By George Sessions, PA
Anthony Joshua returned to winning ways but only after a laboured display in a unanimous points victory over Jermaine Franklin.
The Briton had lost three of his last five fights, which included consecutive losses to Oleksandr Usyk, but he tasted success again for the first time since 2020 after the judges scored the London bout 118-111, 117-111 and 117-111 in favour of the home favourite.
Joshua regularly landed with his left jab and caught Franklin on a number of occasions with his powerful right but the American heavyweight stood firm.
A bizarre finish did occur at the O2 Arena with the 12th round appearing to end eight seconds early before Joshua pushed his head into Franklin and it sparked an angry reaction from Lorenzo Reynolds, the strength and conditioning coach of the American boxer, who pushed the Finchley fighter.
It was quickly settled and Joshua’s hand was lifted again to earn him a 25th professional win and keep alive hopes of a Battle of Britain with WBC champion Tyson Fury.
Joshua entered this fight without a victory in two-and-a-half years and with even those closest to him aware it was win or bust, but his heaviest ever frame of 18st 3lbs suggested he meant business.
Drama at the final bell! #JoshuaFranklin pic.twitter.com/vegJjiQiyY
— Matchroom Boxing (@MatchroomBoxing) April 1, 2023
Back at the venue where his professional career began a decade ago, Joshua walked out with the trademark pyrotechnics and a live performance from rapper K-Trap while his opponent received boos.
It was Joshua’s left jab that did the business in the early rounds but he did get caught by a big right hand from Franklin in the second that bloodied the nose of the former two-time world heavyweight champion.
While Joshua did enough to bank rounds three, four and five, Franklin continued to hold his own and regularly unleashed a flurry of blows himself without ever being able to consistently connect.
As Joshua’s first bout without a world title on the line since 2015 moved into its second half, referee Marcus McDonnell had to remind both to stop holding.
Joshua landed powerful blows in both the eighth and ninth, after plenty of encouragement from new trainer Derrick James, but no Hollywood finish was possible.
The two heavyweights traded punches in the 10th and an uppercut in the penultimate round got the 20,000 crowd excited before a dramatic 12th round.
Franklin’s holding had increased Joshua’s frustration and he was shoved into the ropes at one point which sparked boos.
A strange finale occurred when the final round ended a number of seconds early and Joshua let his aggression get the better of him by pushing his head into the neck of his opponent after the bell.
It saw Franklin’s strength and conditioning coach Reynolds push Joshua and eventually resulted in Tony Bellew exchanging words with Reynolds.
Joshua and Franklin shook hands before it was the Watford-born fighter who was confirmed as victorious in a result that keeps alive his hopes of becoming world champion for a third time.
Dillian Whyte was in attendance and would fancy revenge after this indifferent showing from the 28-fight veteran Joshua, but the ex-Olympian has Fury in his sights again.
“The last time I grabbed the mic it was a bit chaotic so I am calm,” Joshua said in reference to his antics after defeat to Usyk in Jeddah last August.
“I apologise for anyone seeing that type of stuff (at the end) but I respect Jermaine, I respect everyone here tonight.
“It was important to get the win. Someone else will knock him out probably but Jermaine has got a good duck and dive style. There was opportunities there but I respect him.
“He did well. I should have knocked him out but what can I say. It is done and onto the next.
“The balls is in Fury’s court. I would be honoured to fight for the WBC belt. We had dialogue before and hopefully we can continue it. We ain’t getting any younger.”