Anthony Joshua is about to go to war in the biggest fight of his career, but his first boxing coach remembers how the two-belt heavyweight champion could have gone down a very different path.
Sean Murphy met Joshua when he was an 18-year-old who wandered into his gym, Finchley ABC, with his cousin, who wanted to keep a young AJ out of trouble. At that time, Joshua had only once before been in a boxing gym and had left after a few sessions.
‘He came in the gym with one of his cousins, Ben Ileyemi,’ Murphy told Metro.co.uk. ‘I think he was getting into a little bit of bother on the streets, like fighting and that.
‘His cousin Ben wanted him to focus on something positive, so he brought him to the boxing. He came, and I think he just fell in love with it.’
Flashfoward ten years and Joshua holds the IBF and WBA (Super) world titles and is on the verge of collecting a third, should he beat Joseph Parker in Cardiff on Saturday.
Joshua is undefeated after 20 fights with 20 knockouts, and only once has he entered the ring as an underdog. This weekend, he is expected to not only beat WBO champion Parker, but become the first man to stop the Kiwi.
But, Murphy admits he never dreamed the young man he welcomed into his gym over a decade ago would become the champion he is today.
‘I would never ever have dreamt he would get to where he is today,’ he said.
‘I’ve had it in my gym where kids go the other way. I had a boy who was boxing with me and he won a few national titles. He’s locked up in prison now doing a six-year stretch. ‘He’s into heroine and cocaine. It’s not all fairytale endings for some people.’
And Joshua almost did go down the same path. In 2011 he was caught with marijuana in his car and was charged with cannabis possession. It was a minor charge, but Joshua had been called to join Team GB’s Olympic boxing squad the previous year and his dream of representing his country at London 2012 hung in the balance.
The charge and subsequent conviction could have stopped Joshua’s budding boxing career in its tracks.
As an amateur, he had already won two ABA championships, a GB Amateur Boxing championship and a silver medal at the World Championships. As Murphy remembers it, Joshua needed to make a choice.
‘He was led astray by someone and when he got done for that it was the kick up the bum he needed,’ Murphy explained.
‘He went to court and was found guilty. But the judge actually said to Josh he’d turned his life around, found boxing and was now representing his country.
‘That’s what kept him from getting a custodial sentence. I think that was the kick up the bum he needed, really. To say, “You know what, I think I can make a go of the boxing”.
‘And since that happened to him, he hasn’t looked back since. He’s lived a clean life, kept out of trouble. And he’s got where he is now with hard work.’
It was not the first time Joshua had stumbled, but it would be the last.
‘When he first come [as a teenager] he needed that little bit of help and encouragement,’ Murphy said.
‘Someone to tell him he’s doing well. I remember one time he hadn’t been in for a week or two and his mum rang me. She asked if I could talk to Josh.
‘He was messing around with people he shouldn’t have. I phoned him and he was back in the gym the next day.’
Murphy was Joshua’s first boxing mentor and has watched in awe as AJ has grown into a world champion, adored across Britain. Joshua’s life is changed, but Murphy explains the man has not.
And with AJ firmly established as the UK’s most famous fighter, Finchley ABC acts as one of his last remaining safe havens.
‘What he likes about coming into the boxing club, the majority of the people that are there knew him from when he was boxing,’ Murphy said.
‘I have a couple of new coaches who kind of idolise him a bit and suck up to him a little bit, but they’re just in awe of him. But mostly he’s treated just like a normal person.
‘We say ‘Alright, Josh?’, when he comes in and then we get on with what we’re doing. We don’t spend too long, we chat to him, but he’s not different to anyone else in the gym.
‘I think that’s why he likes coming down the gym. He’s not treated like a celebrity, he’s not pestered for autographs, he’s just another boxer getting on with his work.’
Source: Metro UK