Anthony Joshua has never fought a challenger like Oleksandr Usyk. The unbeaten, unconventional Ukrainian matches slick footwork with a quirky sense of humor, and he is notoriously hard to hit.
In their title fight in London on Saturday, Usyk can become the first heavyweight champion from Ukraine since 2015, when Wladimir Klitschko lost on points to Tyson Fury.
“I haven’t really thought about that I’m an underdog or not. I’ve put my mind to the maximum, I’ve done thorough training, I’ve been through the camp,” Usyk says. “I’m just going to box — the thing I love doing. That’s it.”
An entertainer in and out of the ring, Usyk is a southpaw with tactical nous and boundless energy. Bigger opponents haven’t fazed him, and he’s been celebrating wins with a dance in the ring since amateur days.
Usyk shares a birthday with another heavyweight who could dance like a butterfly, Muhammad Ali, and won an Olympic gold medal in 2012 just like Joshua, but one weight class below. The Ukrainian turned pro a year later and tore through the cruiserweight division.
By 2018, he had unified the cruiserweight belts, just like Evander Holyfield did 30 years before, and had essentially run out of opponents. Moving up to heavyweight brought new challenges and a shot at more lucrative fights.
Questions remain about Usyk’s true potential at heavyweight. His only two heavyweight fights have been against fighters past their prime, Chazz Witherspoon and Derek Chisora. Usyk’s basic tactics remained effective — never stop moving, control the fight with the jab, and wear the opponent down.
Trigger reflexes and skilled footwork learned in the amateur ranks have allowed Usyk to dominate fights without knockouts, and to win judges’ decisions even in hostile territory. At cruiserweight, he outpointed a Polish world champion in Poland, a Latvian champion in Latvia, and a Russian champion in Moscow.
The last of those wins was especially notable, given that Usyk is from Crimea and chose to stay with Ukraine after Russia annexed the peninsula four years earlier. In 2015, Usyk told The Associated Press of the sadness of being separated from his young children while at his training camp in western Ukraine.
Usyk stayed out of politics and let his fighting do the talking when he beat Russian Murat Gassiev to unify the cruiserweight belts in 2018. “If you didn’t study at school, you can’t do anything at university,” he said, flagging up Gassiev’s lack of amateur pedigree. Usyk put on a clinic, dancing around the two-belt champion brawler for 12 rounds to win a unanimous decision and silence the Moscow crowd.
The key question for Usyk’s camp is whether he has the punching power to really threaten Joshua and join Holyfield and David Haye as ex-cruiserweight champs with heavyweight belts. Usyk is 18-0 with 13 knockouts, mostly against tired opponents worn down by his non-stop movement.
Usyk doesn’t have the overwhelming power of the last man to beat Joshua, Andy Ruiz Jr. in 2019, and he knows Joshua has been slimming down to focus on speed.
This title shot has come earlier than expected, too. Usyk is up as the WBO mandatory challenger after Joshua’s mega-fight with Fury fell through after a legal ruling. For Joshua, this fight is about keeping his belts for a big payday against Fury next year. For Usyk, it’s the chance of a lifetime.
Away from the ring, Usyk is devoted to his family and his religion. He often fights in shorts bearing the names of his children and symbols of his Orthodox Christian faith. He’s goofy and unpredictable with the media, known for pulling faces and deadpan humor. In the amateur ranks, he celebrated victories with folk dancing, and he still sometimes films dance videos in the gym.
Ahead of his 2018 fight with Britain’s Tony Bellew in Manchester, Usyk took a traditional pre-fight stare-down for the cameras and turned the theatrical menace into comedy, keeping his eyes on Bellew for so long that the room broke out into laughter.
One of Bellew’s interviews was interrupted when Usyk made him laugh by peeking and waving over a nearby barrier. Bellew had questioned Usyk’s punch power, and Usyk sent him crashing to the canvas before the referee stopped the fight.
Joshua is known to have a funny bone as well. But only one of them will be smiling and dancing after the last bell late Saturday night at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.
This story has been corrected to show that Wladimir Klitschko lost his heavyweight titles to Tyson Fury in 2015, not to Anthony Joshua in 2017.