Oleksandr Usyk’s boxing skills and his fight IQ led him to a surprisingly easy victory over Anthony Joshua on Sept. 27 and made him the unified heavyweight champion.
But he’ll have a lot more going for him when he defends the IBF-WBA-WBO titles in an Aug. 20 rematch in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, than just his ability to box.
His country, Ukraine, is at war with Russia and defending itself against an invasion. Millions of Ukrainians have been displaced and thousands have died. Usyk was in England when the war began, and hopped on the first flight home to join the national defense.
It’s been a horrible time for Ukrainians, as Russian soldiers and military leaders have been accused of a series of war crimes and have attacked civilian, as well as military, locations.
Usyk will return to the ring and not only have the confidence that he’s beaten Joshua once, but also buoyed by the resiliency of his countrymen and the desire to deliver a positive message to a war-weary nation.
“As we all know, we’re not in the best conditions at the moment back home,” Usyk said Tuesday at a news conference in Saudi Arabia to formally announce the fight.
He’ll face a rejuvenated Joshua, who has lost the belt before only to reclaim it in, of all places, Saudi Arabia. Twice in his last four fights, Joshua has been beaten and lost his titles. On June 1, 2019, Joshua was knocked out in the seventh round by Andy Ruiz Jr.
And on Sept. 27, 2021, he was given a boxing lesson by Usyk.
He avenged the Ruiz loss on Dec. 7, 2019, though Ruiz made it easy for him. Ruiz basically partied his way out of the title, coming in at a way-too-big 283 pounds and in no condition to fight at the highest level. Joshua was robotic and stiff, but he boxed enough to beat a highly diminished Ruiz.
At the news conference Tuesday, Joshua referred to the losses to Ruiz and Usyk as “blips.” His new trainer, Robert Garcia, heaped praise on him and predicted victory.
Joshua showed plenty of confidence, but it’s important to note that he’s never publicly shown self-doubt before any fight, even the two that he lost.
“Definitely the hunger is still there,” Joshua said. “I’ve always said from the get-go, stay hungry [and] keep the motivation high. Blips happen. Things happen, but resilience, mental toughness and consistency will always prevail. So we’re still on the road, for sure. It was just a little blip in the road, but I’m focused on the target, which is sitting over there. I’m focused on the goal and God willing, I’ll perform and become three-time heavyweight champion of the world.
“With Andy Ruiz, I think a lot of people could see things weren’t right, weren’t 100 percent, before the fight. But you’ve got to be strong, thick-skinned and take our losses like a man.”
The two losses he suffered were on opposite ends of the spectrum. He had a bad camp before the Ruiz fight and was sloppy in the match. Ruiz has fast hands and can punch and he landed a perfect shot that hurt Joshua and he never recovered until it was too late.
Against Usyk, though, he fought a boxer who was far superior, both in skills and in Ring IQ. He was outclassed in that fight by a vast margin. Getting that one back is not going to be as easy as it was in the rematch with Ruiz.
Usyk is a vastly underrated fighter for some reason. He won a heavyweight gold medal at the same 2012 Olympic Games that Joshua won a super heavyweight gold. Usyk beat now-unified light heavyweight champion Artur Beterbiev, as well as heavyweight Michael Hunter, along the way.
He won the undisputed cruiserweight title, beating quality opponents Marco Huck, Mairis Breidis and Murat Gassiev, before he went to heavyweight. After defeating Joshua, he owns three of the four major heavyweight belts and with WBC champion Tyson Fury insisting he’s retired, he’s clearly the man in the sport’s most popular division.
Garcia knows what Joshua is up against.
“Usyk is a great fighter,” Garcia said. “He’s got skills. He’s got reflexes. He’s got accuracy. He’s got everything, but I think Anthony’s got all the tools to beat him.”
Joshua is, in many ways, the prototype heavyweight. He’s massive, but retains his quickness and agility despite his muscular 6-foot-6, 245-pound frame. He can punch with the best of them and box when it’s called upon.
But in Usyk, he’s facing what may well turn out to be a generational fighter, but one who has oodles of motivation. Proving his first win isn’t a fluke, as many have speculated, is the least among them.
This is a guy who was willing to sacrifice everything for his country, who flew to the battle and not away from it.
A win by a countryman in a sporting event isn’t going to materially change the lives of Ukrainians, but it will give them a moment of brightness and national pride at the most important time.
Joshua is talented enough to win the fight, but he’ll have to beat an opponent who may never have been more inspired to win than he is now with his country desperately fighting to save its freedom.
That’s a pretty tough guy to beat.