“If there’s one thing I know, it’s never to mess with Mother Nature, mother-in-laws and mother freaking Ukrainians.”
Skinny Pete, The Italian Job, 2003
Sport and politics are not meant to trespass on to each other’s figurative lawns. Far too frequently, they do. From the cricket fields of apartheid South Africa in the 1970s, the American boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics through to the present day – a swirl of state sponsored doping, kneeling line backers and the awarding of football World Cups on the basis of stuffed manila envelopes rather than full stadiums. The politicising of sport is neither a new nor uncommon phenomenon. They are perennially entwined.
Boxing is littered with examples, from the persecution of Jack Johnson a century ago to the symbolism of Joe Louis’ rematch with Germany’s Max Schmeling in 1938, it is a rich and luminous seam. Fighters possess power in their actions and their opinions that can reach far beyond the roped square in which they ply their trade and politicians are always eager to manipulate the image or popularism of their pugilistic contemporaries.
Ukrainian Oleksander Usyk’s triumph in the final of the Cruiserweight World Boxing Super Series was another sporting drama into which geopolitical issues were explicitly woven. As residents of the West, most readers will have a view of the relationship between Russia and Ukraine that is shaped by the agenda of the news source they access and the economics and politics of the nation they are resident in. The relationship is tense, complex and centuries in the making, weaving through wars, famine and the rise and fall of empires. Within those conflicts guilt, blame and the facts become subjective and blurred. The historic record invariably the myopic diary of the victorious. Our opportunity for objectivity here in the West draws us no closer to an unarguable truth of their shared history nor can we appreciate the depth of feeling on either side.
When Vitali Klitschko stood among the barricades of Kiev in 2014, his face bleached white by the dust of a dry fire extinguisher, the acrid swirl of tear gas stinging his eyes and obscuring even his towering frame, the sporting sphere was again punctured by the politics of the day. Though retired, Klitschko’s presence brought the friction and alleged collusion between the two countries into the consciousness of the average fight fan too. However fleeting or shallow their understanding.
Within the annexation of the disputed Crimea peninsula that followed, an area gifted to the Ukraine by Khrushchev in 1954 but contested for centuries, the town of Simferopol fell back under Russian control. As the birthplace of the 2012 Olympic heavyweight champion and now Cruiserweight king Oleksander Usyk, the Russian incursion displaced him and many of his countrymen and would, four years later, add a conspicuous if unrequited sub-plot to his unification bout with Gassiev two weeks ago.
A lucrative venture for all parties, the World Boxing Super Series brought Usyk to Moscow, to fight the Russian hero with all four sanctioning body’s belts on the line. The oxymoron of the existence of four world titles not withstanding. This was for all the prizes. Historically significant for the division, as far as any future generation will be able to unravel the labyrinthian organisation of the sport we all love should they be inclined to try.
And yet, whilst the fighters were entirely respectful to each other, a distinguishing factor of the whole tournament, the simplicity of the competition has beguiled without the need for trash talk or gimmicks, it was impossible not to ruminate on what this fight may have meant to Usyk beyond the belts hoisted aloft in the aftermath.
Within a contest widely predicted to be 50-50, or a ‘pick-em’ fight as we used to say, Usyk proved irresistible and rendered the otherwise destructive puncher, himself a child of a contested region among the foothills of the Caucasus mountains, a totem of inhibition and passive resignation. Usyk moved constantly, used his right hand lead as a distraction, a range finder and he punished Gassiev frequently before stepping out of reach. It had echoes of Joe Calzaghe’s masterclass with Jeff Lacy a generation ago and like that night, the loser may never be quite the same again. Gassiev avoided the punishment Lacy endured but there was a similar sense that his self-belief was extinguished early in the contest as the American’s had been. Lacy never recaptured it.
In victory, Usyk enjoyed wrestling with the garlands of leather and jewels from the four sanctioning bodies, he relished the Ring belt too for both its perceived objectivity and its history and the gigantic Muhammad Ali trophy offered a golden exclamation mark to proceedings. But it was easy to suggest the victory, in Moscow, against a Russian, despite the respect between the two, resonated far more deeply than all the baubles it was adorned with. His immediate reaction; “Moscow, 2018. Bang! Daddy’s in the building,” did nothing to dispel this lazy conclusion.
No story in boxing is ever that simplistic or obvious however, nor do its characters tend to adopt the cliches of a Rocky screen play as readily as we anticipate or perhaps, would like them too. Fighter’s are complex, nuanced characters, plagued by the same motivations and vulnerabilities as the rest of us. To assume a sense of injustice was either decisive in the fight or an element of revenge by the proxy of boxing the prize Usyk cherished most deeply is to assume to know the smiling giant intimately and diminishes the technical and physical prowess he employed to win. As I said, professional boxing isn’t Rocky.
In the days that have followed, once again, politics, or politicians specifically, tried to use Usyk’s triumph to their own end; to make that same lazy assumption and to capitalise on the ensuing international spotlight Usyk’s very personnel achievement brought. Some justifiable national pride at a time of intense sensitivity? Perhaps understandable, but Usyk resisted. The Ukrainian Prime Minister mooted the idea Usyk be awarded the Hero of Ukraine medal, the highest recognition possible.
“The hero title? I do not need any title, as for my people, for a certain part of my country’s people, I am a hero.” Usyk said in response, acknowledging his status and example but refusing to be hostage to it nor play the political stooge.
Whilst the two uncomfortable neighbours, boxing and politics, will always contend that neither should intrude on the other they invariably will, it was therefore refreshing to hear the newly minted champion rebuke the overtures so pointedly.
His victory was a triumph of skill, dedication and experience. By one man. Over another.
Wars, peace, national boundaries will never be settled in a boxing ring and the sport serves us best as an escape, not a weapon. As the Ukrainian proverb reminds us:
“For a job we need time. For fun we need one hour.”