WE have spent the last few weeks grumbling about the sanctioning bodies – rightly so, too – but now and again they do create quality fights that probably wouldn’t have occurred without them. Though the merry-go-round of nonsense atop the heavyweight division has been driving us all bonkers for what seems like an eternity, Oleksandr Usyk – by virtue of his mandatory position with the WBO – taking on Anthony Joshua at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on September 25 should provide some welcome relief.
Joshua, the No.1-ranked heavyweight contender, quickly moved on from his disappointment at not getting a shot at world champion Tyson Fury to instead focus on defending his alphabet belts against a fighter who would be many fans’ second choice to “The Gypsy King” as an “AJ” opponent. Team Joshua deserve serious credit for that.
Usyk is largely unproven at heavyweight, hence his No. 10 ranking, but there is significant potential for the upset. The Ukrainian won titles galore as an amateur, including the heavyweight 2012 Olympic gold when Joshua ruled the division above, and cleared out the cruiserweights with aplomb before rising in weight in 2019. Only two bouts have followed, wins over Chazz Witherspoon and Derek Chisora, but Usyk remains one of the most accomplished and talented fighters in the entire sport. He’s had Joshua in his sights for many years.
But those years may have taken a toll. Usyk, 18-0 (13), will be 35 in January and looked a shade slower when outscoring Chisora last October than in his days as the world cruiserweight king. The bout against Joshua will be his first at elite level since November 2018. In that time, Joshua, 24-1 (22), has split two fights with Andy Ruiz Jnr and knocked out Kubrat Pulev. Nonetheless, Usyk is a southpaw with charisma to match his bewitching boxing skills and can take his place alongside Wladimir Klitschko and Ruiz Jnr (in the rematch) as the most threatening opponents Joshua has faced as a professional.
“The date is set and we are fully locked in,” said 31-year-old Joshua. “We are two Olympic gold medallists who have fought our way to the top and never avoided challenges.
“The stadium is exceptional, the atmosphere will be electric, I’m honoured to be the first person to fight in such an awe-inspiring venue. The stage is set and I am ready to handle business.”
That stage has been crucial in the making of this contest. Without the 60,000-paying fans it would have struggled to generate the required revenue. One hopes that the ever-unpredictable pandemic doesn’t again tighten its grip on the nation and force the government to rethink their current loosening of restrictions.
“If we don’t have a full crowd by the end of September we might as well pack up and go home,” promoter Eddie Hearn said recently. Since then, we have seen fans in their thousands attend sporting events in the capital.
Boxing News understands that the contest comes with a rematch clause but one that is carefully worded in Joshua’s favour. That means should the Englishman win, he will not be forced by Team Usyk to go over old ground; the path will be clear for him to next year face the winner of the rescheduled October 9 fight between Fury and Deontay Wilder. But recent history tells us not to look too far ahead.
“The path will be mastered by the walking one,” said the ever-cryptic Usyk who has recently shaved his head and added bulk to his 6ft 3ins frame. Even so, his dimensions are a sharp contrast to Fury, who Joshua spent several months preparing for his 6ft 9ins nemesis.
The last time Joshua had a switch of opponent he found himself on the wrong end of a massive upset as Ruiz Jnr stepped in at six weeks’ notice in June 2019. Hearn insists lessons were learned.
“AJ’s just taken his time to reset and reset camp and do things properly. Rather than going early or mid-August, we go end of September,” he told BN recently. “You’ve been sparring for three or four months thinking about Tyson Fury, now you’ve got a fighter with a completely different style. When we did the same thing with Andy Ruiz with just a few weeks and got a few sparring partners in, it was a big mistake. We all learned from that. So I’m pleased.”
Joshua’s trainer, Robert McCracken, will be finished with his Team GB duties on August 8 at the latest so will be back in time to prepare his star pupil.
In the UK, the event will be broadcast by Sky Sports Box Office with DAZN broadcasting in other territories. It will mark a reunion of sorts for Hearn and Sky Sports after the promoter signed an exclusive broadcast deal with DAZN last month. This will be the last bout on Joshua’s current UK deal with Sky Sports.
“We’ve followed Anthony Joshua’s enthralling journey since the very start,” said Adam Smith, Head of Boxing Development at Sky Sports. “The unbeaten Usyk is returning to the city where he struck gold at the same Olympic Games as ‘AJ’… I couldn’t be more delighted after working for two years to secure spectacular heavyweight showdown at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.”
Joshua’s WBO, IBF and WBA belts will be on the line.