During media availability two weeks before his bout against Anthony Joshua, Oleksandr Usyk was asked if he’d studied tape of Anthony Joshua. In conversations between media members and boxers, this is usually a set-up for fighters to posture a little bit. For whatever reason, a large number of boxers are programmed to say that they never study film at all, they just “leave it up to their trainer.” For some that may indeed be the case, but for many more it serves as an opportunity to convey nonchalance about their opponent and to suggest that they’re virtuosos for whom the ability to formulate a game plan is just second nature.
Usyk doesn’t play into conventions when it comes to how a boxer talks or behave. Almost none of them. He dances, he juggles, he writes poems, plays the guitar and studied theatre in university. He’s said in the past “I don’t beat people. I do sports. I beat people with love.” For this fight, he grew a mustache, he said, because Usyk means “mustache” in Ukrainian, which did indeed turn out to be true. He shows up at press conferences dressed like The Joker. After seeing his Joker outfit, promoter Eddie Hearn remarked that “he’s a weirdo.” But the idea that he would enter a fight without watching tape of his opponent, for a man with interests as studious as Usyk’s, would be silly. Why pretend?
“I’ve watched all of Joshua’s fights,” said Usyk, even noting that he’d studied him in the amateurs, on the off-chance that they would meet in the pros one day. “Absolutely each and every single one of them.”
By the time Usyk got in the ring with Joshua on Saturday night in Tottenham, he had seen it all before, and he fought like someone who had. For twelve rounds, Usyk stood in front of Joshua and comprehensively outboxed him, ultimately earning a unanimous decision and Joshua’s trio of heavyweight titles.
“The fight went exactly as I expected it to go. There were a couple of moments where Anthony pushed me hard, but nothing special,” Usyk said in his post-fight interview through an interpreter.
Usyk’s boxing ability was never in question coming into the bout. An Olympic gold medalist and former lineal cruiserweight champion, Usyk is, even at his size, one of the best pure boxers in the world. It was whether he had enough size that was the question on most people’s minds prior to the Joshua bout. In his second fight at heavyweight, Usyk looked extremely uncomfortable against Dereck Chisora, a man considered to be just below the elite level in the division.
Usyk’s degree of difficulty with Chisora ultimately had more to do with Chisora’s disregarding of standard boxing protocol and his clubbing, mauling style than it had to do with his pure size. Unlike Chisora, Joshua agrees to the tacit understanding of what boxers ought to do, stand at range, jab, throw straight punches. Most importantly for Usyk, he concedes space, and with just the slightest bit of room, Usyk is among the toughest men on the planet to outbox in any weight class.
Tony Bellew, Usyk’s last opponent at cruiserweight, expressed that same sentiment on Twitter following the Joshua bout.
“I’ve always told people how great (Usyk) is! I don’t believe anyone will ever outbox him! The only reason this man will lose is because someone is just bigger than him! NO ONE is actually better,” Bellew tweeted.
The concern about Usyk’s size had historical precedence as well. Boxing Scene’s Cliff Rold recently outlined the history of fighters from lower weights moving up to heavyweight, which more often than not, has not resulted in a heavyweight title, let alone three of them. Only two fighters have won a heavyweight title after winning a title at cruiserweight, Evander Holyfield and David Haye. The types of size disadvantages fighters making that leap are typically at—such as the 18 pounds and four inches of reach Usyk gave up—are generally too much to overcome.
What was most impressive about Usyk’s performance, and also what portends a potential lengthy reign atop the division, is that he didn’t have to utilize the typical “smaller man” strategy of moving and engaging as little as possible. Usyk very much did the opposite, remaining in punching range for nearly the entire fight, trusting his ability to avoid or counter whatever Joshua threw. In doing so, he did take a few lumps, as evidenced by a set of post-fight stitches above his right eye, which answered questions about his ability to absorb a heavyweight blow. It was his opponent who took the bulk of the damage in the fight however. Joshua was on shaky footing more than once in the bout, both early and late, most notably in the final seconds of the contest.
“I had no objective to knock him out. My corner pushed me not to try for that. I hit him hard and tried to knock him out, but my trainer said, ‘Just stop and do your job,” said Usyk.
Much like his forthright answers when it comes to preparing for bouts, Usyk also won’t even posture even after winning. Explicitly admitting that he never intended to knock his opponent out is something that might be interpreted as weakness or hesitance from other fighters. But coming from Usyk, it’s read as just a very specific, meticulous game plan.
In both concept and approach, Usyk is just different from most fighters. And regardless of size, we now know he’s just better, too.