Before Oleksandr Usyk of Ukraine outclassed Anthony Joshua to win their heavyweight championship rematch, Usyk’s manager, Egis Klimas, boasted about credulity-stretching feats of physical output he had seen the Ukrainian boxer perform in training.
He mentioned a six-hour bike ride in the 110-degree heat in Saudi Arabia, where Saturday night’s bout took place. And there was a six-mile swim. Another day, Klimas said, Usyk held his breath under water for five full minutes.
Klimas clearly wanted to impress reporters with Usyk’s prowess and warn everyone present — Joshua included — that the 35-year-old Usyk, previously a world champion at cruiserweight, possessed deep physical and mental reserves.
So after Joshua dominated a tired-looking Usyk in the ninth round on Saturday, maybe he should not have been surprised when the older, smaller boxer greeted him in the 10th round with a volley of punches before outpacing him in the fight’s final stages.
With the split-decision victory, Usyk has retained heavyweight titles from three major sanctioning bodies and proved that his win over Joshua last September was not a fluke, even if it was an upset.
Usyk, who entered the ring wearing a T-shirt in the colors of the Ukrainian flag bearing the words “Colors of Freedom,” also hoped his win would raise spirits in his home country, six months into its war with Russia. He dedicated the win to Ukraine, then placed his victory in a broader context.
“This is already history,” said Usyk, who is now 20-0 with 13 knockouts. “Many generations are going to watch this fight.”
The dramatic bout on Saturday unfolded against several beyond-the-ring backdrops.
The fight was originally slated for early spring in Kyiv, Ukraine, but was delayed after Russia invaded the country. Usyk abandoned training to join a Ukrainian army battalion, and told reporters this week that his fellow soldiers still called to update him from the front lines.
The bout landed in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, when the country put up a purse of roughly $77 million for the fighters to split through its sovereign wealth fund, which has also been used to poach top professional men’s golfers for the LIV Golf series, a direct challenge to the PGA Tour.
A prefight sizzle reel that played inside the arena promoted Saudi Arabia as much as it did the fighters. And a separate video, played just before Usyk’s ring entrance, positioned everyone present as allies in the fight against Russia.
“U is for Usyk,” the video’s narrator said. “You are for Ukraine.”
Major sporting events are a crucial part of Saudi Arabia’s continuing campaign to promote its public image for people living in Western countries, and to shift attention away from criticisms of its record on human rights. Organizers trumpeted the undercard’s inclusion of the first women’s professional bout in Saudi Arabia, in which the Somali fighter Ramla Ali knocked out Crystal Garcia Nova of the Dominican Republic. The promotion for that came amid sharp criticism over the 34-year prison sentence this month for a Saudi woman who used Twitter to support dissidents.
In spring 2021, Saudi promoters offered $150 million for a megafight between Joshua, who held three heavyweight titles, and Tyson Fury, the undefeated World Boxing Council champion. That bout did not materialize last year, but a Fury bout would have been a natural next step for Joshua had he defeated Usyk on Saturday.
After nine rounds, Joshua, now 24-3 with 22 knockouts, appeared set to succeed.
Joshua, who stands at 6-foot-6 and weighed 244½ chiseled pounds on Friday, patiently employed the game plan laid out by his new trainer, Robert Garcia. Joshua used upper body movement to disrupt Usyk’s timing, as well as heavy body shots to slow the smaller fighter down.
By Round 9, Joshua had the close-quarters rumble he wanted, tagging Usyk with a roundhouse right and a left hook, moving forward as Usyk retreated.
“In the ninth round, I ran over,” said Eddie Hearn, Joshua’s promoter. “I thought we had it.”
But then Usyk opened Round 10 advancing behind a snappy right jab. A salvo of punches froze Joshua momentarily. Later, a left uppercut and right hook drove Joshua to the ropes.
Usyk’s resurgence lasted the final three rounds. He looked rejuvenated after that tenuous ninth round. Joshua looked spent and confused.
The statistics reveal Joshua’s tactical shift. In their first bout, Joshua landed 15 body punches. In the rematch on Saturday, he landed 37. But Usyk outperformed him overall, landing 170 of 712 punches, compared with 124 of 492 for Joshua.
After the bout, Joshua snatched a microphone and interrupted the normal pageantry for the winner with an unusual speech in which he rationalized his performance, praised Usyk and made vague references to the “not nice” situation in Ukraine.
Now, Usyk and Fury could bring clarity — and a long-awaited, undisputed championship — to the heavyweight division. Fury tweeted a video of his reaction to the bout in which he profanely told promoters to get their checkbooks and dismissed the fight, as well as both fighters, as boring.
“I would annihilate both of them on the same night,” Fury said.
But Fury has also claimed that he is retired from boxing, a position he has gone back and forth on several times since his trouncing of Dillian Whyte in April.
Less than two weeks before that bout, the U.S. Treasury Department announced a crackdown against Daniel Kinahan, the reputed head of an Irish drug cartel and a boxing power broker who has advised Fury. Since then, Fury has been denied entry into the United States, according to The Sunday World, an Irish newspaper. (Fury’s younger half brother, Tommy Fury, lost a fight with Jake Paul because he was stopped in London from boarding a flight to the United States.)
Despite a level of uncertainty that seemingly goes beyond normal posturing for combat sports, Usyk maintains that Fury is the only boxer he wants to face.
“If I’m not fighting Tyson Fury, I’m not fighting at all,” Usyk said.
If Fury stays retired, his title will become vacant. And if Usyk refuses to take on other challengers, the same can happen with his three belts. Instead of one heavyweight champion, there might be several, with no clear path back to a unified title.
Potential chaos, for sure.
But it is also boxing as usual.