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The Debate: Will Anthony Joshua become a three-time heavyweight champion?

Our latest instalment of 'The Debate' sees boxing writers Shaun Brown and John MacDonald come to blows as to whether Anthony Joshua can become a three-time heavyweight champion of the world in 2024...

For many, including Shaun Brown, it's a clear yes!

'AJ' appears to have his mojo back; he looked as close to his best as he has done in years in his stoppage victory of Otto Wallin last year, and that inner-belief appears could very well be boosted yet further when he tackles UFC heavyweight king Francis Ngannou in Saudi Arabia next Friday.

But for others, including John MacDonald, the memories of that excruciating defeat to Andy Ruiz and those lopsided defeats at the hands of Oleksandr Usyk will have taken their toll on the former unified heavyweight title holder.

There is no doubt that Joshua is back on the right track, but the big question is, however, whether he has enough within his locker to re-establish himself as the king of the blue-riband division?

Well, the glaringly obvious answer is yes, says Shaun Brown.

This isn’t based on a theory which centres around AJ's abilities which once upon a time were too much for the majority of the heavyweight division to handle. 

Those days are gone. 

The former champion has had to go in search of himself and find what will work for him to assist his goal of becoming not just a three-time champion but also undisputed.

The debate over whether Joshua is good enough or not can be kept to one side because the 34-year-old is one of the most powerful names and brands in the sport. 

Backed by one of the world’s biggest promoters, Eddie Hearn, the commercial value Joshua brings to an opponent’s bank account, and his lofty position in the heavyweight rankings, should make it a guarantee that he will at the very least get another shot at one of the belts.

But… there is an elephant in the room. Francis Ngannou!

The former UFC Heavyweight champion and one of the hardest-hitting men across any fighting discipline will attempt to flatten Joshua’s ambitions when they meet over 10 rounds on Friday.

Ngannou has become the cat amongst the pigeons thanks to his unexpected showing against Tyson Fury last October. 

Their crossover event in Riyadh was, on paper, a money-making exercise with the expectation that Fury’s superior boxing know-how would see the WBC champion dance rings around Ngannou in his first professional boxing match. Wrong. 

Fury’s career flashed before his eyes when he was dropped from a left hook in round three. After the 10-round contest which turned into a proper fight the judges awarded a split decision to Fury. For many the Brit was lucky.

Joshua must navigate his way past the power of Ngannou to remain on course for another title opportunity. 

The maths is simple... Joshua beats Ngannou, Fury beats Oleksandr Usyk in their historic undisputed heavyweight title battle in May and fans gets the super-fight they’ve wanted for so long.

Another scenario is Joshua overcomes Ngannou and goes on to fight for a potentially vacant title after ‘Ring of Fire’ in Saudi. 

Mandatory obligations and fees set by the four governing bodies make it difficult to continue to defend all four titles. In the current rankings, Joshua is ranked number one by the WBO, three by the IBF, number one by the WBC and number two by the WBA. 

Another world title fight for the Brit is almost inevitable.

The thinking behind the scenes is that the IBF mandatory challenger Filip Hrgovic will fight for that particular belt, should it become vacant after Fury-Usyk, at some point this year. 

With the number two spot vacant, the next highest ranked opponent is Joshua at three. 

And AJ would start as a strong odds-on favourite against the Croat. After a busy 2023 where Joshua fought three times he ended the year beating Otto Wallin in a manner which stirred echoes of the old successful Joshua.

The odds of becoming a three-time heavyweight champion are in Joshua’s favour. It’s as much to do with business and politics as it is talent. 

Put the pitchforks down, AJ becoming three-time world champion isn't happening, says John MacDonald.

Look, Anthony Joshua is still amongst the top five active heavyweights - there's no doubt about that.

His résumé is arguably the best of the current crop of heavyweights. However, the route he is likely to take ultimately does not end up with a world title (or titles) around his waist.

Let me explain...

Strap Season is over, we are now in Riyadh Season. Turki Alalshikh and the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund have changed the game. 

As a result, belts no longer carry the same relevance, for example, cruiserweight king, Jai Opetaia, gave up his IBF strap to face Ellis Zoro in a non-title mismatch instead. The Middle Eastern money has distorted the sport.

AJ has already demonstrated he has more interest in lining his pockets with His Excellency’s cash, than he does in enhancing his legacy. 

After Tyson Fury and Oleksandr Usyk battle it out to become the undisputed ruler of the land of giants, the IBF will order the winner to make a mandatory defence against Filip Hrgovic. 

As is customary with all super fights these days, there is a rematch clause in place, as such, whoever is victorious is likely to vacate the belt.

The former unified champion is the next highest ranked contender with the sanctioning body. Therefore, Joshua would be called to contest the vacant title. 

If belts were the primary focus for AJ, he could simply have bided his time and waited for the opportunity to become a three-weight world champion. Instead, he opted to face former UFC heavyweight king, Francis Ngannou. 

Minimum risk, maximum reward, and that will be the theme for the remainder of the career of the London 2012 Olympic gold medallist.

Of course, it is possible that the Watford native could fight Hrgovic later in the year, but is the risk-to-reward ratio correct? Probably not. 

The Croatian’s stock has dropped after a disputed win over Zhilei Zhang and a lacklustre showing against Dempsey McKean, but he remains a skilled, behemoth of a man. 

Yes, Joshua would start as favourite if they were to meet, but it is a pick ‘em fight. There is too much at stake for AJ to take a gamble against the undefeated contender. 

Ultimately, Joshua is being positioned to fight the winner of Fury and Usyk. In an ideal world, the stage is being set for Fury and AJ to finally meet in what would be the richest fight in sport. 

The choice of Ngannou as the next opponent for the Englishman just furthers the narrative. The MMA fighter gave ‘The Gypsy King’ a harder-than-expected fight back in October, sending the WBC titlist crashing to the canvas in the process. 

If Joshua can stop the Cameroonian, his public profile would be at its highest since his shock defeat to Andy Ruiz, in 2019. In that position, why roll the dice against Hrgovic? 

Derek Chisora has yet to have a slice of the Saudi pie; he has faced both men who will fight it out for all the marbles and would pose little threat. Do not be surprised if he is in the opposite corner for AJ’s second bout of the year.

If all roads lead to Fury or Usyk, it is hard to image the 34-year-old being victorious against either. 

Yes, AJ looked good against Otto Wallin, but the Swede was a former sparring partner who Joshua had previously defeated as an amateur. Perhaps we are reading too much into that performance.

Joshua has had two attempts at beating  Usyk and was found wanting. AJ’s new trainer, Ben Davison, has said he wants to put that bout ‘right’ for his charge, but it appears that Usyk has the former titlist’s number.

Would he fare any better against Fury? Unlikely. If the pair finally meet, it means the WBC champion would have bested Usyk to establish himself as the best heavyweight of the generation.

Can Joshua become world champion once more? No.

Will he add another zero to his bank balance? Yes.

Good on him.

Anthony Joshua v Francis Ngannou

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