Anthony Joshua laboured to an unconvincing unanimous decision victory over Jermaine Franklin that will prompt further questions over his future in the heavyweight division.
After a promising start that should have given him cause for confidence, he often struggled with the range at which they fought and with Franklin’s hand speed and tactics which, if complemented by an improved punch output, could have given him an even more difficult evening that ended with him earning scores of 118-11 and two more of 117-111.
Fighting for the first time under his new trainer Derrick James, Joshua looked inferior to the fighter who had impressed, despite losing, in the second of his two fights with Oleksandr Usyk, and largely incapable of competing with Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder as it is hoped he yet might.
It was a reflection of Joshua’s damaged reputation after his successive defeats by Usyk that he fought Franklin, recently considered unfortunate to have lost via majority decision to Dillian Whyte at the same venue, at London’s O2 Arena – a venue that had been too small to host him for the previous seven years.
Instead of taking some comfort from fighting once again where he had made his professional debut, won the British and IBF heavyweight titles and made his first world title defence, the pressure on his shoulders after defeats that had cast an unreasonably big shadow over his fine achievements meant that he often looked unsettled and tense.
His jab had been both accurate and potent throughout the opening two rounds, but in the second he started bleeding from his nose, and also took a hurtful right hand.
If the blood coming from his nose distracted him and made it difficult for him to breathe, that right hand also represented the start of Franklin’s success in often timing and reading his decorated opponent.
The range at which they fought – not unlike that for his first ever defeat, by Andy Ruiz Jr – was unnecessarily risky for a fighter with advantages in height and reach, but owed not only to Franklin’s more convincing tactics, but in his improved, leaner condition, his improved feet.
In a fight Joshua had perhaps expected to be easier he occasionally appeared hesitant to throw, and he fell short with a left hook he attempted to force. That they had exchanged words at the end of the opening bell had already hinted at an unhappiness in Joshua, which would unlikely have been helped on the occasions Franklin stuck out his tongue.
Landing jabs and then a straight right at the start of the eighth he appeared to be reestablishing a sense of rhythm, but it took until the 10th for him to again start to land consistently, and to build some of the momentum he had lacked.
When in the 11th he landed an authoritative jab he was punished with a left-right combination. In the 12th, by when Franklin had tired more than had Joshua, he looked fresher and again convinced with his jab. By then, however, he also already knew that he had failed to deliver the performance and statement he needed to, and though he also knew that he would get the judges’ decision, his dissatisfaction spilled over after the final bell with an extended and aggressive exchange with Franklin that required them to be separated.
On the undercard in London, Campbell Hatton, the son of Ricky, stopped Louis Fielding inside a round, via a body punch, and Galal Yafai stopped Moises Calleros of Mexico inside four. Both, unquestionably, enhanced their reputations in a way that Joshua did not.