CASUALLY leant back in his chair, slowly running his signature rosary beads through his fingers, Oleksandr Usyk exuded a cool, almost chilling sense of confidence as he spoke to the assembled media through his translator, acclaimed manager Egis Klimas.
Manchester’s Stoller Hall – where Usyk held court with a handful of journalists in a back room – is a concert venue that typically hosts classical musicians rather than boxers. Perhaps the Ukrainian’s relaxed and poised demeanour in these surroundings should come as no surprise, however, considering his performances in the ring – especially last time out against Murat Gassiev – are often masterful symphonies in their own right.
Usyk’s consummately commanding victory over Gassiev in July not only saw him become the first cruiserweight in history to hold all four of the major governing bodies’ world title belts, but also resulted in him being crowned as the World Boxing Super Series king. Yet it is up in the glamorous confines of the heavyweight division where he sees his future. And one fighter in particular is on his radar – Anthony Joshua.
Although “nobody has promised [him]” that a mouth-watering meeting with the unified world heavyweight titlist will occur, Usyk is nonetheless adamant that “it is going to happen”, ideally next year. When asked how a fight between him and his fellow 2012 Olympic gold medallist would go, Usyk’s response – “Great” – was unnerving in its simplicity, particularly if your name is Anthony Joshua.
But, of course, it is not Joshua who Usyk has in his immediate sights, for the unbeaten 31-year-old southpaw has a more pressing assignment to overcome this weekend, before he can turn his attention to the heavyweight division. On Saturday (November 10), at Manchester Arena, Usyk puts his undisputed status on the line against Liverpool’s Tony Bellew – a man who thrives on proving the doubters wrong, be it by winning the WBC cruiserweight title in 2016, or by stunningly stopping David Haye in 2017 and then again six months ago.
Bellew, 35, is a significant underdog in the betting stakes, which is a situation he is entirely comfortable with. The usually boisterous Liverpudlian has cut a more tranquil figure in the lead-up to this bout, even going so far as to label himself as a fan of Usyk, whom he describes as his “most complete” opponent. Usyk, though, believes mind games could be behind the effusive praise showered upon him by his upcoming adversary. According to him, such tactics are futile.
“I don’t think he can get into my head because I have my own thoughts,” Usyk said. “He’s talking a lot, he always talks a lot. He is Tony – that’s why he talks a lot. I think I’m in his head now because he talks a lot.”
Usyk remembers sparring Bellew in Ukraine back in 2007, six years before he turned professional. In fact, at the time, the Kiev man had yet to garner any of the three grand slam gold medals (European, World, Olympic) that would define his decorated amateur career. Despite all he has accomplished as a pro, he still regards his triumph at the London Games six years ago as the pinnacle of his achievements in the ring.
“I was in two Olympics [2008 and 2012], but I have only one gold medal,” Usyk explained. “There is only one Olympic gold medal, but in professional boxing there are lots of belts.”
For someone so serenely confident in his own abilities, Usyk is surprisingly uncomfortable with being discussed as one of the premier pound-for-pound fighters on the planet. When quizzed on how it feels to be considered as one of the best boxers in the world at any weight, he dismissed this notion by stating, “I don’t think about that.”
A lot of the talk in the build-up may have been about his current lofty standing in the sport, the artistry of his sublime skills, and a potential future clash with Joshua, but you can rest assured that at the forefront of Usyk’s mind is only one thought, one thing, one person – Tony Bellew.
At the main press conference earlier in the day, prior to his more intimate round-table chat in the bowels of the Stoller Hall, Usyk branded Bellew as “really dangerous”, before saying: “Look at him. He’s the same height and size as me. Look at his eyes. They’re just angry!” Yet when given the opportunity to look directly into Bellew’s eyes himself, when the pair faced off in the obligatory staredown, Usyk chose not to.
“I didn’t look in his eyes,” the champion said. “I looked between his eyes.”
And what did he see?
“What do you think? [I saw] what a sniper sees when he looks through the scope. I saw the target where I have to put my bullet.”