They had risen up out of Seven Sisters tube station in a steady stream and sauntered abreast in groups through the vibrant hum of the Tottenham High Road.
The fans were young white men in the main, dressed in an informal uniform of collared shirts, dark jeans and smart, new pumps, and they had a swagger about them as they headed north in the early evening, as if the fight they were here to watch was already filling them up with bravado.
They walked past the Afro-Caribbean food markets and the convenience stores and the nail salons and the Tesco and the McDonald’s and the kebab shops and the Polish supermarket, past a smart brick building called The Trampery, ‘a home for Tottenham’s entrepreneurs’ and past an ‘old-school boozer’ called The Bluecoats.
Anthony Joshua cuts a dejected figure after losing his world heavyweight title belts
Oleksander Usyk beat Joshua by unanimous decision at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium
Music blared from in there, mixed with the kind of shouts and yells that said it was getting close to fight time.
And when darkness began to fall, they headed away for the looming grey hulk of the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, the lavish new palace of entertainment that is the new high water-mark for luxury and design in sports venues.
And there, just before 10pm, Anthony Joshua, who confessed happily to enjoying a brawl or two on the High Road in his youth, long before he earned his fame and his fortune, came among them.
Joshua and other young boxers from Finchley used to head over to Tottenham to frequent the Opera House pub on the High Road and stare down all-comers. Some things have changed. Some have not.
He is a multi-millionaire now, a successful businessman as well as a feared fighter but as he climbed through the ropes on Saturday night, he was still engaged in struggle, still confronted by danger, still trying to fend off challengers.
A couple of hours before Joshua fought, Callum Smith knocked out his light-heavyweight opponent, Lenin Castillo, with such force that Castillo hit the canvas and lay there, his knees twitching. He was carried from the ring on a stretcher.
The brilliant boxing writer, Donald McRae, called it a ‘dark trade’ for a reason. No amount of purse money can change the fact that danger is still Joshua’s milieu. He was about to discover that again in the most brutal fashion.
Usyk schooled the Brit in 12 rounds to become the new heavyweight champion of the world
This was Joshua’s 26th fight and some said that Oleksandr Usyk, the man who was once the undisputed ruler of the cruiserweight division, would be the toughest opponent Joshua, the holder of the WBA, WBO and IBF versions of the title, had ever faced. That seems disrespectful to Wladimir Klitschko, who Joshua knocked out at Wembley in 2017, but Klitschko was 41 then. Usyk is 34.
Some said with great prescience that Usyk, from Ukraine, would be the man to defrock Joshua, 31, once and for all and to ruin all those long-held dreams of a £200m world heavyweight title unification fight with Tyson Fury, a fight that has slipped through his grasp for years now as Fury’s reputation has grown and grown and Joshua’s has somehow been allowed to suffer in comparison.
Usyk was billed as a supremely skilled technical boxer, an elusive southpaw, who many felt would expose his shortcomings. Joshua has been portrayed by some, particularly partisan admirers of Fury, as a robotic fighter, a manufactured product incapable of adapting and innovating.
Those critics had felt this – his 11th straight world title fight – would be the fight that would undo him.
That feeling had gained some traction from the memories of Joshua’s solitary professional defeat, to Andy Ruiz Jr at Madison Square Garden two years ago when he seemed unable to cope with the movement and hand speed of a smaller man. Joshua’s detractors, and other analysts, pointed to all those factors as reasons why this was his toughest assignment.
After what happened here on Saturday night, Tyson Fury-Joshua will probably never take place
In that sense, it was also seen as a gauge as to how Joshua might fare against Fury. Again, that fight has been characterised in its many imaginings as a battle between Joshua’s brute force and the greater guile of Fury, with most tipping Fury to emerge as the victor, especially since his rematch demolition of Deontay Wilder in Las Vegas in February last year.
After what happened here on Saturday night, Fury-Joshua will probably never take place.
How strange it seems now that Joshua was the picture of calm as he walked to the ring, sparring playfully with a security guard, high-fiving fans, shadow boxing as fireworks exploded and dancing to his entrance music before he climbed through the ropes to where Usyk was waiting. The champion towered above the challenger, a reminder he had the advantage in power and reach as well as height.
When the contest started, Joshua’s nonchalance disappeared. He gave Usyk all the respect he deserved in the first round and the two men barely laid a glove on each other.
In the second, Joshua did catch his opponent with a left hook to the side of the face but Usyk rode it easily. The challenger looked lithe and comfortable, his footwork keeping him out of Joshua’s range.
Usyk celebrates and greets crowd as he leaves the arena after defeating Joshua on Saturday
The fight exploded into life in the third round when Usyk caught Joshua flush on the jaw with a slamming left hook that shook the champion. In the fourth, Usyk rocked Joshua’s head back again with a stiff right jab. Usyk’s movement was more dynamic and Joshua’s own jab lacked conviction. Time and again in the fifth round, Joshua threw and missed.
There were traces in Joshua’s countenance of the bewildered look he wore during his defeat to Ruiz in New York but he did rock Usyk back on his heels with a solid straight right in the sixth round that snapped the challenger’s head back.
But by the seventh, Joshua was starting to look one-paced and predictable and he stumbled backwards when Usyk caught him flush with a darting left hook.
By the end of the eighth, it had started to feel Joshua was being outclassed. He still carried the threat of his devastating right hand but Usyk was outboxing him.
AJ’s return to north London ended in kind of setback from which he’ll find it hard to rebound
That feeling continued through the ninth round and in the 10th Joshua was cut under his right eye and swelling starting to obscure his vision. Usyk sensed his chance but Joshua dug in courageously and took the fight back to Usyk.
Joshua desperately tried to unload his right hand but in the eleventh, it was Usyk who caught him again and again with the left. Usyk was relentless. The fight’s final seconds felt like a scene from Raging Bull as Usyk pummelled Joshua with punch after unanswered punch. Joshua refused to go down in an echo of Jake La Motta’s boast to Sugar Ray Robinson: ‘You never put me down, Ray.’
He never put him down but Usyk had schooled him. Joshua’s battered, swollen face told that story. So did the judges’ scorecards. All three scored it to Usyk. It was unanimous, as it should have been.
Joshua’s return to his old stomping ground on the Tottenham High Road had ended in the kind of setback from which he will find it hard to rebound.