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 suggests he’s not about to take matters lightly. Throughout fight week, he has looked typically fit, and typically determined.
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 the last few days, when marketing the fight became a necessity. A few months ago, Joshua blamed his corner – from which only Robert McCracken has subsequently departed – 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 last year, 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, logic dictates, if Joshua can increase his activity and improve his aim, his chances of victory become greater.
A sturdy 221 1/4lbs he might be, but Usyk is not a natural heavyweight. His growth into the division has been by design. 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.