The notion boxing can ever be brought to heel, conform to the norms at work in other sports is a Camelot many still yearn for. Every fan, writer and concerned bystander would like boxing to pitch its best versus its best more frequently. Noble? Yes. Futile? Entirely. It is akin to trying to make a ruler from a snake. A Freudian analogy, given the snakes that rule the game.
There is no utopia, and the unwelcome truth, as it was for the Arthurian legend of Camelot, there never was.
A heavyweight contest between Anthony Joshua and the Ukrainian, Aleksander Usyk, being fought before a gathering of 60,000 of London’s most lubricated inhabitants represents an intriguing and important reality.
And while not the eternal fantasy of Tyson Fury v Joshua, it boasts the players and the stage to forge a new legend, possibly two.
Mourning the loss of Fury versus Joshua before it even began and being excited by this weekend’s encounter needn’t be mutually prohibitive. It is the division’s #2 and #3* squaring off for the right to box the winner of the #1 versus #4 encounter that follows next month, after all. This type of clarity is rare enough, the two fights, just a few weeks apart, are, essentially, semi-finals for the ultimate prize in 2022. The undisputed championship of the world. An opportunity to win something timeless, something irrefutable, is one boxing, the sprawling dystopia that it is, has afforded precious few fighters in the past three decades.
A fight with Usyk presents stylistic problems for Joshua and with them, fathoms of risk too. Exactly the themes champions are meant to embrace. Without jeopardy there can be no heroism. However, despite the need to face Usyk to preserve the WBO belt he holds, pragmatism could’ve led Joshua to easier, more simplistic opponents until the financial landscape cleared to face Fury, albeit without the additional trinket. But for the tag undisputed to be hung on their future fight, it became imperative to maintain custody of the belt.
Nobody in Joshua’s career has possessed the combination of guile, stance, experience and precision that Usyk does. The fact Usyk is a southpaw is often enough to create pause in fighters like Joshua, particularly if the two-time belt holder opts to over think his strategy or attacks. He is prone to indulging the cerebral, his pursuit of personal ‘growth’ often leaving his response to questions being drenched in fridge magnet wisdom. In the ring, his most destructive performances came when indulging his wilder intent. Those aggressive displays were, Joshua would argue, borne out of naivety and are instincts he has tried hard to leave behind. He spoke openly of his love of the heavy hitters of the seventies, but curbed his enthusiasm once he’d felt the after effects of similar rumbles. Joshua craves poise to go with his power but if he tries to be too precise, to prove he has the acumen and technique to match Usyk, rather than impose his size and power on the smaller man, he may well offer ever more potential for a defeat.
In the rematch with Andy Ruiz he restricted himself, refused to chase the knockout but within his redemptive victory, there remained a whisper of panic whenever Ruiz launched an attack. As though the transition from attack to defence required software he’d only just downloaded, and it was buggy. Despite the improbability of Ruiz’ capitalising on any breakthrough given his obvious lack of preparation, Joshua remained respectful throughout. Usyk will offer no such respite should he lance the champion’s guard.
Usyk is a patient, though busy, fighter. He isn’t as off-beat in the ring as his demeanour outside the ropes suggests or quite as mercurial as his great friend Vasily Lomachenko, but his record of fighting away from home and defeating confident and competent cruiserweights reveals an unflinching self-belief. He makes winning seem inevitable. However much success an opponent has, and few have much, there remains a sense Usyk is in control and additional gears remain should he need them.
A debut at the weight versus Chazz Witherspoon showed his repertoire of offence, but prompted doubts about his concussive power among the big men. Witherspoon was inactive, overweight and ill-prepared for the clash but didn’t struggle to hold Usyk’s power shots. In Usyk’s clash with Dereck Chisora, the theme continued, and the fight became unspectacular and at times scruffy, but despite weight disadvantage, Usyk largely controlled a wild and bruising opponent. The performance felt unsatisfactory for a fighter with eyes on Joshua and Fury. He lacked a little of the accuracy of his Cruiserweight pomp and struggled, despite coming close in the 7th, to deterring the bigger man completely. Although the outcome was never really in doubt, Chisora did disturb Usyk’s usually serene progress despite his own technical flaws and the considerable punishment he absorbed over the 12 rounds.
There is a proposition Joshua has adapted his fighting shape, becoming leaner and lighter, for this fight. Implying an intention, or requirement, to be more mobile. It is hard to suggest Usyk will seek out a brawl early, so Joshua may well need to close distance to try and dictate. Bulk can be a hinderance, Frank Bruno a notable example of a heavyweight who lost a little of his often overlooked ‘looseness’ as he grew in mass. But if Joshua is lighter, it may be reflective of a longer arc than just this fight, he has previously recognised he had grown too big, too bulky, and had elected to shed some muscle long before Usyk wandered into view.
The happy reality of this fight, is that alongside the narrative Usyk presents Joshua with unusual challenges, the 34-year-old Ukrainian also faces the biggest opponent of his career and the most powerful. Joshua is a level or two above Dereck Chisora for one shot power, technique and ability. He’s also taller, younger and less travelled than the veteran.
Usyk will need to navigate the reach advantage Joshua enjoys, avoid the right uppercut Joshua uses to discourage inside fighters but remain in range long enough to score himself. It is an algorithm few fighters have the acumen or tools to resolve. If Usyk does win, he will project himself toward Tyson Fury and toward the exploits of predecessor Evander Holyfield, who ventured successfully from Cruiserweight to Heavyweight 30 years ago.
Given the styles at play, the clash of stances and the mesh of personalities, the energy of the crowd and the doubts that may linger in Joshua, there are a host of intangibles at work in finding a winner. It easy to picture Joshua wrestling when Usyk approaches in the early rounds, smothering his better inside game and trying to use his heft to tire the challenger. Glen McCrory, IBF Cruiserweight champion a similar thirty years ago, once remarked, having moved to the Heavyweight division to face an emerging Lennox Lewis, “that boxing Lennox is like wearing a concrete overcoat”. Joshua will likely lean, rest and squeeze Usyk to discourage him and then seek to pin him with shots from range.
Making a prediction remains a difficult proposition, as all heavyweight title fights, for whatever the titles mean any more, should be. A host of scenarios are conceivable, but I anticipate Joshua will survive a moment of two of crisis before getting the nod on the cards.
*not a universal conclusion, acknowledged