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The Beltline: Joyce and Usyk are two heavyweights not afraid to be themselves and the awkwardness is refreshing

Joe Joyce of the British Lionhearts (L) and Oleksandr Usyk of the Ukraine Otamans during the weigh in for the British Lionhearts v Ukraine Otamans in the World Series of Boxing on February 28, 2013 in London, England (Photo by Scott Heavey/Getty Images)
In a division full of characters, some more genuine than others, Joe Joyce and Oleksandr Usyk bring something both different and refreshing to the party, writes Elliot Worsell

TO watch Joe Joyce and Joseph Parker try to sell a pay-per-view fight at a recent press conference was to watch an iPhone being operated by the arthritic hands of an elderly couple, the phone having been gifted to them by their thoughtful but ultimately misguided adult child. It was, in other words, as uncomfortable as it was fascinating. It was an unwinnable fight; a futile exercise. But beautiful nonetheless.

It was beautiful, I thought, due to its purity and its innocence and the simple fact that neither heavyweight was trying too hard. Some will say that was not a choice, of course, but, either way, this combined lack of effort made for a refreshing spectacle at a time when everything in boxing seems either manufactured, desperate, or completely dishonest.

Up there, on the top table, Joyce and Parker had absolutely no idea how to sell their fight, nor even what to say to each other. They were two little boys lost. They were without directions. They were fighters – which is, in the end, all I want from fighters at a press conference. I want them to be fighters, not comedians, not preachers, not philosophers, not entertainers, and not thugs. I want them to turn up, talk about a fight that should be good enough to bypass the need for any pre-fight manipulation or sales pitch, and I want them to feel comfortable enough to be themselves. That’s it. That’s all.

For my comedians, philosophers and thugs, I can go elsewhere. In boxing, though, this sport as supposedly honest as they come, I yearn for the day when a fight is so good it transcends the need for two boxers to also adopt the role of performing monkeys eight weeks in advance, as two promoters, or puppet masters, sit alongside them and shamelessly smile and cajole.

With Joyce and Parker, I got that, briefly.

Without knowing him, Parker, from New Zealand, seems as decent a human being as there is in the heavyweight division right now, and is often accused of being “too nice” to ever truly fulfil his potential, while Joyce is just a complete anomaly of a boxer; the very antithesis of the modern world. Which is to say, at a point when everything around him appears to be speeding up, getting louder, and becoming more and more tasteless, Joyce seems to somehow be regressing, reversing, slowing down.

Joe Joyce and Joseph Parker alongside promoter Frank Warren

On paper, I’ll admit, the combination of these two men sounds like a recipe for disaster. In reality, too, it probably was. Yet, for someone like me, someone who has had a life’s worth of heavyweight bluster and can smell it a mile off, the blend of Joyce and Parker proved to be a tonic of sorts, particularly given the confidence I have that their fight on September 24 will be a good one.

Such confidence goes a long way, naturally. It creates not only the opportunity to sit back and savour the pair’s awkwardness, but it also helps the two of them, for it removes any pressure to act up, flip a table, or dress like a superhero.

Sadly, for not doing that sort of thing, the purveyors of good taste on social media proceeded to call Joyce and Parker “boring” or “dull” or “awkward” and made fun of their ability, or lack thereof, to produce “witty banter” or come up with insults. But, in fairness, how many times in the past have we been lulled by the snap, crackle and pop of the dress rehearsal only to then be delivered the most lacklustre and disappointing of opening nights? Moreover, what does it say about us as a species that we time and time again gravitate towards the s**t-talkers and the hatred rather than appreciate those a little bit… different?

I guess, when all is said and done, we’re no better than an abused spouse constantly going back to their abuser and deriding the idea of settling down with the nice guy. For whatever reason, we always need – or think we need – that edge. That danger. That spark. Try as we might, we always find ourselves drawn to the bad apples.

Yet, finally, with Joyce and Parker, for all their awkwardness, we have two men on whom you can actually rely. You know, solid, dependable types. Blokes your mum might like. Honest. Transparent.

Indeed, if they were tradesmen rather than boxers, Joyce and Parker, and perhaps Oleksandr Usyk, are the only current heavyweights I’d trust to do work on my property. Among cowboys, they stand out to me as men of integrity and honour, whereas the rest I fear would either overcharge you, sell you a product you really don’t need or want, steal supplies from your medicine cabinet, or try sleeping with your significant other.

Much like Joyce, Ukraine’s Usyk is another who dances to his own beat with, thankfully, no thought for who might be watching. Though English is not his first language, Usyk has nevertheless adopted an almost Chaplin-esque persona in the eyes of British and American boxing fans, conveying more charisma in just his eyes, a gap-toothed smile, or a peculiar dance than 99 per cent of the division are able to convey with a microphone during fight week. He is, like Joyce, a total one-off. An enigma. A personality. His does not need to be fabricated, or moulded, or pushed. He is simply being himself, secure in the knowledge that his boxing ability speaks loudest and that his pedigree removes the very thing that fuels much of the s**t-talking of his peers: insecurity.

When up against Joshua, his next opponent, it’s a wash in terms of the personality contest, which is a sad thing to say. Because back in 2013, the year Joshua turned professional, he was, in the personality stakes, a natural beauty, full of raw potential and blessed with a compelling backstory. It was not long after that, however, he then fell victim to numerous procedures designed to alter and disfigure his personality until he resembled every other leading “brand” sports star on the planet. Now, whenever at the microphone, he amounts to little more than another Kardashian in a world full of them, a reality all the more obvious when opposing someone like Usyk, a free-spirited, unshackled law unto himself.

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