Anthony Joshua against Jarrell Miller is not, generally speaking, the fight boxing fans wanted. However, it is the one we have, perhaps the best one possible in the sport’s minefield of television deals and mandatory challengers. Even without a more illustrious opponent for Joshua – Deontay Wilder, Tyson Fury and Dillian Whyte spring to mind – the June 1st date at Madison Square Garden has received the full promotional treatment.
Still three months away from the heavyweight title clash, we have already had several press conferences involving the two boxers, teasing in their brevity and attention-grabbing in their content. We have learnt more about the sphinx-like Joshua than from previous fight build-ups, and this is mainly because the American Miller has embraced the role of provocateur with puckish enthusiasm.
The Brooklyn native has labelled the Hertfordshire-born Joshua ‘posh’, adding that he has an ‘image problem’. Even though Joshua grew up on an estate in one of the county’s most deprived areas, the jibe seems to have stuck, and the champion has come across as unusually aggressive in his responses.
Having cultivated an image as a charming, eloquent and wholesome sporting role model, it is difficult to tell whether we are seeing a chink in Joshua’s armour or whether his talk of ‘reconstructing’ Miller’s face is a careful attempt at reinvention for an American audience who prefer their idols feral and unpredictable.
Really, though, this ‘trash talk’ is nothing new. Whether real or manufactured, verbal and physical confrontations at press conferences help sell tickets because we want fighters to despise one another. It is a sport which, as practitioners are well aware, is based on principles of discipline and respect, but the viewing public relish witnessing the unexpected, and all too often in boxing the unexpected arises from the abandonment of these values.
Self-promotion has been a key skill for many great boxers for over a century, from Jack Johnson through to Sugar Ray Robinson, from the time of Muhammad Ali into the Mayweather era. Though practically canonised now, thanks to his achievements both in and out of the ring, some of Ali’s pre-fight chatter is more troubling in hindsight. It was one thing to refer to Sonny Liston as a ‘big ugly bear’, another entirely to baselessly mock Floyd Patterson and Joe Frazier as ‘Uncle Toms’, especially in the 1960s and early 1970s, a hotbed for racial tensions.
Miller brought to mind some of Ali’s more unsavoury remarks when he called Joshua a ‘UK Uncle Tom’ at one public appearance, words which have not been condemned enough in the British press. There is the possibility, of course, that he is joking, that the New Yorker’s insults are free of sincerity and geared only towards pushing Joshua’s buttons, but it is a joke that is quickly wearing thin.
Miller has come across as more measured in recent interviews, and he has admitted that he has earned his title shot not through being the top contender – he is ranked as the world’s ninth best heavyweight by The Ring magazine – but thanks to his big mouth, gate-crashing Joshua’s promotional tours and staging confrontations.
Indeed, the shoving that took place when the two heavyweights met in New York was notable for how inauthentic it looked, lacking the fury and the carnage of the brawl that erupted at a press conference to promote the 2002 bout between Mike Tyson and Lennox Lewis. In the melee, Tyson punched a security guard and bit Lewis’s leg, a dramatic loss of control absent from Miller and Joshua’s very deliberate rivalry.
When pugilists can no longer articulate their animosity, they revert to the language in which they are most fluent. Violence at press conferences is more common than it should be in boxing, but, until fight night, Joshua and Miller are not dealing in violence. For now, it is just business.
Image: Karl-Ludwig Poggemann via Flickr