‘Oh, yeah, the Opera House,” Anthony Joshua exclaims in a box at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium as his face creases with amusement and nostalgia. Rather than revealing a sudden passion for opera in Covent Garden, the world heavyweight champion relives memories of the very different Saturday nights he used to spend as a teenager clubbing in this corner of north London. The Opera House in Tottenham was one of his favourite clubs around 12 years ago when he and nine of his friends used to drive their battered cars from Watford or Finchley to have a party and cause some pretty harmless mayhem.
The 31-year-old Joshua relaxes as the stories flow from him and, at least for a while, it is possible to ignore the hundreds of people building the ring and the long walkway from the dressing rooms on the covered pitch far below where we are sitting in this vast football stadium. On Saturday night 68,000 people will cram into the arena with attention fixed on the ring where Joshua faces one of the most demanding nights of his career when he defends his WBA, WBC and IBF world titles against the unbeaten and highly skilled Oleksandr Usyk. But Joshua can enjoy a break from thinking about this testing challenge as we return to the heaving and thumping Opera House.
“We all had cars,” he says as he explains how they would get to Tottenham. Joshua, whose wealth now runs into the hundreds of millions, drove an old Vauxhall Astra while his cousin, Ben Ileyemi, who introduced him to boxing, used his mum’s Peugeot 206. They would park their cars a few blocks from the Opera House, so as not to spoil their image, and then pile into the club.
“I started boxing when I was 18 so this was when I was 19 and 20. We all had cars but before that I would get on the buses from Watford or Harrow.”
When it was not his turn to drive he would be drinking. “Courvoisier and cider. Remember that White Lightning [cider]? I would drink that in the passenger seat and then, in the queue I’d be saying: ‘Yeah, I’m alright, bouncer.’”
It didn’t matter how much they have might have drunk because they were friends with the Opera House bouncer, Colin Webster, who was one of the coaches at Finchley Boxing Club where Joshua was in the midst of learning how to skip, hit a heavy bag and spar in the ring. “We would train Monday, Wednesday and Friday and all go out on the weekend. It was still only amateur boxing. So we would have a few drinks and, because we were all boxers, you can’t really fight us. There were 10 of us and if we got into a fight, the bouncer is going to sling them out and then he is going to tell us where they are.”
He starts laughing. “Colin would say: ‘They’re round the corner.’ We were always on top. They were fun days. It’s just gone so quick.”
Joshua has told me previously how, before boxing changed his life, he was once on remand and facing the prospect of 10 years in prison “for fighting and other crazy stuff”. The judge gave him a second chance – but was the Opera House part of his more troubled past? “No. Boxing was getting me on the straight and narrow.”
As a world champion with so many commercial deals, Joshua is now often accused of being bland and corporate. But, on the right day, and when he is able to open up, the real Joshua soon re-emerges. Rather than having to churn out the platitudes or answer the same old questions about whether or not he will fight Tyson Fury, Joshua relishes the chance to talk about his old gang of friends. What are they doing now?
“They are gardeners or personal trainers or, like Ben, doing personal security and operations. One of them does electrical work and helps my brother and my cousin because they do property stuff. We all work together and still have a WhatsApp group. But Colin the bouncer passed away, unfortunately, due to Covid.”
Joshua’s last stadium fight in the UK was three years ago this week. He fought Alexander Povetkin in front of 90,000 people at Wembley on 22 September 2018. “This fight is going to be better,” he says of his battle with Usyk. “It’s going to be fun. I know there are going to be a lot of Ukrainians there. Usyk supporters, Joshua supporters, it’s going to be buzzing. It’s big-time boxing and I’m comfortable in this environment.
“Saturday night is going to be nice and then Sunday will come. Do you know what I’m most looking forward to about this fight? Getting back to training in a week or two so I can get my practice in. I see myself getting even better. You’ll see lots of improvements from the Kubrat Pulev fight [the last time Joshua was in the ring nine months ago]. And with the next fight you’ll see another massive improvement. This is fight week for everyone else but, for me, this is still training camp. Get this done, then I get back into training when I’m in that spiritual realm – Zen-like. I’m fit, I’m healthy, I’m looking after my body, isolating, all that type of stuff to get me ready for fights like Saturday night.”
The Opera House, the White Lightning and the Vauxhall Astra are all long gone but the memories remain. They offer warmth and affection before the unforgiving task of a world heavyweight title fight against such a difficult opponent. Saturday night in Tottenham will be a lot harder and more dangerous than those heady Opera House days.