After all that has happened to his country this year, Ukrainian Oleksandr Usyk is less concerned about the threat from Anthony Joshua in August, writes Declan Taylor.
OLEKSANDR USYK sits in a plastic chair under a gold chandelier in a side room on the first floor of the Four Seasons Hotel in Park Lane, London.
Dressed in Ukraine’s blue and yellow uniform, with “the colors of freedom” emblazoned across his chest, the 35-year-old only occasionally caught his eye during an interview that lasted more 30 minutes.
After 19 pro competitions that marked him as the No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter on the planet, Usik now knows how to sell the fight. He is in London as he will face Anthony Joshua in the rematch in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on August 20.
But this press conference is completely different from the others. A crowd gathered at the entrance long before any of the fighters reached the hotel; equal to the cycle when Joshua was worthy. One of the barbells now led by the Londoner, Derek Chisora, hangs out in the hallway.
Climbing the stairs, the press conference room was already in shock. More chandeliers and belts from WBA, WBO, IBF and IBO hang out in the small pine paneled room. About fifty cameras line up at the back and on the sides of the room to capture the press conference, during which only the promoter Eddie Hearn will ask questions. In what may be boxing first, start on time.
Everyone at the top table says their words. Aegis Klimas and Alex Krasiok on one side and Joshua’s new coach Robert Garcia on the other. Both boxers also respond to softball about the importance of winning. In truth, the essential part of any press conference like this is pretty much a normal part. It’s mostly a visual exercise, especially as the two boxers face off when finished. As the duo finally take their eyes off each other and face the crowd, Usik raises his fist in defiance. For him, this fight is just exercise.
It has now been four months since Russia launched its attack on Ukraine. Usyk, the world’s No. 2 heavyweight, has been part of the war effort in Kyiv for much of that. It seemed like that rematch in his August 2021 fight with Joshua just couldn’t have happened as that horrific fight raged on as it had since February.
But with the approval of the country’s sports minister, Usek traveled 300 miles west to cross the Polish border and begin his training camp. After the fight was officially announced last month, he then traveled to Saudi Arabia and is now in London. But there’s only one place he really wants it.
“I didn’t really want to leave my country or my city,” says Usik. As soon as this fight is over, I will return to Ukraine.
Although quotes from the major press conference don’t make headlines, when Usek speaks from his plastic chair away from the cameras, it feels like a moment in time. One of the best fighters on the planet left an active war zone to defend his three heavyweight belts against one of the sport’s biggest stars before picking up the gun again, win or lose. There are the Hollywood stories and then there is the OSIC.
To reinforce the sheer madness of the situation, the London 2012 Olympic champion explains how since leaving his home in the Forzl district of Kyiv, he has been cared for by Russian soldiers. “It’s true that they entered the house, broke the fence and all kinds of different things,” he says. “They made living quarters and stayed there for a while.”
Prior to his departure, Usyk was part of a regional defense battalion. He prayed every day that he wouldn’t have to use the gun he had.
“Every day I was there I prayed to the Lord, please don’t let anyone try to kill me,” he said, “Don’t let anyone shoot me, and please, don’t force me to shoot someone else, but if I feel danger, or if my family or my family’s life is in danger, I will have to.
What’s clear almost immediately is that this is a guy who has far more important things to worry about than a boxing match. When the conversation turns to Joshua, there is an obvious contradiction. So why did he choose boxing in the first place?
He says, “I went to a hospital where soldiers were injured and were preparing for war and they were telling me and asking me to go and fight for my country and my pride.
“They told me that if I went to fight there, I would help our country more than if I stayed and went to war. I know a lot of my best friends are on the frontlines and standing up and fighting, so all I’m doing right now is supporting them. With this fight, I want to bring them some joy between what they do.
Sometimes I force myself to smile, or I force myself to sing or dance. But I don’t even know how to explain all this. My children ask: Dad, why do they want to kill us? I don’t know how to answer that.
“It only took me one day of war to fully understand that everything I have, everything I’ve achieved, all my belts, all my titles, I can lose them all in a single second. “
How can you fight a man with that mentality? An Englishman wearing a pair of boxing gloves suddenly feels insignificant to Usik’s life.
“You have to ask him,” Joshua says. “I can’t answer that. If it was me it would definitely have an effect and I don’t know if it would be positive or negative.
What is pretty clear is that this is a different Usyk to the one who arrived in London last August. He’s serious now, almost somber, but that doesn’t mean he’s not serious. As Usyk speaks, a backstage camera from Matchroom’s in-house production team enters the room and begins filming. Klimas, who is seated to the right of Usyk, immediately interrupts the interview and asks him to leave. They have a nation that expects to leave nothing to chance.
No one wants Joshua. In fact, he’s been so desperate to right his wrongs since Augustus that he fired the man who had been in his corner for over a decade, Rob McCracken. Under the same luster as Usyk about an hour ago, Joshua explained the decision with an honesty that’s hard to believe.
He felt there was a disconnect in the corner at Tottenham Hotspur that night, contributing to their unanimous decision defeat. “I swear I thought I was winning,” Joshua said. “I thought I looked like Muhammad Ali there.
“Throughout the fight I thought I was winning but on the 12th I knew it was close. I thought at that point I was really good at the fight because it didn’t seem no real connection to where I was. Like, “You lose this fight…You lose in two rounds.” I didn’t get that.
It’s more like ‘double jab, right, left hook’, it wasn’t like ‘take the fight to that motherfucker, you hear lose the fight’, no. The coach has to tap into that psychological aspect now, because if you can beat your wits, you can give more.
“Not always but in times like this, yeah, ‘we’re losing the battle for the world championship’ and sometimes you have to tell your fighter that.”
Joshua was comforted by the fact that when they faced each other he could see the angled scar on Usyek’s right eye which he had at Spurs.
“She got a chip in her eye from me,” AJ says. “Actually, I was thinking back, I cut some people’s faces in my day; Paul Putlin, Usic, broke up [Kubrat] Flanged bolve.
“I was just honored [Andy] Ruiz- That doesn’t count because I mean crushing faces properly. I love this stuff, I never had a style, I just adapted. One of my strengths has been my strength, but I’ve always wanted to go this route of being clean, “hit and unhit”, especially if I want to have a long and successful career.
“You need good defense but I stayed away from the hard side of boxing because I knew I could punch and stun people. And I definitely miss the days of cutting people’s faces and hurting them. So I can’t wait to come back. »
Later, it was reported to Usik that Joshua noticed his scar. Almost instinctively, he raises his eyebrows and puts on one of the few smiles of the day.
“Really, I don’t care about Joshua,” he says. “I don’t care how he trains or what he does, I just worry about my training camp, what I eat, my job, my family and my country. I don’t think to Anthony.
“I will keep track of what is happening at home every day. I don’t want to be separated from that, I want to hear every day what is happening in my country.
Now the commotion outside the room has died down as the latest interviews wrapped up in time for the next news cycle. The war in Ukraine will continue as Joshua and Usyk close in the final stages of their training camps.
This unique heavyweight competition in our time is in seven weeks.