Stakes higher than boxing. Oleksandr Usyk will fight Anthony Joshua


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February 10, 2023

Stakes higher than boxing. Oleksandr Usyk will fight Anthony Joshua

  • Dispatches from Ukraine
  • Russia
  • Ukraine
  • war

On August 20, Ukrainian boxer Oleksandr Usyk will face Briton Anthony Joshua in a rematch. For Usyk, who comes from Crimea, there is much more at stake in this fight than three championship belts.

Photo: Andriy Makukha

At first you might not realize that it was a press conference before the fight for the three most important heavyweight championship belts, dubbed by the organizers “Rage “on the Red Sea.” The challenger to the title, 32-year-old Briton Anthony Joshua, was overshadowed by the outfit and aura surrounding the champion. The 35-year-old Oleksandr Usyk, undefeated in nineteen fights, champion in two categories: junior-heavyweight and heavyweight, with an [traditional Cossack] Oseledets haircut and in a Cossack outfit, measured his opponent with his eyes. Then he turned around and sang “Oi u luzi chervona kalyna” [“Oh, the Red Viburnum in the Meadow”]:

Oh, in the meadow a red kalyna has bent down low,

For some reason, our glorious Ukraine is in sorrow.

And we’ll take that red kalyna and we will raise it up,

And, hey-hey, we will cheer up our glorious Ukraine!

The folk song got a second life after Russia invaded Ukraine again on February 24. As soon as Usyk began to sing, Joshua hurried to leave. Although boxing press conferences are full of emotions, scuffles, fights and name-calling, they rarely end with singing.

Heir to the Klitschko brothers

The two fighters met in the ring for the first time last September. It was one of the more anticipated fights in this category. Back then, Usyk was a contender moving up to the heavyweight division after doing all he could in the junior heavyweight division. Although Joshua was taller, heavier and stronger, looking like the embodiment of a modern gladiator, the Ukrainian was much more mobile, impressive with his technique and won on points by unanimous decision.

Currently, Usyk is ranked as the best heavyweight by Boxrec/ and The Ring magazine. He is also the favorite of bookmakers and commentators for the upcoming fight. Ukraine may have a worthy successor to the Klitschko brothers, who reigned supreme in the top category for many years. The clash will take place on August 20 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.

Two homes occupied

Usyk’s patriotic get-up is quite astonishing. The boxer has for years spoken cautiously about Ukrainian-Russian relations, participated in events organized by pro-Russian politicians and the Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, and avoided the topic of the occupation of Crimea—ongoing since 2014—like the plague. He is from there and visited his family after the annexation.

Everything changed when Russia launched the full-scale invasion in late February. At the time, Usyk was in the UK, where he and his crew were discussing a rematch with Joshua. He returned home immediately. On the third day, he appealed to Russians using his Instagram account.

“If you consider us Orthodox brothers, do not send your military, your children, into our country. Don’t fight us. I address President Vladimir Putin: you can stop this war. Don’t set any conditions, just sit down at the negotiation table,” said Usyk.

Soon after, Vorzel, a town near Kyiv where Usyk’s house is located, was occupied by the Russians and their military was stationed in the building. On the gate they painted the letter “V”—one of the symbols of the advancing armies.

For my countrymen

Usyk, not seeing any reaction from the Russians, joined the ranks of the territorial defense. He created a foundation to help Ukrainians who suffered as a result of aggression, as well as the military. The Russian invasion had a strong impact on the mental state of the boxer, who could not find himself in the new reality for a long time. However, he soon decided on a rematch with Joshua. He received permission from the authorities and went abroad to prepare.

During training, he appeared in a blue and yellow T-shirt with the inscription “Colors of Freedom.” He invited ten military men that he met while visiting a hospital to a gala. He paid for their travel and their stay in Saudi Arabia.

Although less than a year has passed since the previous fight, the stakes for both boxers are completely different than in 2021. Joshua has changed his coach and realizes that another, third defeat out of twenty-four victories can rattle his career for good. Usyk, on the other hand, fights not only for himself but for his compatriots who will follow the fate of the champion from war-torn Ukraine and abroad (there are over 6.5 million Ukrainian refugees in Europe alone).

This text was originally published in Polish in Tygodnik Powszechny.

Translated from Polish by Lukasz ChelminskiThis piece is part of the DS collection: Dispatches from Ukraine.


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