Why is Ben Davison training Anthony Joshua for Otto Wallin fight? Leigh Wood, Devin Haney explain coach’s unique methods

“I don’t want to talk about trainers.” 

Anthony Joshua had been relaxed and conversational ahead of his visit to the press conference stage for the “Day of Reckoning” launch in November.

The former two-time heavyweight champion was sitting in a Wembley Arena dressing room with a group of reporters, yet to be irritated by the belligerent drug cheat Jarrell Miller at a star-studded top table like no other.

But Joshua responded tersely to questions about his decision to train with Ben Davison for his clash with Sweden’s Otto Wallin on December 23. A follow-up enquiry was similarly shut down.

Davison famously oversaw Tyson Fury’s journey from drug and alcohol abuse, depression and obesity back to the heavyweight elite. The last of their five fights together was Fury’s 2019 showdown with Wallin, when the “Gypsy King” battled to a unanimous points win despite suffering a horrific cut. 

The Essex-based trainer has also worked with Billy Joe Saunders and his current star pupils are former two-time WBA featherweight champion Leigh Wood, heavyweight contender Fabio Wardley and — from afar — pound-for-pound standout Devin Haney.

WATCH: Anthony Joshua vs. Otto Wallin, live on DAZN

It’s an intriguing partnership but Joshua’s initial reluctance to discuss it was understandable. Ever since his maiden defeat to Andy Ruiz Jr. in June 2019, who is in his corner and how they might develop him as a fighter has become the great saga of the 34-year-old’s career.

For the rematch with Ruiz, Angel Fernandez and Joby Clayton came in to supplement his coaching team and carry out additional pad work alongside long-time trainer Rob McCracken. It initially looked like a good formula as Joshua boxed to a wide unanimous points decision win to regain the IBF, WBA and WBO belts.

AJ’s lone outing of a pandemic-hit 2020 was a ninth-round stoppage of Kubrat Pulev but a muddled showing against Oleksandr Usyk in September 2021, when he tried to outbox the master boxer, brought an end to an association with McCracken that stretched back to his amateur days.

Robert Garcia was hired to work alongside Fernandez for the August 2022 rematch with Usyk in Saudi Arabia, when an improved Joshua still came up short over 12 rounds. 

Anthony Joshua

(Mark Robinson/Matchroom Boxing)

The Garcia union broke up, respectfully at first but then more acrimoniously as the coach publicly questioned his former fighter’s mentality. A partnership with Derrick James for Joshua’s first two fights of 2023, wins over Jermaine Franklin and Robert Helenius, looked built to last.

“I’m very happy with where I’m at. I won’t move from Derrick James,” Joshua said prior to his explosive seventh-round stoppage of Helenius, who stepped in as a late replacement at the O2 Arena after Dillian Whyte failed a drug test. 

As such, eyebrows were raised when news emerged of Joshua’s link-up with Davison. After his initial refusal to discuss the topic, Joshua was more forthcoming when speaking to UK newspaper reporters in fight week from Saudi Arabia, confirming his promoter Eddie Hearn’s line that logistics played a part. 

The speed at which the “Day of Reckoning” card came together made decamping to Texas to train with James, who also had Ryan Garcia’s fight against Oscar Duarte to take care of on December 2, somewhat impractical. Joshua had already been in touch with Davison to undertake some preliminary tick-over training at his gym in Harlow, so extending that arrangement made sense.

“I was training with Ben Davison in the UK and this fight came up with seven weeks to go and it would have been crazy to pack up and go to the States,” Joshua said. 

“I think it has been really good with Ben, as it has been with Derrick. I have a great relationship with Derrick, he messaged me today actually but I have to stay focused. I am not on my phone as much, I am not replying to many people. Afterwards we will catch up and I am sure I will be back in Texas again working with him soon.”

Discussing Davison as a practical and stop-gap choice makes sense in terms of managing the intrigue around Joshua as Wallin looms. But with a potential superfight against Deontay Wilder on the horizon and a burning ambition to be a three-time champion makes this one of the most important nights of his lucrative career.

Make no mistake, Davison has not been given this gig as a sponge and bucket guy. It’s far too important and he brings specific attributes to the table. We just have to mine elsewhere for them with Joshua keen to shut up shop, having variously extolled the virtues of McCracken, Garcia and James.

A common criticism has been that the Joshua of recent years has begun to overthink his work inside the ring, particularly during the Usyk defeats and his two fights under James. A little more of the instinctive boxer-puncher who shared thrilling encounters with Whyte and Wladimir Klitschko is what many fans and critics want to see. 

The Sporting News exclusively spoke to Davison in early August at the launch of Wood’s dramatic title defence against Josh Warrington. The media event took place ahead of Joshua’s fight with Helenius and the coach was asked about Joshua’s early development under James. 

“You want to be a thinking fighter,” he said, before talking about the methods he uses alongside video analyst Lee Wylie and assistant trainer Barry Smith. 

The whole point of the way we do things is you get a plan, you study it, you drill the scenarios. So by the time you get in there, you haven’t got to overthink it.

If you’ve done the work beforehand when you get in there it becomes instinct rather than having to think in the moment. People might say ‘oh, you’re over-complicating by doing things like that…’, you actually don’t. You’re actually doing the complete opposite. 

By trying to work it out in the moment, how many different variables there are that might happen? that is a lot harder — processing what might happen, what he’s going to do, what he’s setting up etcetera — than to have been through a scouting report, watched plenty of film on the opponent and to have come up with a conclusion that the majority of the time when he does this, you’re looking for that, the majority of the time when you do this, his reaction is going to be that.

And you drill that to a point where you haven’t got to think about it. It becomes second nature.

To once again be clear, this conversation took place three months before there was any suggestion of Davison and Joshua working together. But the blueprint of breaking things down and simplifying gameplans to the extent that they become instinct sounds like a very workable remedy to plenty of Joshua’s apparent ills since Ruiz.

Some will say this is too formulaic and an affront to boxing’s old-school traditions. But the system works.

Davison guided Josh Taylor to victory in his undisputed fight against Jose Ramirez in May 2022, the win that underscores his elite credentials more than any other.

His gym has their prints all over several British boxing success stories in 2023, from rising starts Pat McCormack and Shabaz Masoud to Wardley’s demolition job of domestic rival David Adelaye on the Fury vs. Francis Ngannou undercard.

Davison, Wylie and Smith provide a collective hub of boxing knowledge and the latter was chief second when Jordan Gill completed his stunning underdog win over Michael Conlan in December.

The jewel in the crown is Gill’s great mate Wood, who joined up with Davison at a career crossroads before embarking upon a thrilling run of world title fights.

Leigh Wood

Getty Images/Mark Robinson Matchroom

When Wood floored the ferocious Mexican puncher Mauricio Lara with a perfect uppercut in his May 2023 rematch win, he offered a fist pump to Wylie when he returned to his corner.

“There was a little sequence that I was landing in the last fight — occupy you around the side and then go down the middle with the right hand,” the champion explained. “He was putting his head under it. Lee had that information from last time, he said to switch that up and bring it up underneath when he puts his head down.

“We drilled it with Ben, over and over and over. I saw the moment, I landed it first and he put his head under. I’d seen the scenario and I lifted [the punch] up and put him down.”

Given his late-career ascent from domestic to world level, Wood is borderline evangelical when it comes to the methods used at the Ben Davison Performance Centre.

WATCH: Anthony Joshua vs. Otto Wallin, live on DAZN

“When I retire, from every fight I’ve been with Ben and Lee, I’m going to release the segments from before, the things I was practising and how I got the win. It’s mind-blowing,” he told Boxing News recently.

“It’s hard to get your head around the way they do things because it’s completely different but it makes sense. It’s so simple but, as Ben says, if you don’t know you don’t know.

“I’m going to release all these things because it will educate a lot of people in the boxing world about those wins I had and how I did it. It’s going to change how people view boxing and that’s a big statement.”

Wood added: “I think you’ll see AJ be more clear and decisive with what he’s doing in there. He’ll know what he needs to do. In his previous fights, he’s been told ‘You should do this…’ but he’s a bit apprehensive thinking he doesn’t feel right, half guessing it or not confident in what he’s doing but just doing it anyway.

“I know for this fight he will be clear and decisive, knowing what he needs to and going out and doing git. A lot of people will say AJ is looking more like his old self and that will be because of these things that he’s doing.” 

And then there’s Haney, who boxed to a masterful shutout win over Regis Prograis to win the WBC super lightweight title earlier this month. Haney’s relationship with his father and trainer Bill is well documented but the 25-year-old was keen to give Davison and Wylie due credit for their work behind the scenes.

“I talk with Ben Davison a lot, he helps me form a distance,” Haney told the Boxing Voice. “He was saying that Regis wants to punch when you punch, so just be careful. Don’t get over-anxious.

“He showed me clips of him punching when guys punch, baiting them so he can punch with them. During the fight I was hearing [Prograis’] corner going ‘punch when he punches, punch when he punches’.

“Lee and Ben help with my game plan. Lee does the film study and him and Ben Davison come together and do the game plan. I send them over my sparring, pad work or whatever I’m doing. They, along with my dad, we all work together and come up with a game plan.”

This combination of proven methods and adaptability to various situations no doubt appealed to Joshua as he made plans for his latest defining night against Wallin. If AJ wins in style, Davison and Wylie’s status as the best boxing strategists you don’t know might be at an end.

WATCH: Anthony Joshua vs. Otto Wallin, live on DAZN

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