Heavyweight Champ Anthony Joshua Receives Harsh Criticism for Praying in a Mosque

Fightland Blog

By Nick Wong

Heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua has caused quite a stir on social media in recent days, but the issue has nothing to do with fighting in the ring. Instead, the IBF titlist has been receiving a lot of flack for a recent photo of him attending prayer in a Mosque.

​Joshua posted the picture on his personal Twitter account earlier this week with the caption, “Besides luck, hard work & talent..Prayer is a solid foundation. It was nice to join my brother as he led through afternoon prayer (asr)”

While Joshua is not a practicing Muslim himself, he has shown interest in the faith, and has said to be open to a variety of religious paths.

“I don’t have a preferred religion: I’d have to do research," Joshua said in an interview. “I was born a Christian, but as I’ve grown into my own man I don’t attach myself to a religion; 100 per cent I have faith. Then it’s locking into what suits me.”

The public response to the photo has been anywhere from supportive to judgmental to downright vile. As with any topic on social media, the conversation quickly mushroomed beyond the original post, which in this particular case was a mudslinging debate on religion in general. Criticisms from all spectrums of the social and political leanings have chimed in, some denouncing the heavyweight champ for his attendance, while others questioned his sincerity in participating.

As most fans know, Joshua is scheduled to face former heavyweight champ Wladimir Klitschko on April 29th, and the recent tweet has persuaded some fans to root for Klitschko purely out of spite for the British champ. This is certainly not the first time a social issue has influenced the public on a fight. Boxing matches (especially those in the heavyweight division) have often gone onto represent larger societal ideals beyond the match itself. Jack Johnson facing Jim Jeffries was symbolic of black athletes (and black Americans in general) fighting for equality in an unequal society. Joe Louis represented the United States against Max Schmeling on the brink of WWII and the rise of Adolf Hitler. And of course perhaps the most famous boxing example is when Muhammad Ali took on Joe Frazier for the first time in their “Fight of the Century” showdown where Ali represented the rise of black consciousness and standing against the Vietnam War.

If there’s one topic to rile people up, it’s religion. That and probably politics, but when it comes to discussing the Muslim faith, these days the topic cross the two plains quite seamlessly. A lot of people like to believe that sports and social politics are meant to be kept separate, but it is inevitably impossible to do so. Society always bleeds into sports and vice versa. The backlash to Joshua’s recent posting is another example of how fans have not separated the person from the athlete, and with a sport like boxing, the fight will often go onto represent one ideal going up against another. With Joshua vs. Klitschko still more than three-months away, there is certainly the potential for that to happen.

But to that end I’ll also say that conflating a fight into something more than an athletic event is largely due to the public and the shaping of public perception. For the athletes themselves, it is often more about the contest itself, and perhaps there is something there in which we can learn from.

Jeffries may not have been the most liberal on racial politics, but he was also a man of his time, and a man in losing to Johnson. “I could never have whipped Johnson at my best,” Jeffries said after their fight. “I couldn’t have reached him in a thousand years.” Though Schmeling was propagated as the poster-boy of the Nazi movement, he publicly distanced himself from Hitler and actually saved a number of Jews from persecution. Him and Joe Louis also became and remained good friends until Louis’s death in 1981. As for Joe Frazier, he was more or less chosen as the default representative for the crowd going against Ali’s ideals, but seemed more interested in winning the right to call himself “champion” rather than making a political statement. Though the two never really became friends after their three encounters, there was somewhat of a respect between them, at least more than before they had met in the ring.

That is because in all these examples each fighter found some kind of truth in fighting their opponent. They realized something beyond the hype surrounding the fight and the voices saying to hate what the other side represented. That is part of the beauty of boxing. It reveals a space where we can learn to respect our adversaries.

So while Joshua’s upcoming defense against Klitschko can certainly become a socio-political affair for the fans (maybe even partly for the fighters involved too), there will always be one part of the contest that objectively isn’t. It is that part of pure competition, of struggle and pushing through adversity, where the only thing that matters is how well a fighter fights, and the more one side challenges the other, the more they come to understand and respect each other afterwards. Perhaps there’s something to that attitude that can help influence our own. 


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