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The lesson of Anthony Joshua’s loss to Oleksandr Usyk

Anthony Joshua
Mark Robinson/Matchroom Boxing
Oleksandr Usyk teaches Anthony Joshua and the sport a thing or two about boxing at the highest level, writes Matt Christie

SOME will call it an upset while others will say he was exposed. It was just a bad night at the office, say his team. But regardless of how one chooses to describe Anthony Joshua’s second professional defeat, the mesmerising effort of its orchestrator is the real story. Oleksandr Usyk, the winner, take a bow.

Usyk not only taught Joshua about the complexities of fighting at the highest of levels, he surely taught the sport a lesson, too. A simple lesson admittedly, but one that is frequently ignored. And it is this: The next time the sport is presented with a contest that the whole world wants to see, make it. Don’t wait, don’t dilly-dally, don’t get bogged down by belts, politics and greed.

But now, thanks to Usyk and his majestic victory, we can stop talking about Joshua-Tyson Fury. We can at last stop scratching our heads at the absurdity of it all because the Joshua-Fury we wanted, the all-conquering fight of the ages that would pit the best against the best and create an atmosphere of the ages, is surely gone forever. Good riddance, too. Instead, let’s champion the arrival of Usyk, someone who can show us all how it’s really supposed to be done.

In the process, we should not kick a man while he is down. Joshua, even in defeat, deserves plenty of credit for how far he has come. Credit, too, for accepting such a difficult assignment. No one should ever accuse him of not being a risktaker himself. And for fleeting moments against a technical genius, the comparative novice was holding his own, even threatening in rounds five and six to take control. But one can question, with complete respect, if he has what it takes to rise again. Particularly if he ventures into an immediate rematch with a man who just defeated him so convincingly, as is his wish. One hopes that those around him are honest about how far behind he was.

The pressure he is always under should never be underestimated. The pressure to win, the pressure to improve. More than once in recent years, I have heard Joshua being privately described by writers and broadcasters as their ‘meal ticket’; if he’s winning, if he’s selling out stadiums, if he’s in the limelight, then we all have a job such is the demand for content on the big man. For Matchroom, 258 MGT, Sky Sports, his sponsors and others attached far more closely to the superstar, the money generated from Joshua’s name is markedly higher. The human being beneath it all is too often forgotten. Perhaps that pressure was always destined to be too much.

Anthony Joshua
Mark Robinson/Matchroom Boxing

But regardless of all that, regardless of the endless analysis about why he lost and what we as a sport lost, what we witnessed last weekend was not an upset or an exposé, or even a surprise. It was, in every way, a masterclass. The reason Joshua did not win is simply because Usyk is a better fighter. Much better. Cleverer, cannier and more assured. In the end, despite the cuts and bruises he sported, he won a 12-round unanimous decision at a canter.

The Ukrainian is a modern day phenomenon. Fearless and confident in his beguiling ability, he’s acutely aware of how good he is and how inferior his opponents are as a consequence. Perhaps by regarding his 12-round drubbing of Joshua so highly we are also overrating ‘AJ’ in the process; there can be no question that Joshua, as he did the same thing round after round, preferring to dwell on his odd moment of success rather than react to the crisis he found himself in, was increasingly disappointing. His tactics were curious. Trying to outbox a master boxer, while failing to unleash his substantial physical advantages, was surely an error. Should the rematch occur, Joshua must rip up his battleplan and start all over again. It’s a gigantic ask.

Usyk’s performance, full of cunning and spite, was a privilege to witness. He dared to stand and fight. And by being aggressive and elusive at the right times, Usyk dissuaded Joshua from doing anything other than follow him round and hope for the best. We can point to Joshua not taking enough chances, but if we do that, we must also highlight the manner in which Usyk countered and attacked so supremely. By the final bell, in front of a stadium bursting at the seams with his own fans, Joshua was mentally and physically broken.  

Usyk is no stranger to wowing on the road. Since he entered the world stage at professional level he has defeated Poland’s Krzystof Glowacki in Poland, America’s Michael Hunter in America, Germany’s Marco Huck in Germany, Latvia’s Mairis Breidis in Latvia, Russia’s Murat Gassiev in Russia and British trio Tony Bellew, Derek Chisora and Anthony Joshua in Britain. To say the challenge of fighting away from home is a great motivator for Usyk would be an understatement. There is perhaps no other active fighter, particularly at his level, who is so fearless or happy to be placed at both a geographical and promotional disadvantage. While some, like Canelo Alvarez for example, can rightfully be accused of ensuring the deck is stacked in their favour each time they play, Usyk nonchalantly sits down at any table in the world knowing he has the tools to win regardless of how the cards are dealt.

Of course, as the underdog, ‘challenger’ and away fighter, Usyk had no choice but to make some concessions. Nor did he care. Only one of the four officials came from Ukraine (Viktor Fesechko), whereas the referee, Michael Alexander, and another judge, Howard Foster, were British. The third, reportedly Team Usyk’s choice, Steve Weisfeld, came from the USA. It mattered not a jot as the scores, 117-112, 115-113 and 116-112 respectively, all favoured the party pooper. Boxing News scored 117-111 for Usyk.  

Another nod to his inner peace, to his zen-like approach to battle, would be the calm exuded by his team all week. There was not a single row about judges, gloves, the ring, the dressing rooms, about anything at all. There were no toxic insults, no hints of displeasure, no effort to gain a head start. No, Usyk and his team took everything in their stride with smiles on their faces as they made unflinching promises about the outcome that would soon transpire.

That obvious confidence can cause havoc in the minds of his rivals. By the eve of battle, Joshua had already exhibited several signs that suggested Usyk had infiltrated his psyche. As he stood eyeball to eyeball with Usyk after weighing in, Joshua attempted a little jig from side to side in an effort to show he was just as relaxed as the shorter man in front of him. Before that, Joshua posted videos of himself juggling in the gym, he showcased his newfound ability to play chess, spoke over and over again about how clever he had become. Knowingly or not, Joshua was trying to match Usyk trick-for-trick, obsessing over the strengths of his opponent at the expense of understanding how to make the most of his own.

The smiles, the winks, the carefree dancing and all-round mischief of Usyk speak of a fighter who knows himself inside out. Being comfortable in your own skin is a gift that only a few can truly claim to possess. More than that, Usyk knows exactly what he does best and coerces only positivity from within. Joshua, in comparison, cannot claim to understand himself nearly as well, at least not as a fighter at this level. As a result, perhaps since he almost came unstuck when unloading his full repertoire on Wladimir Klitschko in 2017, the studious Joshua has a tendency to overthink and overanalyse during his preparation, and in battle.

Oleksandr Usyk vs Anthony Joshua
Mark Robinson/Matchroom Boxing

Even so, Joshua enjoyed himself beforehand. Or he seemed to. The exuberance of his entrance, with hindsight, spoke of a wandering mind. He bounced to the ring in his elegant long white robe, fist-bumping fans and embracing familiar faces. He stopped to shadow-box as fireworks fizzed and crackled. Yes, this was the Joshua Show, the kind that only Joshua can manifest, but eyes were raised at ringside by how unfocused he appeared.  

Meanwhile, Usyk, who had strutted to the ring in a space helmet that blocked out his surroundings, busied himself with stretching exercises and a brief smooch with the Ukrainian flag.

The atmosphere concocted by the 66,267 in attendance was magical. Suddenly, everything was alright in the world; the apparent fuel crisis forgotten, the pandemic a bad dream and the sport of boxing, our sport of boxing, was proudly leading the way. These moments of anticipation, ahead of a big fight, are like nothing else on the planet. Even the most seasoned members of press row reached for their camera phones and recorded the moment for prosperity.

The plot, like the mood, was thickening at pace. No Easy Way Out, an anthem from Rocky IV, blared through the stadium as Joshua fired punches into the night.

The song turned out to be on point.

There would be no easy way out.

Not for the crowd who would later struggle to get home, not for Usyk as he was pulled here and there in the early hours for selfies and interviews, and most certainly not for Anthony Joshua.

The feeling beforehand was that Joshua needed to be the first to land a punch of note. If Joshua could enforce his physical advantages, and early, there was a chance, or for some, a probability, the ambition would drain from Usyk. What Joshua couldn’t do, everyone agreed, was let his opponent gain any early advantage. Yet by fencing and posturing in the opening moments, by giving the southpaw time to calculate the range and distance, by showing Usyk more respect than Usyk showed him, Joshua all but invited his opponent to make the first move.

A sharp left hand zipped inside the guard of the favourite. Moments later, the same left found the target again. And then another. A Joshua right was blocked. Usyk, who has been a slow starter on occasion, took round one without an argument. Cagey it might have been, but Oleksandr The Great was already well on his way.

More of the same occurred in round two. Usyk was always agile but he was also doing what Joshua should have been doing; his best moments came when he was in close, planting his feet in exactly the right position and daring to fire. This tactic – taking the fight to Joshua – surely dissuaded AJ from coming forward himself.

Round three was a huge one for Usyk. It all began with his trademark counter, as he balletically skipped to the side and flung a shot over Joshua’s lead. The Ukrainian bounced forward, blasted the ribs before a searing left hand socked back the favourite’s head. Briefly, but tellingly, the muscled legs of Joshua disobeyed him. An aside at this point: Curiously (and concerningly) this was the first session that all three judges gave to Usyk.

There were signs of improvement for Joshua in the fourth as a right bounced off the forehead of Usyk. But his right hand, a devastating weapon in the past, was rarely thrown at full pelt. That power that Joshua has in both hands was sacrificed at the expense of trying to box smartly. The bout was still being fought on the visitor’s terms and with the first quarter gone, Joshua was playing catchup.

He played it well in the fifth and sixth. Usyk gestured to the referee that he had been caught low when a looping left cracked into his stomach. Joshua was upping the pressure at last, controlling matters from centre ring and it seemed, if only briefly, that Joshua was about to take over. A right hand, AJ’s best of the contest, thudded into Usyk and reminded him what he was up against.

It spurred on the southpaw. Joshua took a whack to the ribs. The crowd chanted his name but only the other man responded. Usyk sneaked inside, his feet – which were excellent throughout – blocked Joshua’s escape. A left stung the Briton up close. Another right and left quickly followed. Joshua tried to mount his own attack again but was swiftly countered. The best punch of the round, a left cross that clumped off the base of Joshua’s jaw, drew gasps from the crowd.

Joshua’s final moments of success came in the eighth. Usyk’s punches lacked the accuracy of before. He missed with three punches in succession. His body was quickly forced to withstand a heavy clump from Joshua. But it would be the last time that Anthony managed to score downstairs; from that point forth, Usyk repositioned his defence to deflect any attacks to his body.

Joshua himself was trying to adapt. Trying, always trying. At times, he could do nothing but smile and nod at the excellence of his tormentor. Irrespective of being outboxed there was a sense he was enjoying the high-quality combat, grateful, almost, to share a ring with such a supreme boxer. By the end of the session, Joshua was breathing hard and there was a swelling under his right eye.

Through the final three rounds, Joshua was visibly exhausted. There was no urgency from his corner. Perhaps there were simply too many voices for a clear plan to be understood, perhaps they could see their man was too tired to listen. By now, he was fighting on instinct. Jab, jab, left hand and a smile from Oleksandr. Then he pulled Joshua towards him, manhandling the bigger but by now far weaker fighter. Joshua couldn’t wriggle free and as the 11th drew to a close, Usyk scored with three of a four-punch combination.

As the bell sounded to signal the start of the 12th and final round, Usyk again showed what he’s all about. Instead of playing it safe, he went for broke. He raided Joshua from all angles, a left hook wobbling him. Joshua managed a right hand but his mouth hung open. Usyk drifted to his left and clobbered it twice. As the fight concluded, it was the man who needed a knockout to win who looked on the brink of being knocked out. Usyk hurled with purpose to leave Joshua stuck on the ropes like a daddy longlegs trying to hopelessly scramble from a spider’s web. The bell clanged for the last time, saving Joshua from a stoppage defeat.

An unbecoming finale for Joshua, but the final touches to a masterpiece for the Ukrainian wizard. It’s unlikely that Oleksandr Usyk will be so badly misjudged again.

The Verdict: Simply exquisite from Usyk. Joshua can come again but his confidence has surely taken a gargantuan clout.

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