THEY have been on a collision course for five years now.
And if Anthony Joshua had met Tyson Fury sooner, then 99 per cent of the crowd would have been urging on AJ.
Joshua was the undisputed people’s champion. Fury the big bad-mouthing wolf.
We would all have expected Joshua to attack and for Fury to dance as well.
But now, with the two British world heavyweight champions expected to announce a two-fight deal in 2021, all bets are off.
Gypsy King Fury has become a folk hero — fighting back from drug problems and depression to obliterate Deontay Wilder and win the WBC crown in their second epic meeting in Las Vegas in February.
Yet Joshua, who won back his WBA, IBF and WBO belts with a professional, but cautious, display against Andy Ruiz Jr last year, is adamant he is still the biggest draw in boxing.
Joshua has been reluctant to talk about Fury in the past but — in this, his only exclusive newspaper interview before he defends his titles against Kubrat Pulev at Wembley Arena on Saturday week — he claims the Mancunian cannot rival him in a popularity contest.
AJ said: “Tyson Fury is a talented, talented guy and he deserves all the praise he is getting right now but it is interesting when you talk about his popularity.
“Because if Fury could have sold out 90,000-capacity stadiums, then he would have done. But he never has had the ability to attract those large numbers, not until he fights me. I have had those sorts of crowds against Wladimir Klitschko and Alexander Povetkin at Wembley.
“I will fight Fury because in 50 years time, people will remember your character and I always want to be remembered as a risk-taker.
“I fought for the world title in my 16th pro fight and even though people will say Charles Martin wasn’t a great champion — and he wasn’t — that win put me in the company of great fighters.
“Then I beat Klitschko, a great champion, still early in my career.”
After almost nine months without live audiences at major events, we can still recall Joshua as the Pied Piper of British sport.
He sold out Wembley and Cardiff’s Principality Stadiums four times in 2017 and 2018 — unprecedented pulling power for a British fighter.
And tickets for a Joshua-Fury showdown will be gold-dust. So what sort of fight can we expect when the two Brits finally get it on?
Might Fury, 32, — for so long renowned as a defensive master craftsman — attack Joshua, as he so successfully attacked Wilder in a comprehensive seven-round demolition?
Joshua said: “No I don’t believe he will. Fury is intelligent and what you saw against Wilder was a gameplan for a specific fight being executed very well.
“He had identified Wilder’s weakness, that he cannot fight on the back foot, and he exploited that.
“Fury knows I can fight on the back foot or front foot.
“He knows if he tries to take it to me the same way, then he will suffer because I can counter that with my jab, with right hands from distance.
“But, yes, people want this fight even more now they have seen we can both fight in very different styles.”
Joshua, 31, avenged his shock defeat by unfancied Ruiz by out-boxing the Mexican-American in Saudi Arabia last time out.
He added: “Fury surprised some people with the way he attacked Wilder — and I think I surprised some people by beating Ruiz in the boxing connoisseur’s style.
“I was under a lot of pressure going into that fight. I was coming off a loss. So I stuck to a gameplan.
“I wasn’t going to give anyone the chance to write me off — because they would have done if I’d lost again.”
While there is plenty of social media trash-talking from Fury, Joshua claims it was very different when the pair had a rare meeting while on holiday in Marbella this summer.
Joshua said: “I was taking a stroll in Marbella and Fury was driving along when he saw this big black guy and realised it was me, so he pulled over!
“He wished me luck against Pulev and I wished him luck against Wilder (when a third Fury-Wilder fight was on the cards).
“I said hello to Fury’s wife and it was all very respectful — nothing like it is on social media.”
Despite all the talk of Fury, Joshua is not complacent about the threat posed by 39-year-old Bulgarian Pulev — who pulled out of a fight with AJ through injury in 2017.
Joshua said: “Pulev is named after a great Bulgarian warrior and he has that warrior spirit, he carries the hopes of his nation.
“He is tough, he has a great jab and he will dig deep. He has found a way to beat every opponent, except Klitschko, but I know I have prepared well and I should be victorious.
“I know lockdown has been tough but for me it has been a blessing.
“I have concentrated on training, on improving my boxing, all year. I haven’t had to do much commercial or promotional stuff, I have had more time with my family and more time to train seriously. And the longer I wait for Fury, the better prepared I’ll be.”
Joshua is hoping a select crowd of 1,000 will be allowed into Wembley Arena for the Pulev fight.
With London in Tier 2, promoter Eddie Hearn is waiting to hear whether the venue will be granted a safety certificate for spectators.
Hearn is worried that Joshua may suffer without his usual huge crowd and pre-fight fireworks.
But Joshua, the 2012 Olympic gold medallist, said: “I had a long and successful amateur career and I was used to fighting in small halls — I’ll draw on that experience.
“I don’t know yet whether it’s safe to have fans inside but they would be lucky people to witness a world heavyweight title fight in such an intimate space.”
When Joshua finally meets Fury, the tickets will be more precious still.