There will be a moment on Saturday night, beneath the ‘big tent’ roof of the 02 Arena, London, when the bookmakers' favorite, and former two-time heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua will discover whether his appetite for boxing truly remains. The platitudes of those leaning from the windows of the gravy train will evaporate beneath the glare of the lights and he will be alone, the superficiality of his latest reinvention and the whispers of the fortune he has compiled questioning his desire. His magnificent physique will offer little beyond a chiselled defence against a tide of self-doubt and ebbing motivation but is still expected to prove sufficient to overcome Jermaine Franklin and secure a lucrative, perhaps era-defining fight with Tyson Fury. If such seemingly utopian narratives are to be indulged.
Fans hope Joshua will be able to rediscover a lost purpose and unfurl his natural, aggressive style from the layers of over-observed psycho-babble he has subverted it with. His opponent does not represent his toughest test, either proportionally or in terms of talent but such is the enigmatic form Joshua has displayed over the past four years, that every fight carries more risk than resumes and reputations insist they should.
If the now 33-year-old is to face those feelings and choices, the eponymous venue will be a familiar one given the stage it provided Joshua in his days as an up-and-coming puncher. Predicting the outcome of fights is never an easy endeavour, to further speculate how the internal dialogue of the favourite impacts the potential outcome could be a bridge best not crossed. Hard as it is to ignore for those determined not to permit training montages and the associated propaganda to veil the truth of Joshua’s patchy form and erratic demeanour.
At the age of 33, and 10 years into a professional career that catapulted him into superstardom and broke box-office records along the way, it is unlikely Joshua can redefine his style or make significant technical improvements. When defeat visits a previously impervious champion like Joshua, in an era when there are so few fights, there is always the parable of renewal or redemption to accompany new trainers and an “all-new” dedication. Joshua has proven no different in light of defeats to Andy Ruiz and, latterly, back-to-back losses to Oleksandr Usyk that have severely reframed the Englishman’s standing among his contemporaries and any discussion of his place among those who came before.
It is on this shifting sand that boxing fans arrive at this weekend’s fixture and on which assessment must be made of whether Joshua deserves the prohibitive odds offered by sportsbooks or whether there is sufficient doubt to encourage the bold to back the underdog.
Of course, the 1/10 available with betting sites on an outright victory for Joshua is reflective of Franklin’s modest credentials. It is a slim resume, scarred by a two-year hiatus in which the Michigan man was forced to opt out of boxing as it became financially unsustainable and he extracted himself from associated management issues. The break saw an already fleshy 240-pound heavyweight balloon away from a competitive fighting weight and toward oblivion. Happily, a way back was found. In the late spring of 2022, Franklin boxed for the first time in 30 months at a career-high 277 pounds. At 6'2", that is a lot of unproductive weight. But it was a start.
Then came the call to fight Dillian Whyte, he too looking for a pretty record, an American name and an easy win with a newly appointed trainer of his own. Whyte, whether fading himself or entirely disinterested in a routine return found Franklin to be more capable and durable than he had anticipated. Motivated by the promise of the cash-cow fight with Joshua were he to win – a throw-away line by the promoter of both events, Eddie Hearn, to try to ‘sell’ an ostensibly mundane contest – Franklin proved troublesome. A now 257 pounds of nothing to lose, everything to gain attitude, and benefitting from a second training camp, albeit with only six weeks' notice, proved his value and despite a contentious majority points defeat. One judge scored the bout a draw, Franklin secured the Joshua comeback fight and presumed to be a career-high purse.
On this trajectory of improvement, is there scope to consider Franklin reaching an intersection between his own potential and a diminished Joshua? The gap may prove too large to leap. Despite the reservations about Joshua’s self-belief and the loss of his destructive youth, it is a bold pundit that embraces the upset. Fourteen of 29-year-old Franklin’s 21 victories have come within the distance, but the level of opposition is such that the numbers provide minimal meaningful direction.
The best three heavyweights he has faced, are Whyte, who he kept ‘honest’ with his power but couldn’t substantially move, the gatekeeper Jerry Forrest from who he snatched a split decision, and slippery old trial horse, Rydell Booker. He shared 10 rounds with both, and it is since graduating to the longer distances that the stoppages have proved harder to find.
Franklin tends to punch in flurries, rest, and reset. He has, historically, failed to protect himself from left hooks as he exits those types of combinations. There is scope for improvement on this technical deficiency, the advantage of more time to prepare and improved activity. Busy fighters are usually sharper, fitter and able to focus on technique not merely “getting in shape”. The Whyte fight should see a quickening of his reflexes and a deepening of his self-belief too. He survived some tough moments to reach the final bell.
Certainly, despite Joshua’s heft, it would be anticipated Franklin has shed more of the weight he’d added and will be nearer to the presumably optimum and customary 240 pounds of the past. A weight that should improve his mobility a little more, a facet of an opponent’s armoury Joshua doesn’t always relish, nor does he revel in punching down toward shorter opponents.
Only a complete capitulation from Joshua could see Franklin break through in the way Andy Ruiz did. Franklin is competent, but he lacks Ruiz's hand speed and variety. He seems unlikely to be able to surprise Joshua, and the arrogance that took the then-unbeaten champion into Ruiz’s many traps has long since lapsed. There has been inherent caution ever since. He has been hurt before, and few heavyweights escape a career without a crisis or two after all, but he has become circumspect and as a result far less effective.
Whyte, Povetkin and most famously, Wladimir Klitschko all hurt him, the latter dropping him to the canvas of course. In two defeats to Usyk, Joshua also had difficult moments but those were punches from a technically superior opponent at the height of his powers.
Franklin may have two National Golden Gloves titles to his name as an amateur, but Usyk is one of the greats of the unpaid code and one of the most adept among modern fighters at creating opportunities to one punches. If Joshua, an Olympic champion himself lest we forget, has successfully adopted the simple, aggressive style exemplified by his new trainer, Derrick James’ most famous students Errol Spence and Jermell Charlo, and remains motivated, he shouldn’t succumb to Franklin as a puncher and will hope to dispel the notion he has become ‘gun-shy’.
For all his variance in form, style and trainers, Joshua retains enormous punch power and is a sturdy 6'6" with likely advantages in weight and reach too. 16/1 is available for Franklin to shock the boxing world and knock out Joshua at any time should the long shot and associated kudos that follows prove tempting. For context, had Joshua fought a Franklin-type opponent three years ago those odds would have been beyond 50/1 on USA sports betting sites.
Derrick James is a much-heralded coach and will be the latest high-profile trainer to try to peel back the layers and rediscover the talent and confidence that was once so abundant. He may not be the last. And it is that nagging instinct that shrouds a pick for this fight. There is a sense Joshua could unravel in a fight as yet unscheduled and that this latest rebuild is merely aimed at fulfilling Joshua’s public admission that he’s only here for big purses. All prizefighters are, but few have laid out the priority so publicly. History shows boxing isn’t kind to those motivated only by the purse.
What he wants to be true of himself may be a standard, a code, he can no longer reach or adhere to. He will win this weekend, Franklin will struggle to secure the confidence of judges, such are the riches that await Joshua if he secures the expected win. With a knockout barely plausible for the visitor, and with a points victory entirely unlikely the bettors must scour the markets on betting sites for round odds they like. Joshua needs a definitive outcome. He will try to apply pressure behind a long jab but stepping in with it to land combination power shots. Crowding the smaller man to smother his counters and physically dominate. He will want to take the first opportunity he creates.
I think the over, at 5.5, is mildly attractive at 13/20 and the 15/8 on rounds 5-8, though miserly, is the pick of the group round betting. Anthony Joshua to overwhelm Franklin after a fast start, perhaps an early knockdown, a rest, perhaps some fleeting success for a game Franklin and then applied, methodical pressure from the bigger puncher appeals.
Modest investment is recommended despite the narrowness of the odds on sports betting apps. The certainty they imply is undermined by the intangible of Joshua’s remaining self-belief.