‘ORh, yes, the Opera, ”exclaims Anthony Joshua in a box at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium as his face creases with amusement and nostalgia. Rather than revealing a sudden passion for opera in Covent Garden, the heavyweight world champion relives memories of the vastly different Saturday nights he used to spend as a teenager at nightclubs in this corner of North London. The Tottenham Opera House was one of his favorite clubs about 12 years ago, when he and nine of his friends used to drive their broken cars from Watford or Finchley to throw a party and cause some pretty harmless mayhem.
Joshua, 31, relaxes as the stories flow from him and, at least for a while, it is possible to ignore the hundreds of people who build the ring and the long catwalk from the dressing rooms in the covered field far below where we’re. they are sitting in this vast soccer stadium. Saturday night 68,000 people will crowd the arena with their attention fixed on the ring where Joshua faces one of the most demanding nights of his career as he defends his WBA, WBC and IBF world titles against the undefeated and highly rated Oleksandr Usyk. But Joshua can enjoy a break from thinking about this test challenge as we return to the hectic and noisy Opera House.
“We all had cars,” he says while explaining how they would get to Tottenham. Joshua, whose wealth now runs into the hundreds of millions, was driving an old Vauxhall Astra while his cousin, Ben Ileyemi, who brought him into the box, used his mother’s Peugeot 206. They would park their cars a few blocks from the Opera, so not to spoil their image, and then pile up at the club.
“I started boxing when I was 18, so this was when I was 19 and 20. We all had cars, but I used to get on buses from Watford or Harrow.”
When it wasn’t his turn to drive, he drank. “Courvoisier and cider. Remember that White Lightning [cider]? I’d drink that in the passenger seat and then in the queue I’d say, ‘Yeah, I’m fine, gorilla.’
It didn’t matter how much they drank because they were friends with the porter at the Opera, Colin Webster, who was one of the coaches at the Finchley Boxing Club where Joshua was learning to jump, he hit hard. bag and neck in the ring. “We trained on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and we all went out on weekends. It was still just amateur boxing. So we had a few drinks and since we were all boxers, you can’t fight us. There were 10 of us and if we fight, the gorilla is going to take them out and then he is going to tell us where they are ”.
He starts laughing. “Colin would say, ‘They’re just around the corner.’ We were always on top. They were fun days. It’s gone so fast. “
Joshua has told me before how, before boxing changed his life, he was once in pretrial detention and faced the prospect of 10 years in prison “for fighting and other crazy things.” The judge gave him a second chance, but was the Opera part of his most troubled past? “No. Boxing was leading me on the right track.”
As a world champion with so many trade deals, Joshua is now often accused of being bland and corporate. But, on the right day, and when it can be opened, the real Joshua soon reappears. Rather than having to churn out trivia or answer the same old questions about whether or not he will fight Tyson Fury, Joshua enjoys the opportunity to talk about his old gang of friends. What are they doing now?
“They are gardeners or personal trainers or, like Ben, they deal with security and personal operations. One of them does electrical work and helps my brother and cousin because they do proprietary things. We all work together and we still have a WhatsApp group. But Colin, the goalkeeper, unfortunately passed away due to Covid. “
Joshua’s last stadium fight in the UK was three years ago this week. He fought Alexander Povetkin in front of 90,000 people at Wembley on September 22, 2018. “This fight is going to be better,” he says of his battle with Usyk. “It’s going to be fun. I know there will be a lot of Ukrainians there. Usyk’s supporters, Joshua’s supporters, it’s going to be full. It’s great boxing and I feel comfortable in this environment.
“Saturday night is going to be nice and then Sunday will come. Do you know what I expect the most from this fight? Back to training in a week or two so I can start my practice. I see myself improving even more. You will see many improvements in the Kubrat Pulev fight. [the last time Joshua was in the ring nine months ago]. And with the next fight you will see another great improvement. This is fight week for everyone else but, for me, it’s still training ground. Get this over with, then I go back to training when I’m in that spiritual realm, like Zen. I’m fit, I’m healthy, I’m taking care of my body, isolating myself, all that kind of stuff to prepare for fights like Saturday night. “
The Opera, the White Lightning and the Vauxhall Astra are long gone, but the memories remain. They offer warmth and affection before the relentless task of a world heavyweight title fight against such a difficult opponent. Saturday night in Tottenham will be much more difficult and dangerous than those heady days at the Opera.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism