BOXING is the most basic of all sports. Two men engage in a fistfight. But the August 20 fistfight between Oleksandr Usyk and Anthony Joshua came with a lot of baggage attached.
The bout was contested at the King Abdullah Sports City Arena in Saudi Arabia under the patronage of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman whose authoritarian government has a dismal record on human rights and was complicit in the murder of [i]Washington Post[i] journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Usyk was a standard-bearer for the Ukrainian people, who are struggling to survive Vladimir Putin’s brutal aggression. And as the winner of the fight, Oleksandr is now in position to claim a mind-boggling payday for fighting Tyson Fury should The Gypsy King fight again.
There was a time when it seemed as though Anthony Joshua would be the face and future of boxing. After winning a gold medal in the super-heavyweight division at the 2012 Olympics, he turned pro and annexed the WBA, IBF, and WBO belts. His career peaked in 2017 with a thrilling 11th-round conquest of Wladimir Klitschko before 90,000 frenzied fans at Wembley Stadium in London. He was charismatic, gracious, and likable; a superstar ascendant.
But the Klitschko fight took something out of Joshua. Lacklustre victories over Carlos Takam, Joseph Parker, and Alexander Povetkin followed. Then promoter Eddie Hearn brought him to America to enhance his global appeal and matched him against 20/1 underdog Andy Ruiz. Ruiz knocked Joshua out in the seventh round. That was the extent of the effort to market AJ in America.
Six months later, Joshua decisioned a grossly out-of-shape Ruiz in a rematch. That was followed by a victory over Kubrat Pulev. But AJ looked like a belt-holder in those fights, not a champion. Then, in September 2021, he fought Usyk for the first time.
Usyk had enjoyed an impressive run in unifying the four major cruiserweight belts before moving up to heavyweight where the big money lies. The transition did not start well for him. In his first two fights at heavyweight, Usyk looked ordinary against a shopworn Chazz Witherspoon and struggled en route to a 117-112, 115-113, 115-113 decision over Derek Chisora.
But when Joshua-Usyk I came, Usyk outboxed the bigger, stronger, harder-punching man by a 117-112, 116-112, 115-113 margin and had AJ in trouble at the final bell. Joshua didn’t complain about the judges’ decision. He didn’t blame his corner, the referee, or some form of skullduggery. He was the epitome of class.
“It was a tough fight,” AJ said. “It wasn’t my night. Well done to my opponent. I’m not a sulker. I’m not going to go home tonight and be crying about it because this is a long process. This is not like one fight and I’m done. When I was walking back through the tunnel after the fight, I just said to myself, ‘I’m ready to get back to the gym. I’m ready to put that work in. I’ve got to take it as a great lesson and build on that situation. I’ll get back to the drawing board and get it right the next time when we go again.”
The threshhold issue with regard to Usyk-Joshua II was whether the fight would happen at all.
Usyk is a Ukrainian citizen. Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February of this year, he joined his country’s territorial defence force.
Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko were elite heavyweights during their boxing days. Vitali held the WBC heavyweight title and is now mayor of Kyiv. He’s one of the two most recognisable figures in rallying the forces of resistance in his homeland against Vladimir Putin’s brutal war. Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky is the other.
Wladimir, who once held the WBA, IBF and WBO belts, returned to Kyiv from the United States to stand as a symbol with his brother.
After weighing the issue, the Klitschkos decided it was in the best interests of the Ukrainian people for Usyk to fight the rematch against Joshua.
“A very important message could be carried through an event like this,” Vitali said of the fight. “We do not know if in three months we will exist. I have plans to speak to Oleksandr Usyk to give him advice, to have some special messages that he can put out there.”
“There are pros and cons, and it’s a hard decision to make for Oleksandr Usyk,” Wladimir added. “But to have the Ukrainian flag raised and our anthem played and one of our ambassadors of our country out there in the world with the right mindset could be more positive than negative.”
In late-March, Usyk left Ukraine to train in Poland.
“It was a very difficult decision, extremely difficult,” Alexander Krassyuk (Usyk’s Ukrainian promoter) said. “But the announcements he can make to the public through what he does is just extraordinary. You can’t lose that chance. The whole world is going to be sitting and watching this fight. He is not fighting for himself. He’s not just fighting for his personal legacy. He’s fighting for the whole country. He’s fighting for the whole democratic world.”
“I really didn’t want to leave our country,” Usyk acknowledged. “I didn’t want to leave our city. But at one point, I went to the hospital where soldiers were wounded and getting rehabilitation from the war. And they were telling me to fight for the country inside the ring and you’re even going to help more for our country instead of being here fighting in Ukraine. A lot of my close friends are still in the country. I’m in touch with them every day. I ask them how are they feeling? Are they in a safe place? I want to live there and, right after the fight, I’m going back to Ukraine.”
“The world’s wrongs,” Jimmy Tobin once wrote, “are not righted because one fighter bludgeons another.” Still, it was clear that the outcome of Usyk-Joshua II would resonate with the Ukrainian people. Usyk stipulated that the bout be televised free of charge on Ukrainian state TV.
Meanwhile, a site had to be chosen.
Joshua-Usyk I had been contested at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in London. The 65,000-seat venue sold out within 24 hours of tickets going on sale. But the economics of boxing have changed in recent years. Sold-out soccer stadiums and Las Vegas casinos are at a disadvantage when competing against Middle Eastern oil money.
On June 19, it was announced that Usyk-Joshua II would be contested in Saudi Arabia on August 20. That was in line with efforts by the Saudi government to enhance its image through “sportswashing.”
Writing about the negative response to Phil Mickelson and other pro golfers participating in the Saudi-sponsored LIV Golf International Series, Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist Paul Krugman addressed the claim that the golfers were being victimised by a “media/cancel culture.” In so doing, Krugman declared, “If getting paid big bucks to provide favourable P.R. to a regime that deals with critical journalists by killing them and dismembering them with a bone saw doesn’t merit cancellation, what does? The rise of cancel culture seems much less important and ominous than the rise of sellout culture. More and more people at the top of our social hierarchy appear willing to do anything for anyone as long as the money is good enough.”
It’s easy to tell someone else not to make as much money as they can. In this instance, Saudi interests paid a reported $77 million for all rights to the fight. That said; fighting in Saudi Arabia was hardly in line with Usyk’s “pro-democracy” message. Particularly in light of the fact that, on March 19, 2022, the Saudi government announced that it had executed 81 people that day for what the Saudi Ministry of Interior said were “heinous crimes.”
Joshua’s 2019 rematch against Andy Ruiz had also taken place in Saudi Arabia. Asked about the issue of sportswashing at the June 21, 2022, kick-off press conference in Jeddah for Usyk-Joshua II, AJ responded, “I don’t know what that is. I’m here to win the heavyweight champion of the world. I like Saudi. I think Saudi’s good. I’m having a good time here. I’m treated really well. All that allegation stuff, for me, I’m not caught up in any of that stuff. I’m here to have a good time, mix with the local people, bring entertainment to Saudi.”
Eddie Hearn (Joshua’s promoter and the architect of Usyk-Joshua II) voiced a similar view, telling the assembled media, “It feels fantastic to be back. We’re delighted to bring what is the biggest fight in the heavyweight division, one of the biggest fights in world boxing, to the Kingdom. We’ve heard a lot about the growth of boxing here in Saudi Arabia, something that is very important to us as fans of the sport. It’s amazing to bring huge high-profile fights to The Kingdom.”
The fight was billed as “Rage on the Red Sea.” The promotion kept talking about the bout being for THE heavyweight championship of the world. But, for many, Tyson Fury wears the crown. Usyk-Joshua II was for some belts.
There was only modest buzz for the event in the United Kingdom in the weeks leading up the event and less in the United States. Having sold virtually all rights to Usyk-Joshua II to Saudi interests, Matchroom (Hearn’s promotional company) had limited incentive to spend its own money on promotion.
On July 7, it was announced that Sky Sports had purchased rights to broadcast the bout in the United Kingdom and that the fight would be available on a pay-per-view basis on Sky Sports Box Office. This was an embarrassment for DAZN which, on June 13, 2022, had announced a “landmark deal” pursuant to which Joshua would become a “global brand ambassador, special advisor to, and shareholder in, DAZN Group” and that his “future fights” (no number or time frame was announced) would be streamed on DAZN platforms throughout the world. It wasn’t until six days before the bout that a plan to stream Usyk-Joshua II on DAZN in countries other than the United Kingdon, Ireland, Ukraine, and MENA (a group of countries in the Middle East and North Africa) was finalised.
It was not unreasonable to think that the memory of Jamal Khashoggi had an chilling effect on coverage of the event by on-site journalists.
In early-March, Joshua had announced that he was replacing Robert McCracken as his head trainer with former assistant trainer Angel Fernandez. Then, on May 30, the public was told that Robert Garcia would serve as AJ’s lead trainer for the fight.
Age wasn’t expected to be a factor. Usyk is 35; Joshua is 32.
Joshua had been a 5/2 betting favorite in their first encounter. Usyk was a 2/1 favorite the second time around.
A lot of people had thought it would be a mistake for Joshua to take an immediate rematch against Andy Ruiz. But AJ did, and it was the right decision. The difference here was that the loss to Ruiz was widely regarded as a fluke. A change in strategy coupled with Ruiz coming in grossly out-of-shape tilted the playing field for the rematch in AJ’s favour.
But Usyk’s victory over Joshua hadn’t been a fluke. And unlike Ruiz, Usyk was expected to be in good shape for the rematch. If AJ were to win, a new fight plan was in order. He’d tried to outbox Usyk in their first encounter. To win the rematch, he’d have to be more daring, not more cautious. He’d have to rely on his own superior strength, size and power.
Joshua acknowledged as much, saying:
* “The fight with Usyk, in my mind, was going for twelve rounds. That was my game plan because I thought I could compete with him as a boxer. That’s how he became champion. So the goal now is to go back to basics and go for the knockout.”
* “One of my strengths is my power. But I always wanted to go down that path of being a clean boxer, hit and not get hit. You need to have good defense. But I moved away from the ferocious side of boxing where I knew I could hit and stun people. I am looking forward to getting back to that.”
* “I know I can be better than that night. It’s easier to say than it is to do. But within my heart and soul, my brain and body, I truly feel I’ve got a lot more to give. I’m angry at myself and the only way I can be in a better place is to get myself right by going out there and performing.”
* “Styles make fights, and [in Joshua-Usyk I] I adopted the wrong style. That’s not to say I’ll go out there and swing like a madman. But I have to go out there and hurt the guy and take his soul to the point where he wants to give up. That’s all I have in my mind at the minute – that one track and to stay on course and take this guy to places he doesn’t want to go.”
But the case for an Usyk victory was equally compelling.
“I have never made any loud or bright speeches,” Oleksandr told the media. “To become world champion, all I did was work hard in my training camp and gym. That’s what I am going to do until the day of the fight. I don’t think about him or what he is going to do, whether he has a new tactic or a new trainer. I really don’t care. I am just thinking about myself. We learned about each other in the first fight. We have had enough time to study each other. The last bout will be continued, round 13, round 14, round 15, however long the fight will last. I know that he will be different this time. But so will I.”
Tickets for the event went on sale on July 20 and were priced from 20,000 Saudi Riyal ($5,400) down to 375 Saudi Riyal ($101).
The opening bout on the telecast matched Ramla Ali (born in Somalia but now living in England) against a pathetically overmatched Crystal Garcia Nova in the first professional fight ever between women in the Saudi Kingdom. Earlier in the week, Ali had hosted a women’s boxing clinic and praised Saudi Arabia as a “very progressive” country.
That earned a rejoinder from Felix Jakens (head of Priority Campaigns and Individuals at Risk for Amnesty International UK) who declared, “The reality for women in Saudi Arabia is that they face serious discrimination in marriage, divorce, inheritance and child custody. In recent years, Saudi women who have been brave enough to call for reforms in the country have been jailed, tortured and completely silenced. There’s nothing even faintly progressive about Saudi Arabia’s human rights record. This fight is yet more sportswashing as Saudi Arabia tries once again to distract from its appalling human rights record.”
Garcia had a “what am I doing here” look on her face during the fighter introductions and was stopped less than a minute into the first round.
“I got to be honest,” DAZN expert commentator Chris Algieri said after the stoppage. “That was pretty embarrassing.”
Usyk-Joshua II began as a cautiously-fought, tactical encounter. Joshua (who enjoyed a 244-to-221-pound weight advantage) started out as the more aggressive fighter. But Usyk is a well-schooled southpaw and hard to hit. There was tension because of the stakes involved. But for the first eight rounds, there wasn’t much action. Joshua was boxing well, and his size plus the spectre of his power kept Oleksandr from getting untracked. Had the fight been in Las Vegas, there would have been boos.
But those boos would have turned to cheers in the late rounds as the action increased and the drama built. Joshua had been putting body shots in the bank. And they took a toll.
In round nine, Joshua opened Usyk up by going to the body yet again and then scored repeatedly up top. It was a dominant round. Usyk was fading.
And then Usyk did what a great fighter does. He came out aggressively in round ten and turned the tide. It was a championship round in the truest sense.
CompuBox is in inexact metric. But here, the numbers told a tale. CompuBox credited Joshua with outlanding Usyk 28-to-9 in round nine (24-to-8 in power punches). In round 10, Usyk reversed those numbers (39-to-10 in punches landed with a 32-to-9 advantage in power punches).
Very often, the first thing a fighter loses isn’t his reflexes or legs. It’s the will to walk through fire to win. Ever since he walked through fire to beat Wladimir Klitschko, Joshua has appeared reluctant to do it again. Usyk summoned up what he needed to do to win. And Joshua couldn’t.
Both men were tired in rounds 11 and 12. And both men dug deep. Usyk dug deeper.
I thought that Usyk clearly won five rounds and Joshua four with three rounds up for grabs. The judges ruled in Usyk’s favor by a 116-112, 115-113, 113-115 margin.
After the fight, Joshua was on an emotional rollercoaster.
Infuriated by the decision, he took hold of the WBA and Ring Magazine belts, dumped them out of the ring, and confronted Usyk, demanding, “How did you beat me!” He then stormed angrily out of the ring, was persuaded to return, commandeered the microphone, and made a disjointed, rambling speech that included:
* “Usyk, one hell of a f**king fighter. Let’s give him a round of applause. That’s just emotion. If you knew my story, you would understand my passion. I ain’t no f**king amateur boxer from five years old that was an elite prospect from a youth. I was going to jail. I got bail and started training my ass off because, if I got sentenced, I wouldn’t be able to fight.”
* “The f**king passion we put into this shit, man. This guy, to beat me tonight, maybe I could have done better, but it shows the levels of hard work he must have put in. So please, give him a round of applause as our heavyweight champion of the world. Woo! Motherf**ker!”
* “I’m not a 12-round fighter. Look at me! I’m a new breed of heavyweight. All them heavyweights – Mike Tyson, Sonny Liston, Jack Dempsey. ‘Oh, you don’t throw combinations like Rocky Marciano.’ ‘Cause I ain’t fuckin’ fourteen stone; that’s why! I’m eighteen stone and I’m heavy! It’s hard work! This guy here is a phenomenal talent. We’re gonna cheer for him three times.”
That was followed by five (not three) “hip-hip hoorays,” after which Joshua started discussing Ukraine, concluding with, “I ain’t never been there. But at the same time, what’s happening there is – I don’t know what’s happening, but it’s not nice at the end of the day.”
Later, at the post-fight press conference, Joshua was a model of decorum. Asked about his earlier odd remarks, he explained “I was mad at myself. I said, ‘I got to get out of here [the ring] because I’m mad.’ When you’re angry, you might do stupid things. But then I realized, ‘Oh, shit; this is sport. Let me do the right thing, come back.’ And I just spoke from the heart. [Boxing] comes at a big cost. It will never break me but it takes real strength for it not to break you. And tonight, there’s a little crack in the armour because I took a loss. You saw me upset.”
Asked if he was proud of himself for the fight he’d put up against Usyk, AJ answered, “It’s really really hard for me to say I’m proud of myself. I’m upset, really deep down in my heart.”
Then he broke down in tears.
But no moment said as much about Joshua’s character as his response when asked, “Do you feel you earned respect back tonight?”
“From who. Who am I trying to earn respect from?”
“It’s not my business what they think of me,” Joshua responded. “Do you know what people should respect me for? When I meet them, greet them, shake hands. ‘Yes, please; no, thank you’. Don’t respect me because of the fights and the belts. That isn’t what makes a man or a woman. It’s your character and how you treat people. That’s how I want to earn respect.”
It’s incumbent, of course, to put all of this in perspective.
First, let’s not confuse Usyk with Sugar Ray Robinson. He has been the best cruiserweight of this era. But he struggled at heavyweight against Chazz Witherspoon and Dereck Chisora. And it’s hard to know how much of his success against Joshua is attributable to AJ’s shortcomings. Remember, Joshua has now lost three of five fights over the past 47 months.
In all likelihood, Tyson Fury will end his “now you see me, now you don’t” retirement posture and fight Usyk for all four major sanctioning body belts. That leads to a final thought.
Boxing has the worst infrastructure of any major sport. It’s an unwieldly mess with parts that are largely incompatible with one another. There are multiple “world champions” in most weight divisions – a practice that confuses fans and dilutes the meaning of the word “champion.” The business has an economic model that puts its showcase events behind a pay wall, creating a barrier between the sport and would-be fans.
Contrast boxing with the National Football League in the United States. The weekend of January 22-23, 2022, offered the most exciting two days of football in NFL history. The best were playing the best. All four divisional playoff contests (which were seen on free televsion) were decided by a score on the last play of the game. Icons like Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers were defeated. A new generation of stars asserted themselves. The last second heroics of Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen are now part of sports lore. And it culminated in the Los Angeles Rams beating the Cincinnati Bengals in the Super Bowl three weeks later.
Boxing hasn’t had a universally-recognised heavyweight champion since Lennox Lewis retired in 2004. Imagine if it took the National Football League two decades to organise a Super Bowl.
Thomas Hauser’s email address is [email protected] His next book – In the Inner Sanctum: Behind the Scenes at Big Fights – will be published this autumn by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism. In 2019, Hauser was selected for boxing’s highest honor – induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.