Cardiff proves Joshua’s popularity is here to stay

CARDIFF — Anthony Joshua was taken aback by the support he received at the pre-fight weigh-in ahead of his heavyweight world title defence against Carlos Takam, but he better get used to it. His star forever shines brighter as the knockouts continue while his affable, everyman persona remains unwavering.

Those at the front of the Motorpoint Arena, including father Daniel and five-year old son Iestyn, had queued for two hours to get the best seats to see Joshua tip the scales at his heaviest professional weight of 18st 2lbs, shake hands with his opponent and then give his final pre-fight thoughts. All the while an estimated crowd of 3,500 moved to his shadowboxing as he prepared to stand on the scales, and then stood glued to his every word afterwards.

He admitted to having pre-fight nerves. “They are good things, though,” he said. “I have to keep my cool head on my shoulders.” And then he turned to the crowd. “I didn’t expect a great turn out like this so I definitely appreciate it.” Cue a huge cheer and one spectator saying “see, he is human” to the person next to them.

The atmosphere in the Principality Stadium on Saturday night promises to be truly memorable. An estimated crowd of 78,000 is anticipated to see Joshua’s world title defence against Takam, a far cry from those who sat in the Motorpoint Arena back in 2014 to watch his second-round win over Dorian Darch in his fourth professional fight. The roof will be closed on Saturday, the atmosphere will be all-encompassing and the majority heading there will be hoping to see their British IBF and WBA Super heavyweight hero add a 20th win to his 19-0 record. The odds are heavily in Joshua’s favour.

All the reports in the lead up to the fight had Joshua standing at about 8lbs lighter than what he registered ahead of his victory over Wladimir Klitschko, but he stood in Cardiff at his heaviest career weight. Takam, who stands three inches shorter than Joshua, posted his lightest fighting weight in 11 years. The scales had suddenly tipped into Joshua’s corner.

He talked with all the confidence of a man far in advance of his 28 years, saying his weight could be down to him “filling out” into his “natural” fighting size as he gets older. With that comes an understanding that the Klitschko victory and his unbeaten record means the target over his head grows larger by the fight. He reiterated his credo of staying hungry – “that’s a way of life” – while paying Takam respect who stepped into the fight at just 12 days’ notice after Kubrat Pulev’s withdrawal.

“I think he’s got a mindset where he’s got nothing to lose… that’s a dangerous mindset,” Joshua said. “That’s what the face-off is about… you’re reading your opponent… he came in, grabbed my hand and it was one of those ones where he was trying to see who had the stronger handshake.”

Joshua plans to break him down round on round, but from talking to his supporters in Cardiff, they expect him to win by knockout within the first four rounds. There was no trash talking from Joshua, no pantomime around the weigh-in, and that appeals to fans young and old who had come to see him finalise his preparations.

All week Joshua has been a big draw in Cardiff. His open workout on Wednesday in St David’s Hall proved hugely popular, and he stayed afterwards to sign every autograph, pose for every selfie and hold every baby passed in his direction. It has prompted comparisons with timeless boxers of yesteryear, with one article in Friday’s Telegraph headlined ‘Joshua’s charisma recalls Ali in his pomp’.

His supporters in Cardiff referenced his down-to-earth nature, his appreciation for his supporters and his close relationship with his mother, Yeta, as reasons for why he is so popular, not just within boxing but British sport as a whole.

Then there were those who had travelled from further afield with Bob Olukoya, a barrister, flying in from Nigeria, representing the Ooni of Ife. He talked of how Joshua is a hero in the birthplace of his mother and Joshua’s Nigerian descent has been picked up by Cameroon-born Takam this week.

Takam has said he will use Cameroon’s three African Cup of Nations triumphs of 1984, 1988 and 2000 over Nigeria to inspire an upset on Saturday and he has also spoke of how he hopes to win over the crowd, utilising the underdog tag to sway the neutral.

But based on Friday’s Cardiff weigh-in, there will be few neutrals in the Principality Stadium on Saturday evening. They have already flocked to see their hero complete the final stage of his preparations, now they are expecting victory. Joshua, though, will stay level-headed as has been the constant theme throughout his career.

“I’m wary of any fight,” Joshua said. “The outcome remains the same — I’m not going to be in here saying I’m going to knock him out, I’m going to do this, I’m going to smash him up — all these sorts of things — but that’s what I’m going to have to do. He looks in great shape, so it’ll take time.

“I am confident within myself but never too overconfident as I have a lively opponent and I think too much confidence can become cocky.”

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