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LONDON (Reuters) - Britain's Olympic champion Anthony Joshua is on the cusp of what he calls “the ultimate double” this weekend and fancies it could help him capture the boxing world's imagination like no heavyweight since Mike Tyson in his heyday.
Nothing ignites the hype as feverishly as the emergence of a big man with a big punch and the unbeaten 26-year-old super-heavyweight 2012 gold medalist -- chiseled, 6ft 6in and with dynamite in his fists -- fits the bill perfectly.
On Saturday, he fights America’s IBF champion Charles Martin at London’s O2 Arena and can become the first boxer to hold a version of the professional world heavyweight title while being reigning champion in the Olympics' heaviest weight division.
“Hmm, Olympic champion and world pro champion at the same time. It’s the ultimate double really. That would be really cool if I could,” Joshua told Reuters in an interview.
Only exceptional fighters win global professional titles while still reigning Olympic gold medalists including Muhammad Ali, who beat Sonny Liston for the world title in 1964 while holding the 1960 Olympic light-heavyweight crown.
Boxing greats such as Sugar Ray Leonard, Oscar de la Hoya and Floyd Patterson have also achieved the feat.
As gold medalists at heavyweight or super-heavyweight, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Lennox Lewis, Wladimir Klitschko and Alexander Povetkin all went on to win world heavyweight belts but not in the same Olympic cycle or at Joshua's destructive pace.
He has won all 15 of his paid fights inside the distance -- just 32 rounds in all in his 30-month career -- leaving even Klitschko marveling at “his amazing potential, like no other boxer I’ve seen.”
His speed and power of punch, allied to the good looks and laid-back personality that conceal a “mean streak” -- “It’s a blood sport business, You want to go in and take someone’s head off,” he says with chilling sweetness -- have seen him build quickly on his reputation as one of the London Olympic heroes.
Tickets for Saturday’s fight, which will be screened pay-per-view on Sky Sports TV in Britain, sold out in 90 seconds.
Yet Joshua so far seems immune to the clamor.
“I think towards the end of my career, I’m the man. But right now I’ve still got that underdog mentality to keep on proving myself time and again. I’m not going to believe the hype,” he said.
His opponents do not believe it either.
Fellow Briton Tyson Fury, who ended Ukrainian Klitschko’s decade-long reign as world champion last year, sniffs that Joshua is a “talentless bodybuilder who has no footwork, no jab and can't box... that means he’s useless.”
Even Saturday’s opponent Martin, also unbeaten in 24 contests but with one draw on his card, dismisses Joshua as too “green”, a novice ripe for the taking.
To which Joshua just smiles disarmingly and says: “They’re all just waiting for me to fail. Listen, they’ll be waiting a long time.”
He reckons he is not bothered about fighting in Las Vegas because "the heavyweight scene is now in the UK” with a potential domestic blockbuster in the pipeline between Fury, painted as the controversial, pantomime villain, and Joshua himself, Mister Nice Guy.
“Promoters would love that fight and so would I,” said Joshua, adding with a laugh: “But Fury should just be himself and not try and be this character. Boxing’s a sport that gives you license to act like an idiot, I think!”
Joshua has breezed along at just the right time in an intriguing period of revival for the heavyweight division after the stagnant years of mediocrity underpinned by Klitschko’s mechanical stranglehold.
As ever in boxing’s fragmented alphabet jungle, there are three world heavyweight title holders -- Fury (WBO and WBA), Martin (IBF) and another American Deontay Wilder (WBC).
Yet could Joshua be the division’s poster boy who, as in all the best boxing Cinderella stories, unifies the division, having overcome a rocky road to get the chance as Tyson did in the 80s?
The son of Nigerian parents from Watford, a commuter town north of London, Joshua, drawn to the streets, nearly squandered his Olympic dream when in 2011 he pleaded guilty to a cannabis possession charge.
He was suspended from the sport until British boxing offered him a second chance to knuckle down. “I just think to myself now I’ve got to make the most of this opportunity because things could have been a lot different,” he said wistfully.
“It’s a long road we are about to go down. We’re only at the beginning. I’ve got to keep that laid-back attitude because until I’ve unified the title I’ll never go down as one of the greats. To become a legend, you have to be elite, you have to be one in a million.”
Is he that one in a million? Joshua just laughs. “I’ll tell you in five years!”
Editing by Ken Ferris