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Remembering How Anthony Joshua Fought His Way From Troubled Talent to Olympic Gold

From the grand platform of London 2012, Anthony Joshua launched himself to stardom. Things could have gone very differently, however, with controversy nearly ending his career.

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08 December 2016, 3:45pm

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This article is part of our weekly history series. You can read previous entries here.

On the afternoon of 20 January 2011, police in the dreary North London suburb of Colindale pulled over a speeding Mercedes. Inside the car was Anthony Joshua and, as it turned out upon further inspection, eight ounces of marijuana bunged into a sports bag. Joshua was arrested and charged with possession to supply a class B drug, and so appeared in court a few months later. Though the offence carries a maximum 14-year jail sentence, Joshua was given a 12-month community order and ordered to complete 100 hours of unpaid work. In the context of his budding boxing career, and life in general, that must have come as something of a relief.

The community service wasn't the only consequence for 21-year-old Joshua, who at the time was the British amateur boxing champion and one of the nation's medal hopes for London 2012. He was banned from all international and domestic boxing, and there was a very real prospect that he could have lost his opportunity to compete at the Olympics. The bad publicity generated by his drugs wrap, as well as a previous stint on remand at Reading prison for what Joshua later described to The Guardian as "fighting and other crazy stuff," left Team GB officials with what must have seemed like a problem athlete on their hands. Nonetheless, they decided to persevere with Joshua, and ended up with a super-heavyweight champion and defining figure of the London Games.

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Having earned his stripes at the renowned Finchley Amateur Boxing Club, it was fitting that Joshua should reach the pinnacle of his amateur career during an Olympics held in London. It was a home Games in many respects, and one which gave him the opportunity to showcase his talents only a relative stone's throw from where he was raised. Joshua grew up on an estate near Watford, the son of Nigerian parents, and went to school in Kings Langley in Hertfordshire. He was, by his own admission, a normal teenager from London's commuter belt, in that he spent lots of time drinking in rubbish regional clubs, driving about on the fringes of the capital and playing games of football that occasionally descended into physical violence, with one incident with his school team leading Joshua to receive an official warning for actual bodily harm.

When Joshua had his next run in with the law and ended up on remand in Reading, he escaped a jail sentence, but was ordered to wear an ankle tag for over a year. He has since credited this with giving him a semblance of sporting discipline in his life, in that he had to adhere to an eight o'clock curfew in the evenings which curtailed the worst of the teenage chaos. It also led him to occupy himself with other activities, which included getting into boxing in a serious way.

Reading prison, where Joshua was on remand for two weeks // Via

Having gone to the Finchley ABC to keep himself fit and lift a few weights age 17, Joshua donned the gloves for the first time and was hooked. When he ended up tagged and unable to go out in the evenings, his interest in boxing became all-consuming. One might say that it was that first brush with potential jail time which inadvertently put him on the path to the pinnacle of amateur boxing. In turn, it was his arrest on a charge of possession with intent to supply that gave him a sobering reminder, should he be caught wandering off that path, exactly what the consequences might be.

With that last public indiscretion, however, Joshua began his preparations for London 2012 in earnest. He trained hard, impressed Team GB officials and boxing journalists alike, and by October 2011 the Boxing Writers' Club Of Great Britain named him Amateur Boxer of the Year. Still a novice on the international scene, he went to the World Amateur Boxing Championships in Baku at around the same time and announced himself by beating Italy's reigning Olympic champion Roberto Cammarelle, as well as Erik Pfeifer of Germany, before losing to Azerbaijani native Magomedrasul Majidov by a single point in the final. That earned him a silver medal at least, and further recognition back in Britain that, come London 2012, Joshua could well win gold.

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When the Games finally came around, Joshua was given one of the toughest tests possible when he was paired with Cuban fighter Erislandy Savón in the Round of 16. Savón was ranked fourth in the world by the AIBA, though he had also succumbed to the thunderous punches of Majidov at the World Championships the previous year. With the super heavyweight boxing event starting five days after the Olympic opening ceremony, Britain was already gripped by medal fever and enthused by a Games which many had previously written off as costly and unwelcome. In this atmosphere of excitement and anticipation, Joshua stepped into the ring for a chance to keep his own medal hopes alive.

Though it has perhaps been forgotten in the glorious haze of what came afterwards, Joshua struggled in the fight against Savón. Though he slogged his way through three rounds against the Cuban and eventually won by a one-point margin, some observers felt that Savón had done enough to take victory, with the Daily Mail describing Joshua as "outboxed and outclassed." Joshua didn't allow the controversy surrounding the result to affect him, however, and went on to record a much more emphatic win over China's Zhang Zhilei in the quarters, dropping his opponent in the second round and eventually winning by a scoreline of 15-11. He then narrowly beat Kazakhstan's Ivan Dychko in the semis, out-punching the 6"8½ giant by 13-11.

Joshua fighting Cammarelle // PA Images

That ensured Joshua at least a silver medal, matching his achievement at the World Championships. Still, he was determined to go one better when he faced off against erstwhile foe Cammarelle in the final. The showcase match took place on 12 August, the final day of a glittering Games which, certainly judged on medals, had been a success beyond all expectations for Britain. Joshua was now just three rounds away from adding another gold to Team GB's record haul.

Cheered on by a partisan crowd throughout the match, Joshua went toe-to-toe with his shorter and stockier Italian rival. The first round was cagey at first, but soon the two men were landing thumping blows on each other, Joshua especially taking a beating after being forced into a corner by Cammarelle late on. Joshua lost the first round 6-5, and the second didn't go much better, with the judges scoring a titanic round 13-10 in Cammarelle's favour. Joshua fought back ferociously in the third, however, landing punch after punch on his tiring target and levelling the scores at a tantalising 18-18.

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While Joshua raised his hands in elation at the final bell and Cammarelle was conspicuously deflated, the British champion's triumph by countback was still questioned by some outside the ring. There were those who saw it as a classic home decision; there were those who were firmly in Joshua's corner; and then there was Joshua himself, grinning, smiling, neck draped in gold. His Olympic victory had been anything but easy, and two of his bouts had been decided in razor-thin fashion. Nonetheless, it was not for him to worry about the gripes and wrangles of his detractors, nor the shortcomings of the scoring system. He was an Olympic gold medallist, and had built the perfect platform from which to launch the rest of his career.

If Joshua's route to the top was fraught with difficulty, both with gloves on and gloves off, it has only made him a better boxer. Since London 2012, he has won the British, Commonwealth and WBC International heavyweight titles, and is currently the IBF heavyweight champion with an undefeated professional record. Now, as then, he bears the burden of expectation on his shoulders, and is often cited as the man to lead Britain's heavyweight revival on the world stage. Whether or not he can walk in the footsteps of the true greats, it's a far cry from petty crime and the prospect of a stint behind bars.

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