ONE of the most interesting aspects of Anthony Joshua versus Oleksandr Usyk is that neither fighter has encountered anyone, at least at professional level, quite like Anthony Joshua or Oleksandr Usyk.
Joshua, despite the odd crack in his armoury, has crafted a fearsome reputation from his athleticism and brain-scrambling power. Though not necessarily a one-punch finisher like Deontay Wilder, Joshua’s muscle-bound guns will nonetheless dislodge the senses of any heavyweight who stands in their way for too long. A fledgling heavyweight, Usyk has not tasted the kind of skull-shuddering ferocity that he will surely sample at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, nor has he encountered such an almighty physical specimen. That factor alone, the combination of size and power, already makes the challenge ahead for the natural cruiserweight – at least on paper – borderline insurmountable.
Usyk, however, is no ordinary natural cruiserweight and to understand his brilliance requires more than looking only at raw statistics. Slick, quick, and precise, the southpaw is ring-wise beyond his 34 years. He can rapidly draw gameplans in the midst of combat. Then redraw as he sits on his stool after getting a taster of what he’s really up against. Usyk is not only quicker on his feet than Joshua, his brain appears more agile in a fight. And in a contest like this, one with so many unknowns going in, that mental dexterity might be crucial.
In truth, Usyk will have been gathering evidence on Joshua for many years in preparation for this, the biggest fight of his life. Unlike every other Joshua opponent, he will not be gambling on one withering hook on the inside or a well-placed bomb from range. Nor will he merely wait and hope for Joshua to tire before getting busy himself. No, unlike everyone else, he will not be gambling, hoping, or waiting, he will be plotting his rival’s downfall in every moment of the lead-up and replotting during every second of the battle itself. If Plan A isn’t having the desired effect, he can switch to Plan B, move on to Plan C, go back to Plan A, deploy some of Plan D. And then, with Joshua showing signs bewilderment, chuck in a bit of Plan E to really turn the screw.
Of course, plans are all fine and dandy when the person hatching them is compos mentis. There is every chance that Usyk, as he formulates and reformulates, is caught square on the mush by a thunderous whack that glues him and his calculations to the canvas. Because for everything we do know about Usyk, we do not know how he’ll cope if he’s caught with one of those bombastic Joshua uppercuts or straight right hands. What we do know, what we’ve seen many times, is the effect those punches have had on men far bigger, and therefore supposedly sturdier, than Oleksandr Usyk. Another thing we know, because we’ve seen him getting hit by numerous cruiserweights and two heavyweights, is that the Ukrainian, though clever, and elusive, is not unhittable. It stands to reason, then, if you’re picking Usyk to win, you’re also backing his chin to stand up to one of the biggest hitters in recent memory.
Joshua will tell you he’s more than just a big hitter. He’d be right, too. Though he’ll never be able to do a decent Floyd Mayweather impression, he has slowly but surely been adding layers to his repertoire. The smart boxing, the newfound patience, can in part be traced back to the rebuild that followed the 2019 loss to Andy Ruiz Jnr but there has been evidence of maturity ever since he went to hell and back in the Great Wladimir Klitschko War of 2017. Though dominating the Ruiz rematch is perhaps the finest exhibit when it comes to showcasing his underrated skillset, he also showed while outpointing Joseph Parker that he can keep it long, box to orders and take minimal risks. And in a 12-round fight, that safety-first approach is the only way that Joshua has been able to conserve his energy effectively.
But it would seem the wrong approach here. Some have speculated that Joshua’s lean-looking physique is the product of a training camp geared towards agility, one that has created a Joshua whose feet will be quick, whose lead hand will maximise his advantages in height and reach (three and four inches respectively). Yet to suggest that Joshua is going into this believing that outboxing one of the best boxers in the sport today is his best key to victory, would be doing the 31-year-old and his team, particularly lead trainer Robert McCracken, a disservice.
Though he has to address his tendency to fade alarmingly in the mid-rounds after a sustained effort to end the fight early, Joshua must play to his own strengths rather than trying to mimic those of his opponent. Because if he comes into this attempting to outsmart, outmanoeuvre and in turn outbox Usyk, it’s likely that only the opposite will occur. This of course makes it an exceptionally difficult fight for Joshua to navigate. Because when he really lets fly with his power shots, he either scores a stoppage or he tires. Against Wladimir Klitschko, Carlos Takam, Alexander Povetkin and Kubrat Pulev he was, to varying degrees, exhausted and vulnerable in spots. Usyk, it should be said, is better defensively than all of the above. We also saw that sudden delicateness against Dillian Whyte and Andy Ruiz Jnr (first fight) when he carelessly got clocked while in the ascendency and immediately lost his shape. To his enormous credit, Joshua emerged from all but one of those crises with his hands raised; his will to win, his desire, and his ability to find his power late in a fight is not in question. But his capacity to manage the 12-round distance, while retaining his explosivity throughout, surely is.
Usyk, meanwhile, has never once been found wanting in the stamina department. Even in taxing fights, namely against Mairis Briedis, Murat Gassiev and Tony Bellew at cruiserweight, and Derek Chisora at heavyweight, Usyk appeared as fresh in the later rounds as he did at the opening bell. Furthermore, Usyk – unlike Joshua – can do what he does best without the need to pace himself. Round after round he will go about his business, at times with startling ease. Aware that taking more than two steps back could land him in trouble, he changes angles without warning, uses his lead hand as both a decoy and a weapon and, importantly against Joshua, twists and turns and pivots in a manner that means even if he does get hit, he’s rarely in the same place for long enough to take another. He’s just as difficult to read when on the attack, drawing energy from his opponents with both the traps he sets and the combinations he throws. At one point in the Chisora bout it seemed like the veteran was surrounded, as Usyk glided around his man and fired from all angles.
But we have to further examine the performance against Chisora (won over 12 rounds by Usyk in October last year). Usyk was a shade slower than he was at cruiserweight and, faced with a brute of a man on his tail, had to work exceptionally hard to retain composure and control. It is surely a fact that Usyk was quicker in the past and arguable, perhaps, that the 34-year-old is already in decline. What isn’t up for debate is that Usyk The Heavyweight is yet to dazzle or even prove his worth, either against “Del Boy” or in a somewhat lacklustre win over Chazz Witherspoon in 2019, in the same way that he did in the division below.
It’s not just the fights Usyk has had recently that should encourage Joshua, it’s the fights he hasn’t. In an ideal world, Usyk would be four or five fights into his heavyweight adventure by now. But since Joshua defeated Povetkin in September 2018 (then lost to Ruiz, beat Ruiz, beat Pulev), Usyk has only had two contests against worthwhile opposition, and one of those (against Tony Bellew) was at cruiserweight. It is perfectly reasonable to conclude, then, that while Joshua has been honing his craft and adding new layers to his game, the only thing Usyk has gained is weight.
That expansion was no doubt required for Usyk to be anything approaching a physical match for Joshua but, as many fighters rising in weight have realised in the past, piling on the pounds can be counterproductive. Loss of speed is the most obvious but as David Haye proved more than once, the strain of carrying the extra muscle can trigger injuries. Important to remember, too, that Joshua is not exactly slow himself. Usyk will find out, and find out quickly, how well-equipped he is to compete against a heavyweight who can count 22 stoppages among his 24 wins.
But before we write this off as a case of the bigger man beating the smaller man, we must also examine their styles. Because if all things were equal, if they were exactly the same size, there would only be one conclusion to draw: That Usyk wins, and wins handily. Joshua is indeed a monstrous proposition for anyone but, curiously for someone with his status and reputation, he retains the look of a fighter still learning on the job. And against someone as gifted, drilled and clever as Usyk, that education could quickly turn awry. Usyk is only the second southpaw Joshua has faced as a professional (after Charles Martin). The Briton has spent time sparring various lefties (like Wadi Camacho, Demsey McKean, Viktor Jurk and Vitor Arutyunyan) but, as Usyk recently identified, it will have been “extremely difficult” for Joshua to find anyone capable of replicating Saturday’s opponent.
While it is tempting to presume Usyk will be walked down and bombed out, or even have the ambition steadily thumped out of him, the feeling here is that he knows too much for either scenario to play out. If Joshua could not obliterate Kubrat Pulev early, if he had problems with Alexander Povetkin, if he was outfought by the short and rotund Andy Ruiz Jnr, then surely Usyk has not only the guile and wisdom to present problems, and drain his opponent’s reserves in the process, but the skill, stamina and accuracy to actually win the fight. Say it quietly, but the pick is for Usyk to do just that. Whether he survives the odd early scare, picks up the pace in the middle rounds and forces the referee to rescue a tiring Joshua around the 10th, or persuades the judges he’s a worthy winner after 12, I’m not so sure. Though, if pushed, the former scenario is what I’d lean towards.
I’d argue that although Joshua is unquestionably the bigger hitter, the stronger man and a far better boxer than his detractors believe, his style is easier to read and his defence more vulnerable when under attack. If – admittedly, it’s a ginormous ‘if’ – the Ukrainian proves he can cope with Joshua’s size and power, if he can get a foothold early, his versatility should be the deciding factor down the stretch. Usyk, providing he can stay out of trouble, will be able to adapt to Joshua more effectively than Joshua will be able to adapt to him.
Whatever happens, this is exactly the kind of fight that the sport needs. Kudos to both men for that.
The Verdict Terrific matchmaking should produce a memorable fight.