MORE prominent than the cuts and bruises on Oleksandr Usyk’s face, as he sat down in front of the media a little before 1am on Sunday morning, was a smugness that said one thing: I told you so. And he did. He told you, he told me, he told everyone. “I cannot lose to Anthony Joshua.”
Reflecting on the bout now, it seems odd that so many picked against the Ukrainian southpaw. Hindsight can do that, particularly in a sport as wonderfully unpredictable as boxing. But perhaps the oddest thing of all is that Joshua himself thought he could beat Usyk at his own game. Joshua had boxed exclusively at range in just two of his previous 24 contests, yet convinced himself after one training camp of sparring southpaws – none of whom could possibly have been anything like Usyk – he could be clever enough to outbox someone who has been educated in the art of pure boxing for decades.
Joshua’s tactics have rightfully been called into question. But he’s not the first fighter to get it completely wrong on the night and he won’t be the last. Without question, he can come back stronger. Joshua’s dedication to boxing, to get better, to learn, has always been one of his strengths. The vast progress he has made in the 13 years since he first put on a pair of boxing gloves is testament to that. And this latest setback, and for now that’s all it is, will undoubtedly fuel his desire to write yet another triumphant chapter in what has been a truly engrossing story so far.
But whether he can come back successfully if he goes straight into a rematch with Usyk, as he strongly indicated would be the case, is another matter.
The immediate feeling among educated ringsiders was that Joshua would be well-advised to rediscover his confidence, rediscover himself, before even entertaining the thought of fighting Usyk again. The fact that he looks certain to trigger the rematch clause, though, shows exactly why Joshua is so different from those who merely sit and watch.
Not only did he not have to fight Usyk the first time, he doesn’t have to fight him a second. Nor did he have to face the media after such a humbling defeat. It all speaks of a hearty resolve that most of us simply do not possess.
“I’m not going to go home tonight and be crying about it, because this is war. It’s a long process,” he said. “I’ve got an opportunity to go back to the drawing board. So I can’t go back and sulk because that’s wasting time. I’m putting my energy into ways I can improve.”
Perhaps those of us who would prefer to see Joshua fight someone other than Usyk next, for his own sake, just don’t know him well enough. Or perhaps we’re too conditioned to the modern thinking that goes, if a fighter at the highest level loses two on the bounce, their career is effectively over.
Joshua is not scared of defeat, however. The 31-year-old is scared of not getting better. In his mind, another contest with Usyk, win or lose, will only enhance his ability in the long term.
Regardless, one wonders if his team are being honest with him. If they saw the fight that everyone else saw. A fight where Usyk did exactly what was required to fulfil his promise of victory and, if we’re being honest, one in which he was rarely forced to stray into top gear. Even though Joshua will have a better understanding of what he’s up against, my own feeling is that Usyk can improve in a sequel in ways that Joshua cannot. At least not in a few months.
Only if Anthony is made acutely aware of the task at hand can he even begin to think about the possibility of revenge. Joshua’s coach, Robert McCracken, indicated that Joshua can win the rematch with a little tweak here and there and he knows his charge better than anyone.
Joshua’s promoter, Eddie Hearn, said there was no other option out there for his fighter bar the rematch. That coming back with a “knock-over at the O2” would do little for him and make it difficult to break back into the already cluttered championship fray. The latter point is of course true to a degree. Mandatories are piling up for the belt-holders but surely a boxer as marketable as Anthony Joshua will always have opportunities.
Perhaps the person we should pay the most attention to is the person who too many ignored the first time. The fighter who is already getting ready to tell us all he told us so again.
“You didn’t see the best Usyk,” Oleksandr warned. “I can be much better.”