what’s important about going back to Finchley.”
As we park on the gravel, Anthony Joshua has a little play with his new toy (the car, not the battered writer sitting next to him).
He opens up the screens in the back of the Range Rover’s headrests, and says that’s been watching Netflix’s thriller series The Stranger. “What did you think about that?” he asks.
Preposterous but addictive, I say. Like, how many plots?
“I know!” he laughs. “It was weird. But all those plots linked together.”
He opens up the little fridge above the armrest between us. Does this pro-athlete ever allow himself a drink drink?
“Ah, not really. It’s not like it’s against my religion or anything. I just know the effect it’ll have on my boxing.”
So not a cheeky beer on a Saturday night?
“Nah, ’cause I know one beer will turn into 10! Nah, maybe not!” But if pushed he’s a spirits man, “a bit of Henny with Coke”.
Before we de-car, there’s just time for one more treat. With a remote control he activates the Hot Stone massage that’s built into the seats, cycling through the settings: Pulse Wave, Pulse Duo, Combination. I’m pretty sure those are some of the boxing routines he subjected me to earlier.
“So, AJ,” I begin, “this Hot Stone massage: do you feel it in your arse?”
“Yeah, of course, it’s wicked. Here, press this…” I activate my seat. And sure enough, I start to feel a gentle, warming pummelling in my coccyx.
“Can you feel it?”
Big man, I can. It’s a bit weird at first.
“Nice after training,” he grins. “Warms up, doesn’t it? Good, isn’t it?”
It is. It’s also nice for, um, giving you hot balls.
“Yeah! I can move that setting for you, if you want? Hot ball setting!” beams Anthony Joshua. “This car is everything that you need!”