ANTHONY JOSHUA has been letting sparring partners pound him in preparation for his long-awaited ring return.
A year ago yesterday, the British heavyweight star jabbed and moved his way to a rematch win over Andy Ruiz Jr.
It came six months after he was dropped four times and stopped in a firefight with the flabby stand-in.
That painful first defeat — and the doubts over his chin and durability — were not quashed by a revenge mission on points.
So a return to his lethal best is desperately needed when he faces wily Kubrat Pulev at Wembley Arena on Saturday.
Joshua, 31, admits he has given heavy-handed David Adeleye, Fabio Wardley and Hosea Stewart free rein to attack him at his Sheffield training base.
AJ even set aside rounds to let them pound away, reinforcing his armour ahead of his clash with the 39-year-old Bulgarian.
Joshua said: “I haven’t boxed in such a long time but that’s why in lockdown I’ve done a lot of mental training.
“Also a lot of sparring, getting my body tough again — just getting punched up.
“Sometimes in sparring in my head I will say ‘I’m going to take this round off and let this boy punch me up because I need to get tough’.
“I need to get that thick skin again. That’s the closest way I can prepare — and I hope it now comes to fruition on Saturday.”
Ruiz was a last-minute sub when he rattled AJ’s skull with a left hook in round three of that New York nightmare.
Pulev is a very different story, a decorated amateur with just one defeat against a prime Wladimir Klitschko on his 28-1 record.
But the odds remain stacked hugely in Joshua’s favour, so he pulled no punches when asked if the crafty veteran is another potential banana skin.
He added: “Oh definitely. That’s what makes this so interesting.
“This year has been throwing every obstacle at us all.
“I could tell you I feel a million dollars, that I have been knocking everyone out in sparring, that I’m the one coming up now — and I’m going to be the undisputed champion.
“But I could still go in there and get my head punched in because I’ve got ring rust.
“So, who knows? But I feel good and I’m looking forward to it.”
Joshua was ready to fight Pulev back in 2017, only for a shoulder injury to sideline the IBF mandatory challenger.
It left Carlos Takam to step in and be stopped in Cardiff.
Watford’s AJ now admits he was only winging it for some of his most iconic fights.
But he reckons the last few years have given him the pedigree to be the biggest dog in boxing’s biggest division.
The WBA, WBO and IBF world champion said: “I went through a lot of my career not even knowing what I was doing.
“I watched the Eric Molina fight the other day, I watched a bit of the Takam fight, I watched the Klitschko fight and I was like ‘Wow, how was I in these types of bouts with the little bit of experience that I had?’.
“Looking at who I am today, I like to reflect a lot and think ‘I was just a pup, a little puppy’.”
If Joshua passes his latest test he will instantly be quizzed on the date of his undisputed decider with WBC champion Tyson Fury.
And, without mentioning the Gypsy King’s name, he warned the 32-year-old that every day he delays the fight frees him up for another day of schooling.
He said: “The longer they leave it, the tougher it is going to be for them.
“Experience is the best teacher — and I’m gaining so much experience every day I step in the gym.”
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