It’s not easy being a boxing fan. The sporadic, stop-start nature of the schedule allows for long gaps of inaction resulting in waning enthusiasm from a fanbase with notoriously short attention spans. Corruption, controversy and outright criminality make it hard to find a hero in sport that oftentimes feels like it’s run by carnies. Should one happen to find a fighter worth taking a rooting interest in, they’re only likely to see them perform two or three times a year max, often with diminishing returns. This just isn’t a problem that other sports — and other sports fans — have to deal with.
Football fans can walk away from any typical Sunday having seen a half-dozen exciting games to distract them from the horrors of their meandering, hellish existence. The Stanley Cup Playoffs are two straight months of high-octane adrenaline for dudes named Gord. Basketball and baseball maybe even have championship games or tournaments or something but I have no idea, nor will I ever. There’s simply no way to know.
Point is, boxing fans are more prone to crises of faith than almost anyone else on Earth, and for good reason. We came to this sport because we hate ourselves and we know boxing will continue to allow us to do so. We don’t need miracles or a second coming. No one is asking for proof of a savior. Direction and affirmation are for guidance counselors. We simply need reassurance that every so often our bloodlust is, in fact, going to be satisfied. Give us a sanguinary tale to tell and we’re back in. Sometimes one is all it takes.
After a turbulent-bordering-on-disastrous year for boxing, Oleksandr Usyk and Anthony Joshua may have just helped restore faith to the masses.
Boxing is, as we so often discuss in this space, about stories. It’s the events leading up to and directly following the fight that live on in history, often far more than do the actual nuts and bolts of the fight itself. It’s the mindset and histories of the athletes involved that help us put their in-ring actions into perspective, and ultimately into historical context. Who they are, where they’ve been and what it all means. Those are the questions we ask as these stories unfold.
And as beleaguered, exhausted narrators, one could hardly ask for better characters at a better time than Usyk and Joshua.
Usyk (19-0, 13 KOs) is what sad children see in their nightmares: A globetrotting, gap-toothed maniac marching from country to country, collecting scalps and belts while spitting in the face of death and laughing along the way. Joshua (24-2, 22 KOs) is what casting agents see in their wet dreams: Tall and muscular with movie star looks and an affable British delivery that sounds like it’s being read from cue cards at every moment. Usyk, the invading warlord, steps into foreign territory yet again, where the golden child with an entire nation behind him awaits. This is good shit, people.
As Usyk and Johsua entered the ring at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in London on a DAZN-televised card this Saturday, the one thing on everyone’s mind was the size disparity of the two combatants. Well, that and booze. Did I mention it was in England?
Usyk has spent the majority of his career fighting at the cruiserweight limit of 200 lbs., where his resume speaks for itself as one of the greatest in the sport’s history, second maybe only to Evander Holyfield. Making only his third appearance at heavyweight, many felt his smaller frame wouldn’t stand up to Joshua’s hulking 6’ 6”, 240-lb. physique. Even at 6’ 3” himself, and with a 78-inch reach, Usyk is a near midget when compared to today’s mammoth heavyweights. Joshua, in theory, would use his height and reach to keep Usyk on the outside, and when the moment struck, put every ounce of his weight behind his thundering right hand.
Here’s the thing though; Joshua simply doesn’t fight like that. He doesn’t use his physical gifts to his advantage in a way that would benefit him against smaller men. Anyone who thought Joshua’s size would be Usyk’s Achilles heel either forgot about Andy Ruiz or was finally banned from boxrec for requesting Butterbean nudes. If neither of these describes you then you’ll recall that Ruiz flattened Joshua back in June of 2019, handing the Brit his first career loss. Ruiz did so with a 74-inch reach and a listed 6’ 2” height, which yeah, maybe if he was wearing high heels and standing on a phone book. Regardless, both numbers are significantly less than those of Usyk.
Usyk’s success against Joshua was never going to come down to size advantages or deficits among the fighters. It was always going to be about brains. Usyk has those in spades, and that’s not even counting the ones he’s removed from the brains of college students in a series of botched medical experiments.
As the bell rang for round 1 the first thing we noticed was that the size advantage for Joshua wasn’t nearly as big as we were led to believe. With his broad shoulders and compact torso, Usyk possesses an imposing figure in his own right. As the round progressed Usyk began to drop in his signature straight left, which would be his money punch for the rest of the night.
Usyk showed no fear of Joshua’s power and really had no need to. Joshua is a murderous finisher but has a tendency to keep his weapon holstered until his target is lying dead on his front porch. As Joshua waited, Usyk snuck in the side door and pieced him up with quick jabs and sneaky hooks to the body.
The tactical mismatch in Joshua’s favor that many were predicting was instead beginning to look like target practice for his maniacal Ukrainian opponent. In round 3 Usyk landed a massive left that staggered Joshua and had his legs shaking like Chris Arreola’s plumber on Super Bowl Sunday.
Joshua began to find his rhythm in the middle rounds and had success keeping Usyk at bay. When he did eventually find a home for his vaunted right hand, Usyk’s chin came through for him. As both fighters began to show signs of wear and tear, it was Joshua who appeared to be playing catch-up.
Usyk once again stepped on the gas in the championship rounds and had Joshua in all kinds of trouble. In the final seconds of the fight, Usyk fired a barrage of shots that had Joshua leaning on the ropes and giving one of those “Uh oh, I’m fucked” smiles that all fighters do when they’re in deep shit. He would ultimately make it to the final bell but the result of the fight was written all over his face. Exhausted and dejected, Joshua sat on his stool and awaited his fate.
To those watching, the result felt obvious but since everyone knows you basically have to shoot someone, set them on fire and bury their corpse under an active volcano to get a decision in the U.K., there was still a tiny bit of intrigue left as the scores were read.
To their credit, the judges got it right with scores of 117-112, 116-112, 115-113 all in Usyk’s favor. I hope to one day set the bar low enough for myself that simply not fucking up on a massive scale and performing the bare minimum of my duties garners me worldwide praise and acclaim. You know, like a boxing judge?
Regardless, Usyk claimed his place among the top of the heavyweight division and a shitload of belts that once belonged to Joshua in the process. I have no idea which ones because I’m not a psycho. Look it up if you care to know. I do not.
With this win Usyk also punched his Hall of Fame ticket and secured his place in boxing lore. The particulars of the fight will be forgotten by the passing of time but the story is already a part of heavyweight legend.
Oleksandr Usyk, the wild-eyed nomad marching into the house of the king and stealing his crown. Both a general and a jester, he’s now a conqueror. A slayer of giants.
Of course this is all overly romantic, purple prose bullshit, but all stories are to some degree. The way we tell them is as important as the details themselves.
Those who were there in the arena and those watching at home will all tell the story differently and with varying degrees of accuracy. The ending though, will always be the same.
Oleksandr Usyk, fighting at the heaviest weight of his career against the biggest opponent of his life, walking away with his hand raised in victory and a gap-toothed grin on his face.
What a night.
What a story.
(Photo: Oleksandr Usyk, right, celebrates his victory over Anthony Joshua, left; via)