When Anthony Joshua fought Wladimir Klitschko back in 2017, I knew it was as good a chance as any to introduce new people to the sport. I couldn’t be certain of how exciting or competitive the fight would be, which turned into the Fight of the Year, but I knew that the atmosphere alone would make the experience enjoyable and memorable for a relatively casual fan.
I arranged for a table at the local pub for my family and a bunch of friends, and on the way there one of them asked the question boxing fans are used to fielding by now—“so do people still watch boxing or is it mostly UFC now?”—seeming genuinely puzzled that there was indeed a place airing boxing that people would gather at.
The pub was packed, and so was Wembley Stadium. At first the newbies were shocked, feeling like they’d been lied to about the state of this sport they thought had vanished, but soon they were enveloped in the moment, the way you can only feel when you’re watching something that tangibly feels like a big event.
More than any other fighter in boxing, Joshua has the ability to produce that feeling. There is no bigger box office draw in terms of number of attendees than him. There are certainly fighters who have produced gate receipts larger than his, primarily in Las Vegas venues, but Joshua’s ability to fill football stadiums is a testament to a level of fame and success that can sometimes be undersold by the American audience.
This Saturday, Joshua will defend his trio of heavyweight titles against former cruiserweight kingpin Oleksandr Usyk at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. When tickets—roughly 60,000 of them--went on sale on August 3, they sold out within an hour. According to The Sun UK, it is the seventh venue Joshua has sold out, along with Wembley Stadium, Principality Stadium, 02 Arena and Manchester Arena, Madison Square Garden and Diriyah Arena.
To put it in broader context, there is a small percentage of performers in the world who can book those types of venues, let alone fill them with regularity. In fact, just last week, a UK man named John Koukoullis was sentenced to over three years in prison for a fraudulent ticket-selling ring that netted him over £50,000. His specialty bogus tickets? The Rolling Stones and Anthony Joshua. As a general rule, you know you’re a big deal when you’re getting bootlegged.
“I don't think Anthony Joshua is getting the credit he deserves. At a time when boxing is just sort of limping along, with very low overall viewership, he is smashing PPV records and packing 90,000 seat stadiums. If you look at the top five UK PPV events of all time, four of them were headlined by Joshua. He's one of the biggest sporting attractions Britain has produced, period,” said Mac Ross, scholastic boxing historian and assistant professor of kinesiology at Western University. “When you compare Anthony Joshua to Lennox Lewis, you can really appreciate how big a star he is. None of Lewis' PPV appearances did near one million purchases in the UK. Not against Tyson, not against Holyfield. Joshua has broke the one million buy threshold four times and he's only 31.”
According to the Sunday Times Rich List, Joshua is worth the equivalent of 158 million US dollars. The partnerships he attracts commercially are the types only the biggest athletes in the world can fetch—Hugo Boss, Under Armour, Jaguar, Beats by Dre. In terms of his own entrepreneurial ventures, they’re the types only mega rich people could think about—a cycling team, his own athlete management firm, a CBD company.
More recently, Joshua has also starting talking about the kinds of absurd things only unfathomably rich people can ponder. This past week he told The Daily Mail's Riath Al-Samarrai that when he retires he wants to go to the Amazon with an uncontacted tribe and take “frog venom, eating plants, all of it.” He added that “once boxing is done everything gets deactivated. No one will ever see me again. Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos — come on, we are going to Mars, baby.”
For all of the talk recently about how Jake Paul and Logan Paul have highlighted a market deficiency in boxing that they’ve been able to exploit, and have leapfrogged many fighters in terms of popularity and drawing power, it’s important to remember that there are still colossal figures—namely Joshua—with the kind of popularity and wealth they’re chasing after too. His stature illustrates boxing’s ability to create transcendent stars that can reach heights other sports still dream of in terms of their ability to create one-off massive stage events. Boxing is attractive to newcomers—participants and fans alike—not just because of its minimal barriers to entry, but because of the exclusive gates it can still land you behind.
“Joshua's massive success at the box office is an important moment in the history of British sport more broadly,” said Ross. “The UK once controlled the most expansive colonial regime the world has ever seen. White supremacy was the default social and cultural norm. Joshua has been embraced like no British heavyweight in the PPV era. While he's winning, at least.”
The difference between Joshua and the box office attractions he’s on-par with is that, as Ross implied, Joshua’s popularity hinges on his ability to continue winning. Legacy musical acts can release lousy albums, or no contemporary music at all, and still book big venue tours playing their hits. Joshua’s ability to spin the turnstiles hinges on big fights and big victories.
A loss to Usyk would push him one step closer to the Amazon, or Mars, or wherever he chooses to live out his days post-competition. A victory would extend one of the most remarkable runs of popularity a professional fighter has ever enjoyed. At 31 years of age, still relatively early in his career, Joshua has the kind of money people fight for, not with. In recent interviews, he’s set a hard cap at 36 years of age for retirement.
Until then, we ought to enjoy Anthony Joshua fight nights. Whether you want him to win or want him to lose, the kinds of events and atmospheres he produces will be the ones you talk about years down the road.