If you would have logged on to Twitter or your favorite boxing message board around November of 2020 and suggested that one day, Oleksandr Usyk and Daniel Dubois would fight one another for the unified heavyweight title, you probably would have been ratio’d.
Yet this Saturday, Usyk and Dubois will face off in the biggest fight of the weekend, a unified heavyweight title bout in Wroclaw, Poland aired on ESPN+ in the United States.
After both Usyk and Dubois’ appearances in the fall of that year, it seemed unlikely that either would be a threat to the heavyweight crown, let alone for there to be a scenario in which both would be simultaneously. On October 31 of 2020, Usyk made his second appearance at heavyweight after becoming the undisputed cruiserweight champ and departing the division with little else to prove or gain. On that night, Usyk fought Derek Chisora, a man who at that time was still considered to be a litmus test for heavyweights on their way to a title shot. While Usyk won the fight, it was hardly a night without difficulty. Two judges, justifiably, scored the bout 115-113, as Chisora’s size and mauling style made things uncomfortable for Usyk for good chunks of the fight, particularly in the earlier rounds. This gave many member of the boxing audience the idea that Usyk would simply be too small for the division, that regardless of how brilliant a boxer he was, genetics simply wouldn’t be on his side in his fairytale pursuit.
A little less than a month later, Dubois battled Joe Joyce in a matchup of UK prospects to effectively decide who would become a contender immediately. Dubois entered the fight as the favorite against the 35-year old Joyce, but wound up suffering a tenth-round TKO loss, and much worse. Joyce battered Dubois’ left eye to such an extent that Dubois took a knee and was counted out. In the wake of it, yet another discussion about “quitting” and its place in the boxing lexicon ensued, as Dubois was unfairly and cruelly criticized for not fighting through a fractured eye socker and resulting nerve damage. The damage was such that even into February of 2021, Dubois was unfortunately speaking noncommittally about continuing in the sport, telling Sky Sports that he was waiting for doctors to tell him “whether (he could) move forward or not.” At that point, whether you were on the side of compassion for Dubois or one who felt he didn’t have the requisite resolve to participate in the sport, you had evidence to make you doubt Dubois’ ability to win a title.
Over the next two years, Usyk and Dubois would go on to erase those doubts. Usyk of course went on to upset Anthony Joshua in September of 2021 to become unified heavyweight champion, and then repeated the feat a year later in Saudi Arabia. To put an even more astonishing note on his resume, the win in the rematch happened to coincide with a brief Tyson Fury hiatus, meaning the Ring Magazine title was on the line as well. The win also cemented him as RING’s top pound for pound fighter on the planet at that time. Usyk showed that if there was indeed a physical ceiling for him, a size of opponent he just couldn’t handle, they would have to be even bigger than Joshua, whom he was able to deftly outbox, absorb serious power shots from, but also hurt himself.
Dubois’ critics were as much suspicious of his skill level as they were his “courage,” and the 25-year old strung together a series of performances that satisfied at least some of them. Mere months after being uncertain about his ability to fight anymore, he was back in the ring knocking out Bogdan Dinu and Joe Cosumano, and a year later was blasting out Trevor Bryan for a version of the WBA’s heavyweight title. It wasn’t the “real” WBA title, of course, the one Usyk held simultaneously as a still-active fighter, but it was a heavyweight title nonetheless, enough for Dubois to be able to hit the autograph circuit and dine out for the rest of his life as a heavyweight champion.
But it was his win over Kevin Lerena, one in which his knee was shredded in the opening round as he suffered three knockdowns, where Dubois was given the chance to deal with the type of horrific adversity one shouldn’t be expected to overcome. With a torn ACL, suffered after taking a shot atop his head which wobbled him, Dubois managed to rally back in the third round to TKO Lerena, albeit with the aid of a generous stoppage by Howard Foster. That’s secondary to the point Dubois surely wanted to prove however—that he was willing to go to a dark place in order to win a fight.
But a win over Lerena didn’t guarantee him a shot at Usyk or any other top heavyweight. To add to the implausibility of this fight, that opportunity came because Tyson Fury shockingly opted to face former UFC heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou after negotiations with Usyk fell apart.
“It’s important to hold your head together in a fight,” Dubois told Lewis Mason of Eurosport earlier this week. “It’s twelve rounds or, however long it takes, you’ve got to be ready for the twelve rounds so just hold yourself together and go out there and be a professional. Fight hard. This is it. Do you want it or not? That’s the mentality I’ve got. All or nothing.”
Dubois enters the fight as a +650 underdog, but does so with Don Charles now in his corner, the same man who cornered Chisora as he gave Usyk some difficulties back in 2020. Charles recently told Talksport that he’s purposely “made Dubois uncomfortable” in camp at altitude in Spain. Both Charles and Dubois seem to acknowledge that physicality will be paramount if he wants to pull the upset.
Stranger things have certainly happened.