The Fame Game
The nation’s media descend on an Anthony Joshua training day in Sheffield. Elliot Worsell watches the event unfold
THE only thing worse than watching other people watch a topless Anthony Joshua’s every move is watching the people who watch other people watch a topless Anthony Joshua’s every move. But this is what can transpire on a Joshua media day when enclosed in so-called ‘pens’ and when waiting patiently for that nod of approval, or that wave, or that shout from someone of importance for you to escape and make your way towards the man on the throne.
I was in that position last Wednesday, the day after Boxing News celebrated its 109th birthday, and what a four-hour wait it turned out to be. Basic rule: if the signal arrives, you’re in. You’ll get what you want – whether a photograph, selfie, video, or sound bite – and you might even get home on time. Yet, for those less fortunate, the wait can be gruelling, the queue never shortens, and the faces of those in the way become all too familiar.
In terms of the set-up at the English Institute of Sport, there were writers, photographers and sponsors in pen one, film crews in pen three, and then between these two pens, ensuring there was no cross-contamination, were members of Joshua’s team. I’ll call them ‘disciples’ for now, but, whatever the correct terminology, these blokes, varying in size and relevance, were responsible for keeping the herd, all of whom wanted something from Joshua, all of whom observed his every move, under control.
It was quite an operation, too. They were slick with it, strict with it, and clearly keen to sieve the overwhelming interest. When Joshua was on the scene, for instance, the disciples got busy. Did stuff. Moved around. When he cracked a joke, they laughed louder than I’ve managed to laugh at any stage in my adult life and did so with thigh slaps. They shepherded. They scowled. They schmoozed. There was an itinerary to follow, and they followed it, expertly.
To help their quest, there were metal barriers and security. “Ever get any trouble at a media day?” asked a comedian, an actual comedian, later on. “All the time,” said the brute on the door and there was every chance he was serious. The impatience, the frustration, the hunger, who knows?
Oblivious to it all, Joshua rattled through a pad routine with his coach, Rob Mccracken, in the ring. Most of the people watched. For those attentive, his left hook looked sharp, especially when thrown off the jab, he appeared leaner than usual, and his hair had volume.
Joshua then hit the speedball. Rat-a-tat-tat. From my vantage point in pen one, I could just about hear the sounds above Bill Withers’ ‘Just the Two of Us’ and reckoned, upon studying a swarm of videographers gather around Joshua, there could be no better song for such a moment.
Eddie Hearn, meanwhile, found a quieter space backstage to sit down with the written press. At this point, despite having every intention to write about Joshua’s September 22 fight, I decided to step away from the pack and return to the sponsors and photographers in pen one. I say decided, what I actually mean is asked – politely asked.
Moments later, Joshua performed some cool-down exercises in pen two, and I watched, careful not to interrupt, only to notice two disciples in Under Armour tracksuits sizing me up and talking behind their hands.
“Where are you from?” the skinnier one eventually asked, approaching as though I’d been lingering outside a school playground in a trench coat. I told him, aware it hardly mattered, and was duly instructed to return to pen one. Immediately.
Thankfully, it wasn’t far from there, an hour and a half later, that Hearn, someone whose ability to talk and keep talking is manna from heaven on a long Wednesday afternoon in Sheffield, emerged.
“We’re learning with everything we do,” he told me. “I think here, with AJ, it’s not like a normal workout where you might get a dozen media. There are dailies, international TV, sponsors. It’s actually easier to manage because you can create
‘WE’RE LEARNING WITH EVERYTHING WE DO’
those areas and say, ‘You are over there.’
“Some people are saying this fight isn’t that big. But what does this turnout say?”
A lot. Most of all, though, it says Anthony Joshua’s famous. Really famous. More famous, in fact, than any British boxer in decades. A different kind of famous, too. Famous in a way that has sponsors clamouring to not only sponsor him but then turn up and film his every move. Famous in a way that makes the presence of comedians Rob Beckett and Romesh Ranganathan at the back of a boxing gym seem perfectly normal.
“In boxing, I think he’s as famous as we’ll see,” Hearn continued. “There’s so much needed to create a profile like Anthony Joshua. To have all of it, it’s a one-off. Are you going to find someone as articulate? Are you going to find someone whose story is like his? Are you going to find someone as good? Are you going to find someone as good-looking? Or as athletic? Or as perfect?
“The only thing some people might say he lacks is smack talk. People say he doesn’t talk smack. But, in that respect, he wouldn’t be a role model if he did.”
Another man on the fame ride with Joshua is Rob Mccracken. Yet, so removed is the old-school Brummie from the media circus and all it entails, you sense it’s a ride he wishes would occasionally break down and let him get off.
“Anthony, like Carl Froch, totally understands what’s required from him,” said the level-headed Team GB coach. “They understand that they’re fighters but that they also have to entertain. They understand what’s required to make an event. I think it might come with the younger generation. I think social media might have a lot to do with it.
“I’m always saying to him, ‘Look, you’ve got to take this serious, you’ve got to stay off social media and do 10 interviews less than you normally would.’ But you’re dealing with a different generation. Anthony is part of this younger generation who live it. I couldn’t tell you how much time this generation spend on social media but I’m sure it’s a lot. It’s entertainment.”
Joshua finally entered pen one at half past three. There, against a backdrop of amateur boxers sparring, doing as he once did en route to Olympic gold, the reigning WBA, IBF and WBO world heavyweight champion slipped on an Under Armour T-shirt, a fresh black one, glugged from a Lucozade bottle, on command, and was asked by an interviewer: “How’s training going?”
Grinning, he said it was going well. Really well. He was then asked to name his favourite music and television shows. He mentioned “Saturday night music” and some programme about lions.
Waiting in line, with my train soon to depart but five minutes with Joshua guaranteed if willing to miss it, I suddenly experienced a moment of clarity: five minutes might be better than nothing but, where the heavyweight champion of the world is concerned, it’s not nearly enough.
‘THEY’RE FIGHTERS BUT THEY ALSO HAVE TO ENTERTAIN’
HIGH PROFILE: Joshua is now one of the most IDPRXV ĆJXUHV LQ WKH VSRUW
UNDER OBSERVATION: Media cluster around Joshua as he trains