THE punishment Anthony Joshua and Tyson Fury have received for not being able to deliver the most blindingly obvious and important fight in the sport are a couple of potential banana skins thrown down within a fortnight of each other. Next month Fury reconnects with Deontay Wilder, still arguably the heavyweight division’s hardest puncher, while on Saturday (September 25) Joshua risks it all against Oleksandr Usyk, the former world cruiserweight champion who once won an Olympic gold medal at the same 2012 Games as Joshua. Both opponents have clear and unique dangers but of the two it is probably Usyk, a man blessed with the ring IQ Wilder lacks, who is the one more equipped to ensure Joshua-Fury is a forgotten thing of the past. He is, after all, unbeaten, and brilliant, and a man few heavyweights would volunteer to fight if other options were available.
Joshua, for his sins, has no choice in the matter this weekend. Just as Fury has been ordered to fight Wilder, thus delaying everyone’s fun, Joshua too is being forced to fight Usyk, his mandatory challenger for one of the three belts he owns, before doing anything else with his career. It puts the Fury fight on ice and puts Joshua in a precarious situation, with Usyk, more so even than Wilder, the kind of opponent capable of killing the Joshua-Fury fight for good.
In an ideal world, Usyk is not an opponent to whom a big-name champion would be introduced. He would, in fact, find himself kept on the other side of the room, at bay, and rudely ignored whenever he tried to step forward, make his voice heard, or offer his services. They would call him ‘trouble’ and he would be seen by the star of the show, the one bringing in all the money, as an inconvenience to be avoided rather than entertained.
That might have been Usyk’s story had he not created an opening for himself the old-fashioned way (by becoming number one contender, though this was earned, some may say dubiously, by holding the same belt in the division below). They would explain to us that he was hamstrung, at least in terms of his marketability, by his patchy English, his unwillingness to be either a villain or fool, and the fact that all his key achievements were recorded in the oft-ignored cruiserweight division. None of that would reduce the extent of his threat to heavyweights, of course, but it would certainly give those keen to avoid him more than one reason to look the other way.
Just as unfair now is the possibility that should Joshua have his way with Usyk this weekend the victory could be seen, by some, as a routine win against a blown-up cruiserweight. That would be revisionist and wrong but it is easy to see it happening and, if it does, would only serve to highlight both what a high-risk, low-reward opponent Usyk is at this point and why no heavyweight has seemed enthused about fighting him during his admittedly short heavyweight tenure. A brilliant cruiserweight he might have been but at heavyweight, where it counts, Usyk remains a man relatively unproven, with only wins over Dereck Chisora and Chazz Witherspoon on the board to date. This, for now, shows heavyweight potential. It teases more to come. Yet lose to Joshua on Saturday and it will merely stand as proof that he was either not ready or, worse, never a proper heavyweight in the first place. That’s tough on Usyk and it’s even tougher on Joshua, who is braced to hear plenty of ‘yeah buts’ if he comes through what looks, on paper, the trickiest test of his heavyweight reign so far.
As it stands, without the benefit of hindsight, Usyk represents Joshua’s first undefeated opponent since Joseph Parker (in March 2018) and the fight on Saturday is the first fight of Joshua’s where you get the sense his team are having to press ‘go’ with their eyes closed and fingers crossed. Everything that came before it in Joshua’s expertly managed career, even the risks, were calculated and well-timed and, in the end, wonderfully executed. This, however, feels different.
There’s an unknown element at play here, which could prove to be either decisive or inconsequential depending on the outcome. This element has all to do with Usyk’s form as a heavyweight, which, to some, is suggestive of a cruiserweight who has bitten off more than he can chew, while to others is suggestive of a cruiserweight about to teach the entire heavyweight division a lesson.
Open to interpretation, Usyk’s performances against Witherspoon and Chisora split most down the middle and left all who watched not entirely sure as to what the future holds for the southpaw Ukrainian. Some believe the two fights exposed his limitations as a heavyweight whereas others, those more pragmatic, saw a cruiserweight merely feeling his way into things by toying rather than impressing. Regardless, when you’re up next for Usyk, and those two heavyweight fights are all you have to go on, is it only natural you might feel a tad uncertain and anxious about what lies ahead.
As for Joshua, though it is debatable whether he leads the division or not at this point, it is undeniable that he leads, always, by example. Machine-like in his approach, he says all the right things, does all the right things, and seems structured and controlled almost to the point of one day possibly malfunctioning. Where his rival, Fury, is all reckless spontaneity and questionable shortcuts and soundbites, Joshua resembles an action figure with 10 different voice commands. If Fury is the one you want to watch, and listen to, Joshua, 24-1 (22), is the kind of heavyweight the sport needs. He is reliable in a way Fury is not and has never been. He is also, unlike his predecessor, Wladimir Klitschko, a man who, despite his blandness away from the ring, comes alive when in punching range of an opponent inside the ring.
In fact, take away Joshua’s deliberately dull rematch victory against Andy Ruiz Jnr in December 2019, and it’s fair to say the Londoner has given fans plenty of entertainment during his two reigns as a heavyweight belt-holder. Dominant in the main, but vulnerable enough to keep things interesting, Joshua has fought pretty much every heavyweight you would expect him to fight – beating all of them – and only swerved, or been swerved by, the two that count the most: Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder.
In his last fight, a December win against Kubrat Pulev, Joshua made what could have been an awkward chore of a fight into something quite spectacular by the time it was over in round nine. He dealt with a mandatory challenger the way all decent titlists should look to deal with a mandatory challenger – which is to say, by busting him up in an action-packed fight and securing a finish, as opposed to safely cruising to a decision. It was, truth be told, the only way Joshua would receive any credit for beating Pulev, a man of 40 with very few wins of note. Outpoint him, as Joshua did to Ruiz in his previous fight, and there would have been rumbles of discontent. Flatten him, however, and even those who were against the fight beforehand, and there were plenty, would be forced to acknowledge and respect Joshua’s finishing capabilities if not the match itself.
Usyk, of course, though another mandatory challenger, will be different. He will represent a different style problem for Joshua and will require a different approach from Joshua, too. This time, unlike with Pulev, the idea of stopping Usyk inside the distance is not a necessity in terms of winning over naysayers or drawing attention to both himself and the performance. This time all Joshua needs is the victory. It could come via stoppage or it could come via the scorecards of three ringside judges. However it arrives, against a man yet to be defeated, let alone stopped, the manner of victory is almost irrelevant. All that matters is that Joshua has his hand raised at the bout’s conclusion.
In search of that, the 31-year-old appears to be leaner than he has looked for some time (though he has, it seems, been getting leaner and leaner since losing to Ruiz in 2019). His slimline form would indicate his plan against Usyk is to not bully or manhandle him, as some might assume, but to try to match him for speed and gain success at range other than close. Equally, though, there’s every chance Joshua’s loss of bulk has as much to do with a fear of being surrounded and left behind by the fleet-footed Usyk as it does anything else. That is, after all, Usyk’s whole game, especially now at heavyweight. He uses his technical skills, unmatched by all in and around his weight, and combines this with the speed of being a cruiserweight on the way up, making for quite the potent mix.
Indeed, it could be said this is the first time in Joshua’s eight-year pro career where the threat of defeat happens to be more than just the threat of that most typical of heavyweight defeats: the upset one-punch knockout. The threat here, against Usyk, would appear to be an altogether more terrifying one. Here, rather than being knocked out by a quote-unquote lucky punch or caught cold by something he didn’t see coming, Joshua faces the possibility of being outboxed, outsmarted and outclassed. He is putting himself at risk of suffering the most harmful of all losses; one conclusive; one humbling; one for which there are no excuses, nor any need to even so much as contemplate a rematch.
Because, let’s be honest, that is the kind of fighter Usyk, 18-0 (13), has shown himself to be. He is not a one-punch knockout specialist, nor someone who takes his chances in exchanges, à la Andy Ruiz. Instead, the 34-year-old is a master craftsman, someone who revels in exploiting the technical deficiencies of his opponents and then using these against them, reminding them, over and over, that top speed in Usyk’s world refers not to his hands or feet but to his speed of thought. For someone like Joshua, a heavyweight accused of being simplistic and one-paced, this makes Usyk the ultimate test of his abilities and evolution.
Whether, in the end, he triumphs by using his brute strength to expose the difference between cruiserweights and heavyweights, or surprises us by somehow matching Usyk for intelligence and technique, there can be no doubt that any sort of Joshua victory marks the finest he will have secured since the last time he conquered a cerebral Ukrainian in April 2017. Back then, against Wladimir Klitschko, Joshua called upon youth, power, and aggression to get the job done. This weekend, he will again have those things on his side, but, four years on, will also boast sharper skills, greater patience, and both a fear of and respect for the pain of defeat. He’s still unlikely to match Oleksandr Usyk for smarts, or fancy moves, but, with experience and humility his newest supplements, Anthony Joshua’s greatest weapon going into Saturday’s fight is that he knows this.