‘Fighting Words’ — Joshua-Usyk: The Road Warrior and The Detour
Oleksandr Usyk had once again assumed the mantle of the road warrior. On this night in London, he was also a roadblock.
His opponent, Anthony Joshua, was the star of the show, the heavyweight titleholder with three major championship belts in his collection, the hero performing in front of somewhere in the realm of 60,000 to 70,000 people in a soccer stadium.
Joshua was the one spoken of for some of the biggest events in boxing, including a collision with the winner of next month’s third fight between Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder, an opportunity to become the undisputed heavyweight champion.
He was the one who had just signed a contract extension agreeing to work with Matchroom Sport for the remainder of his career. The agreement was born out of Joshua’s confidence in their future together. It was born out of Matchroom’s confidence in Joshua’s future.
He was one fight away from starting that next stage of his career.
Usyk was the one who stood between Joshua. He was an obligation in the way of opportunities.
Usyk was not going to be a mere bump in the road. He wasn’t a pothole. Nor was he a pitfall. This wasn’t a case of hidden danger or an opponent being taken lightly. Usyk’s ability and credibility were well-established.
He was an Olympic gold medalist in 2012, triumphing at heavyweight (about 201 pounds for the amateurs, akin to a cruiserweight in the pros) in the same games where Joshua won it all as a super heavyweight.
He was the former undisputed cruiserweight champ in the paid ranks, a mainstay on many pound-for-pound lists, a skilled boxer who was never going to be overwhelmed by the moment. Usyk had never shied away from going into enemy territory. He’d won every time.
Usyk is a road warrior — he hasn’t fought in his native Ukraine in nearly six years, hasn’t been the person whom most of the fans in attendance had paid to see — but he is no journeyman.
He went to Poland to win his first world title from Krzysztof Glowacki. He defended against Michael Hunter in the United States. He took out Marco Huck in Germany. He unified against Mairis Briedis in Latvia. And he added the two remaining title belts with a wide decision over Murat Gassiev in Russia. Then he wrapped up his cruiserweight reign with his sixth straight successful defense, stopping Tony Bellew in the United Kingdom.
The next stop had the potential to be just as inhospitable, though not necessary insurmountable.
Plenty of cruiserweights have ventured into the heavyweight division. Very few have conquered this new territory.
“Since [the cruiserweight division’s] birth, approximately 70 fighters have won a WBA, WBC, IBF, or WBO belt at cruiserweight. Usyk will be the eighth of their ranks to [move up and] challenge [for a world title] in the unlimited division,” wrote Cliff Rold on BoxingScene.com.
Those previous seven fighters? Evander Holyfield, Juan Carlos Gomez, James Toney, Jean Marc Mormeck, David Haye, Marco Huck, and Tomasz Adamek. Only two of those seven had gone on to win a heavyweight world title — Holyfield and Haye.
That had remained the case even when the talent pool at heavyweight was on the shallower side. It is not the size of the pond, but rather the size of the fish in it. It’s hard to move up and make waves. To say it’s a massive undertaking is a massive understatement.
Those seven cruiserweights weren’t the only ones who’d tried. Plenty of other fighters come with high hopes and confront high stakes. Their bodies may be slowed by the extra bulk. Their power may not make as much of an impact. Their chins may not hold up against heavier shots.
Four of the former cruiserweight titleholders who’d tried and failed can at least take solace that they challenged some of the better heavyweights of recent vintage.
Gomez and Adamek lost to Vitali Klitschko. Mormeck lost to Wladimir Klitschko (as did Haye after he’d dethroned Nikolai Valuev). Huck came up short against Alexander Povetkin.
(As for the outlier in James Toney, his win over John Ruiz was negated by a positive test for a performance-enhancing drug, and he later was held to a draw against Hasim Rahman.)
This was only Usyk’s third fight since moving up to the heavyweight division. He debuted against Chazz Witherspoon in late 2019 and then returned a year later against Dereck Chisora. But the fight with Chisora — in London, of course — had some surprisingly tough moments in the early rounds, with the heftier Brit trying to overwhelm Usyk with aggression and heavy hands. Usyk adjusted and took over for the unanimous decision.
The WBO had installed Usyk as Joshua’s mandatory challenger by virtue of the Ukrainian once holding its belt at cruiserweight. This was the right time for the fight to be made. Usyk couldn’t wait any longer to acclimate to this new weight class.
Joshua was available now. A fight between Joshua and Fury had been canceled — Fury is contractually obligated to face Wilder again first. Joshua either had to face Usyk or vacate one of his belts.
Instead, Usyk now has all three of them.
Those early difficulties again Chisora didn’t repeat against Joshua. That’s because Joshua doesn’t fight like Chisora does. Joshua is more tactical, a boxer-puncher rather than a bruiser. He became even more cautious in the wake of the stunning TKO loss to Andy Ruiz in June 2019. Joshua was tentative but technical while boxing in his rematch win over Ruiz. He was composed and confident while breaking down and knocking out Kubrat Pulev last December.
If Usyk benefited from Joshua being different from Chisora, Joshua struggled because Usyk was different than anyone else faced during his two reigns.
Usyk moved more. He feinted more. He used levels. He confounded Joshua. He concerned Joshua. At the final press conference, Usyk came dressed as the Joker from the 2019 movie starring Joaquin Phoenix. Days later, Usyk was more like a Riddler whom Joshua couldn’t quite solve.
Sometimes taller heavyweights will try to use their height and reach advantages, fighting at a distance. Sometimes that can work against them — the smaller man will box, make the bigger man reach and miss, then make the bigger man pay.
Usyk controlled the range from the outset, but he did so from closer proximity. He popped Joshua with lead left crosses in Round 1. Joshua had a hard time landing, never mind landing heavy blows to the head. And when Joshua did score, Usyk was quick to respond.
Usyk put together a three-punch combo early in Round 3 and hurt Joshua later, throwing a one-two, the left hand looping and catching Joshua. In the opening moments of Round 4, Joshua was staggered again, this time not from a punch but rather because their feet had tangled. It still took a mental toll. But Joshua began to adjust and find more success around Round 5. He tagged his opponent with a right hand as Usyk approached late in Round 6. Usyk regained control in Round 7.
Joshua had one of his best rounds in the eighth, the only round in which he landed power punches in double digits. Some of those were to Usyk’s body, a wise choice given the elusiveness of Usyk’s head. That tactic seemed to come to a halt in Round 9.
Afterward, Joshua said he had trouble seeing from the ninth round on. Indeed, a mark that was seen underneath his right eye in Round 10 became a large lump barely a minute later.
Those final four rounds proved to be the difference on the official scorecards.
Two-thirds of the way through the fight, judge Viktor Fesechenko had it 77-76 for Usyk, with four rounds to the challenger, three rounds to Joshua and one round even. Steve Weisfeld had it 76-76, even at four rounds apiece. And Howard Foster had Joshua ahead 77-75, five rounds to three.
Usyk swept rounds nine through 12 in the eyes of all three official observers. He showed more urgency. Despite his track record of winning in hostile territory, Usyk didn’t want to leave the final result in question. He finished with a flourish, hammering Joshua in the 12th and sending him to the ropes in the waning seconds.
The final scores were in Usyk’s favor for the clear victory. Fesechenko had it 117-112 (eight rounds for Usyk, three for Joshua, one even). Weisfeld saw it 116-112 (eight rounds to four). Foster finished with 115-113 (seven rounds to five).
These last four rounds were key. Had Joshua won two of them, he would’ve held on to the title. Foster would’ve had Joshua narrowly ahead. Weisfeld would’ve had it even. It would’ve been a split draw.
Usyk came through in the clutch. Joshua, meanwhile, didn’t crash this time but still otherwise stalled out, his forward progress coming to a halt. There will need to be some work in the shop before they continue with a detour.
Instead of going straight toward the winner of Fury-Wilder 3, Joshua (24-2, 22 knockouts) may end up taking a rematch with Usyk (19-0, 13 KOs).
Joshua has the drive to improve, but he’ll need to steer himself in the right direction. He’ll need to put his foot on the gas, fight in a higher gear and try to impose himself, which goes counter to the approach Joshua took in the wake of the Ruiz defeat.
Usyk, meanwhile, has added another huge achievement. He’s traveled the world and returned home each time with momentous memories and significant souvenirs. The undisputed cruiserweight champ now has three heavyweight titles to add to his collection.
The road warrior deserves this victory lap.
The 10 Count
1 – The good news: Riddick Bowe will not be fighting Lamar Odom on a celebrity boxing show in Florida this coming Saturday.
He never should’ve been considered to begin with.
Bowe was finished as a fighter more than 20 years ago, back when he was accused of kidnapping his wife and kids, and Bowe’s attorneys said brain damage from boxing was to blame. Somehow Bowe was still able to return to the sport in 2004 in places with lax athletic commissions.
In 2005, a young boxing writer named David Greisman tore into the situation after Bowe, at 37 years old and (supposedly) 280 pounds, struggled to win a split decision over some journeyman dude named Billy Zumbrun. Bowe only fought once more as a pro, picking up a win in 2008 in Germany.
It’s not like Bowe, now 54, is in any better health or shape in 2021 than he was back then.
It didn’t matter that Odom, a retired basketball star with his own history of major health issues, isn’t a pro boxer — or a former MMA fighter like Vitor Belfort, who recently put away the shell of Evander Holyfield.
Boxing has a history of exploiting its fighters. These recent travesties are lower than the usual.
I’m OK with some of these sideshows — to an extent. Mike Tyson vs. Roy Jones seemed to have a tacit agreement between the two men not to try to truly hurt each other. There was a statement from the California State Athletic Commission ahead of time that the match was an exhibition where neither man would be allowed to try to do real damage.
I’m even fine with the Paul brothers taking on actual former fighters who are less likely to be seriously hurt than, say, Nate Robinson could’ve been against Jake Paul last November.
There are fights that shouldn’t be allowed to happen. And there are fighters who shouldn’t be allowed to fight. Promoters will try to get away with whatever they’re able to get away with. That’s why athletic commissions have the responsibility they do. They shouldn’t exist to be business partners. They exist to regulate the sport.
2 – That’s why I’ve always bristled at the argument that this fighter or that one should be allowed to make a living the way he best knows how.
Boxing is indeed a vocation — a way out and up for so many. But it’s still two people being allowed to do something that otherwise would be illegal. You otherwise can’t try to beat the shit out of someone without the possibility of getting arrested and charged with a crime.
Sanctioned fighting comes with the premise that we’re taking an unsafe activity and making it safer. There are the Queensberry Rules, padded gloves, three minute rounds, etc. And there are brain scans, blood tests and the fact that you shouldn’t be able to get a license if you’re going to be a liability.
3 – I’m sad to see that DeMarcus “Chop Chop” Corley will be back in a boxing ring on October 29 in Washington, D.C., according to a press release.
The 47-year-old hasn’t fought in two and a half years. Not under the Queensberry Rules, at least.
Corley retired in his corner in his bareknuckle boxing debut this past March. He lost to some dude named Reggie Barnett who was 6-2 with 2 KOs in regular boxing and 5-1 in bareknuckle action.
Corley is 51-33-1 with 28 KOs. Given that he’s fighting in the co-feature in front of his hometown crowd, here’s hoping that the promoters find a soft touch so that “Chop Chop” doesn’t get butchered.
4 – Boxing might now have its most perfect name since Tyson Fury entered the scene.
That’s thanks to the arrival of Trinidad Vargas, a 115-pounder from Dallas who is set to turn pro at the age of 18. He was born in June 2003, about two and a half years after the famed brawl between the two fighters whose names he bears.
It’s a shame he’s not a junior middleweight.
5 – There may be plenty of expectations for Trinidad Vargas given his name — though nowhere near what the sons of legendary fighters carry with them when they first lace up the gloves.
It could always be worse. You could be named, accidentally or otherwise, after boring boxers.
Somewhere out there is a kid named Rigondeaux Ruiz…
6 – So many boxing promoters arrive with grandiose dreams of taking over the sport, and so many of them fade or fizzle. In my years covering this sport, I’ve probably seen as many boxing promotions come and go as I’ve seen happen with boxing websites.
The latest notable entry is hoping that it won’t become just another footnote.
The company is called Probellum and includes Richard Schaefer as its president.
You’ll recall that Schaefer helmed Golden Boy Promotions for years. He later returned to boxing with Ringstar Sports in 2016.
“I want to build this up as a national and international global promotional powerhouse,” he said of Ringstar at the time, noting that he wanted to be one of the promoters working with Al Haymon’s Premier Boxing Champions. “I will certainly promote my own events, as well. I will go out there and get my own TV deals done. I might be working with other promoters, as well.”
Ringstar never gained much of a foothold. Schaefer is now speaking in similar terms about Probellum.
“We’re going to do our own events and execute network agreements as well, but we don’t mind being co-promoters,” Schaefer told ESPN’s Mike Coppinger. “We want to make sure the fights the sport needs are going to happen. So we really want to have an all-inclusive approach. … We want to work with every promoter. We want to work with every manager.”
It’s not just Schaefer’s baby this time. Probellum was founded by a man who owns a soccer team in Northern Ireland, and the company also includes executives who worked at the UFC and Top Rank.
We’ll see. The people behind Probellum have a track record. That probably won’t be enough for notable fighters who are being wooed by promoters — businesses whose infrastructure is already in place. Probellum will either be like some of the other companies that spend too much money out of the gate on talent and fights, or they’ll need to build slowly with what are essentially boxing’s undrafted free agents.
They’ll need to sign fighters in order to get TV dates, and they’ll need to get TV dates in order to get more fighters.
There are lots of smaller promoters who are content to put on minor shows or farm their talent out to other promoters’ cards. I don’t think that’s what any of these executives set out to be.
7 – John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum
Richard Schaefer, Chapter 3 — Probellum
8 – In a year where fights keep getting canceled when boxers test positive for COVID-19, you’d think that more fighters would get vaccinated.
And given that promoters and networks lose money when these shows are postponed, you definitely wouldn’t expect fighters to publicize their unwillingness to protect themselves and others.
Especially when that fighter needs this fight to resurrect his career.
Whether you consider it a foolish stand, a person sticking to his principles, or both, Bryant Jennings seems to be opening the door to doubly sabotaging his upcoming rematch with Oscar Rivas for the vacant WBC bridgerweight title.
“So my only option to participate as [an] unvaccinated professional combat sport (boxer) can’t be to quarantine in a hotel room two weeks prior to a fight,” Jennings tweeted on Saturday. “Proper training and preparation is impossible. I’ll be the first fighter that had to back out of a title fight due to being unvaccinated.
“But I ain’t backing out,” he soon added in a pair of tweets. “Two cancellations and now this shxt [sic]. I’ve been on this particular mission since April. Finding a replacement is not an option. … If the fight can’t happen in Canada, then it has to happen in a place where it can.”
Jennings and Rivas first fought in January 2019, back when both were heavyweights. Rivas scored a TKO in the 12th round.
Jennings hasn’t fought in more than two years, dating back to his decision loss against prospect Joe Joyce in July 2019. He just turned 37, is 24-4 with 14 KOs, and isn’t in contention for anything of note in boxing’s marquee division.
However, the WBC created the bridgerweight division a year ago with a maximum weight of 224 pounds. That is a good fit for Jennings, who was 225 and 226 in his two recent outings. Rivas followed up his victory over Jennings by suffering a loss to Dillian Whyte a week after Joyce vs. Jennings took place. Rivas returned this past January at a career-low 221.25 pounds, shaking off some rust against a no-hoper.
Two weeks ago, Rivas-Jennings 2 was announced for October 22 in Montreal. Tickets are sold out.
9 – You’ll recall that Teofimo Lopez didn’t want to go to Australia for his upcoming title defense against George Kambosos Jr. because of the time he’d have to spend in mandatory quarantine. You’ll also recall that the event’s promoter had wanted to relocate that fight after it was initially postponed due to Lopez testing positive for COVID.
Lopez’s stand worked — the fight will instead be taking place in New York City in October. However, plenty of other fighters have traveled and made training work despite being required to quarantine.
Jennings doesn’t have the leverage that Lopez does. (The IBF also required the lightweights to be vaccinated.) I doubt the show will be relocated.
“They tryna figure out why I’m willing to turn down six figures for something I believe in,” Jennings tweeted. “That’s cus I ain’t weak.”
“This damn fight in jeopardy,” he said.
10 – Somehow, Bryant Jennings cares even less about the bridgerweight division than the rest of boxing does…
Follow David Greisman on Twitter @FightingWords2. His book, “Fighting Words: The Heart and Heartbreak of Boxing,” is available on Amazon.