It will take a monumental effort on the part of Anthony Joshua to turn the tide against Oleksandr Usyk tonight, writes Matt Christie
PREDICTING high profile, well-matched heavyweight fights is always tricky. However, given that Oleksandr Usyk defeated Anthony Joshua so majestically only 11 months ago, is this really that well-matched or unpredictable?
What I will say, as early as the second paragraph, is that the moment a rematch was first discussed in the immediate aftermath of Usyk’s points victory over Joshua in September last year, I would have laid good money on the Ukrainian repeating the victory even more convincingly in a sequel. But a lot, almost too much to mention, much to mention, has happened since then.
Let’s take Usyk first. In February, with a return on the table, his country was invaded. Armed with a gun he prayed he wouldn’t have to use, he joined his compatriots at war. During quiet moments, the fighter would be struck by the precarious nature of his own existence and how contextually trivial boxing is. So, while Joshua was stewing over the first fight, Usyk was focusing only on matters of life and death.
Nobody can know for certain whether such awful events have strengthened Usyk’s determination to win this return, or caused his attention to wander. However, that Usyk has gone out of his way to ensure his fellow Ukrainians can watch this contest on free television (via YouTube) suggests he’s not about to take matters lightly.
A fit and determined Usyk is bad news for Joshua’s chances. So, too, were some of the surprising claims the Englishman made when this rematch was confirmed. So surprising, it’s little wonder he was then shielded from the media until fight week (even his trainers have not been allowed to speak). Joshua blamed his corner – only Robert McCracken has subsequently departed his training team – for making him think that he was comfortably ahead last September 25. Yet the notion that he truly believed he was winning a fight he barely survived, regardless of what he was told, is perhaps more telling about his own understanding of the contest. Though not exactly a thrashing, it was nonetheless strikingly obvious that Usyk was a clear winner at the final bell. If Joshua had failed to read that during the fight, then Robert Garcia – McCracken’s replacement – has had an awful lot of work to do.
That Joshua ignored advice from some to avoid the immediate return is admirable in the extreme, however, particularly when one considers how difficult it is for a fighter to be outboxed so comprehensively in fight one and then furnish revenge in fight two. Truth is, when bouts play out like Usyk-Joshua did, there is rarely a return, so convincing was the victory. If it was a boxer without the stature and pull of Anthony Joshua demanding a sequel, nobody would demand one, either. In short, to accomplish a turnaround would be a gargantuan achievement – the best of Joshua’s already excellent career.
Though Usyk is rightfully the favourite, all is not lost for the underdog. The Watford slugger barely landed a punch of note, but Usyk was left with cuts and bruises on a face he’d seemed to protect so effectively. Joshua’s power, even when not at full capacity, left its mark. Therefore, if Joshua can increase his activity and improve his aim, his chances of victory become greater.
Regardless of what he weighs, Usyk is not a natural heavyweight and, though artful and wise, he’s neither invincible nor immune to the kind of power Joshua is capable of hurling. Furthermore, if Joshua can land early, and hurt Usyk in a manner that he failed to last year, the bout will immediately have a very different feel to it – for both the fans and the fighters. After all, though Usyk made it all look very easy in London, we don’t know how easy it really was to keep the hulking Joshua at bay for 36 minutes. Would it have looked so easy if it was Joshua, and not Usyk, who landed first? The Ukrainian, don’t forget, was in charge from the opening seconds and never really looked like relinquishing control. Usyk is clever, exceptionally so, and one of the aces up his sleeve is the art of making everything appear so effortless; though the punches he throws win him fights, the nonchalant manner in which he does so can break the hearts of his rivals.
That enviable peace of mind is not always shared by Joshua. He often overthinks. He appeared to before and during the first fight and it will require rigid mental fortitude to not allow those memories to torment him before and during the return. Seemingly forever haunted by his tank running empty midway through his 2017 victory over Wladimir Klitschko, the old seek-and-destroy Joshua might be a thing of the past. He knows if he unloads for a sustained period and fails to score the stoppage, exhaustion quickly follows. And for those predicting Joshua will storm out of the blocks and win this one early, it’s worth remembering that the Englishman hasn’t won a fight in the first half of a 12-rounder since he halted the hopelessly overmatched Eric Molina in three rounds back in 2016. It shouldn’t need highlighting, but Usyk is no Molina.
Further food for thought: Kubrat Pulev was badly hurt by Joshua in round three but survived rounds four, five, six, seven and eight as the Briton refuelled following his early assault. Though far closer to him than Molina, Usyk is no Pulev, either.
So, any promises from Joshua that he’s going to approach this one like a gung-ho assassin might be hard to keep. He will be aware that such a foolhardy approach could lead to disaster against Usyk, whose deft movement and counter-punching nous essentially disarmed him last time. Watch the first fight again; Joshua’s jab was largely ineffective and, consequently, his trailing right hand non-existent. So, if Joshua was struggling to get the old one-two going, it’s a stretch to imagine Usyk allowing his foe to launch blows in hurtful clusters.
Joshua’s training camp will, of course, have been geared to making the required changes. Firstly, to get back to doing what he does best, and secondly, to learn how to stop Usyk being at his. That understanding, though Joshua lost, would only have been heightened by the time he’s spent in the ring with Usyk. Also, Joshua can argue that he’s faced the best of Usyk, but Usyk did not face the best of him. There have been whispers – and only whispers – that Anthony is improving every day as he spars with slippery (and mostly amateur) southpaws. This is his second consecutive camp where he has prepared for that leftie style. His education, therefore, has surely been enhanced.
The rumour mill has also suggested that Joshua was forced to pull out of sparring sessions and cut down his roadwork due to an injury to his left knee. All conjecture, of course, but it is logical to suggest that, with a new trainer, Joshua’s camp will have been very different to any he has experienced before. And one camp is rarely long enough to achieve the kind reinvention required here.
While Joshua has been learning new things with a new teacher, Usyk goes into this bout knowing he has the beating of Joshua. Reports of him swimming for five hours at a time suggest that he has not been bogged down with any concerns about changing his style. Content he has this boxing lark nailed, that he can adapt to any situation in the ring, getting himself supremely fit and battle-ready has been the order of the day. Again, a fit and focused Usyk is surely the last thing an uncertain Joshua needs.
Shaking that uncertainty is Joshua’s key to victory. Though he appeared confident last time in the days leading up to the fight, he was far from it on the night. It can be argued that, in London, where ‘AJ’ is unthinkably famous, there were too many distractions. In Saudi, those distractions all but vanish.
Joshua has to be aggressive and clever, but not waste time thinking too deeply. Focus more on what he can do rather than worry about what Usyk might. He unquestionably has the power to make life uncomfortable for his opponent, perhaps even stop him. Joshua must stay close, block any escape routes and pound to the body, where he had fleeting success last time. Usyk naturally glides left and right, but can struggle when the pressure is so intense he is not allowed to move so fluently. This where Joshua’s own footwork needs to be on point.
But making a convincing case for Joshua to win this isn’t easy, particularly when we have 36 minutes’ worth of evidence from their first encounter that proves otherwise. The pick, therefore, has to be Usyk to win.
A close examination of their styles, strengths and weaknesses pointed to Oleksandr winning before the first fight and now, after witnessing that first fight, the evidence is much greater. Only a fool would completely write off Anthony’s chances, but only those in the AJ business would go one step further and predict he wins the fight.
Last time, Usyk boxed sweetly and refrained from going for the stoppage until the last round. Therefore another points victory would be a sensible bet. However, the feeling is that Joshua will indeed chuck more leather this time, simply because he has to chuck more leather.
It’s an approach that should make the contest exciting while ultimately drawing the best from Usyk. With Joshua fading and making mistakes after a busy and engrossing opening, the Ukrainian can secure his 21st consecutive victory, doing so in the mid to late rounds of this 12-rounder.
Three of the four major sanctioning body belts are at stake, but more importantly, with Tyson Fury’s latest retirement announcement being accepted as genuine, this bout will crown a new world heavyweight champion. Liverpool’s Callum Smith, 28-1 (20), will surely encounter his most difficult light-heavyweight assignment to date when he meets Frenchman Mathieu Bauderlique, 21-1 (12), over 12 rounds in chief-support. The 33-year-old is the first southpaw Smith has faced since he struggled with John Ryder down at 168lbs in 2019.
Bauderlique, ranked No. 10 in the world to Smith’s five, is coming off a solid victory over Igor Mikhalkin which saw him claim the European title. He can make life tricky for 32-year-old Smith who cannot afford to lose. Yet Smith looked terrific on the Usyk-Joshua undercard last year, when he pulverised Gilbert Castillo Rivera in two rounds. He may find Bauderlique harder to pin down but Smith should prevail inside schedule.
At heavyweight Filip Hrgovic, 14-0 (12), has to be a big favourite to defeat the overrated Zhilei Zhang, 24-0-1 (19). The Chinese southpaw can bang but he looks levels below Hrgovic. The Croat should get Zhang out of there before this 12-rounder gets to the halfway mark.
Veteran Badou Jack should be too good for Richard Rivera at cruiserweight and expect flashy Ben Whittaker to cruise to 2-0 (2) while exposing the limited Petar Noskic’s glossy 6-0 (3) record.
THE VERDICT – Joshua is brave in the extreme to go in with Usyk again.