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Gray Matter: Forget belt throwing and regrets, let’s acknowledge Oleksandr Usyk

Photo by Mark Robinson/ Matchroom Boxing Oleksandr Usyk wins
23
Aug

“AJ did this!”

“AJ said that!”

We’ve all been guilty of it since Saturday, but it’s time to take a warm glass of STFU! Why? Because lost in all the craziness was a glorious, disciplined and gutsy display from a truly great prize fighter and a future Hall of Famer.

Oleksandr Usyk scored a repeat points triumph over Anthony Joshua at the Jeddah Superdome in Saudi Arabia. The official scores of 116-112 and 115-113 in favor of Usyk restored order following Glenn Feldman’s inexplicable 115-113 tally for Joshua. Feldman clearly decided to take the night off.



Numbers be damned, Usyk won the fight and bolstered a legacy that was already special before the opening bell rang.

He is just amazing!

So let’s take a look at what the winner has accomplished since lacing up the gloves.

A decorated amateur – from middleweight to heavyweight – Usyk medaled at the Strandzha Cup; the World Cup; the European Championships; the World Championships; and signed off with Olympic gold at London 2012. His final amateur record was an eye-popping 335-15. And for an encore, Usyk competed in the World Series of Boxing and won all six fights.

At 26 years old, he was still growing into his 6-foot-3 frame and entered the paid ranks as a cruiserweight. Before Usyk had 10 fights, Tony Bellew told me that the gifted Ukrainian was already one of the finest 200-pound fighters in the world. He was right! Usyk won every belt available: Krzysztof Glowacki (UD 12 for WBO), Mairis Briedis (MD 12 for WBC) and Murat Gassiev (UD 12 for Ring and WBA). His final fight at the weight was an undisputed title defense against the very man who seen his greatness coming way in advance. Bellew, a former WBC titleholder, suffered an eighth-round stoppage defeat.

What did all those big fights have in common? Usyk won them all in his opponent’s home country: Glowacki in Poland; Briedis in Latvia; Gassiev in Russia; Bellew in England. It’s a run that would have aged very well had he stopped there.

Usyk won The Ring cruiserweight championship in 2018. Photo courtesy of Matchroom Boxing

It was a case of when, not if, Usyk would make his incursion into the glamour division. However, when the cruiserweight king officially moved up, in the fall of 2019, his momentum took a dip. He looked bored and lethargic against Chazz Witherspoon (TKO 7), and British warrior Derek Chisora (UD 12) put forth a much better effort in defeat than most had expected.

But despite Usyk’s listless showings, the WBO followed their protocol of installing the titleholder from a lower weight as the No. 1 challenger at the higher weight. Anthony Joshua was the champion of that organization and the big-punching colossus from Watford, England, also held IBF and WBA titles. Despite having lost his unbeaten record in a shocking upset to Andy Ruiz (TKO 7), Joshua bounced back with an easy points triumph, then battered Kubrat Pulev en route to a convincing ninth-round knockout.

AJ was just too damn big and too damn powerful for Usyk!

That outlook didn’t age well!

I had the pleasure of being ringside for fight one at the Tottenham Hotspur soccer stadium in London, last September. I’d settled on picking Joshua to win, but after two rounds, I knew I was wrong. Usyk’s movement, feint game, speed, agility, sharp shooting and southpaw stance gave the champ an absolute nightmare.

Chapter 1. Photo by Mark Robinson/ Matchroom Boxing

Ironically, the so-called size advantage was a disadvantage. The 6-foot-6 Joshua was 240 pounds and the 6-foot-3 Usyk was 221.25. However, with a vastly more fluid and improvisational style, Usyk was able to confound Joshua with footwork and angles. The challenger could drift left or right and cover a large distance with one step, whereas the slower Joshua needed two or three steps to catch up. By the time the Englishman got into position, his opponent had released punches, escaped, and reset. Usyk was largely dominant and claimed a 12-round unanimous decision. I scored 117-111, and it didn’t feel like the kind of loss that Joshua could avenge.

But despite the negative press AJ is receiving right now – and it’s deserved – he is a fighting man. The former champ hired a new team, he locked himself away, and he worked his ass off for months. But while Usyk was tested more in the rematch, he’s just a better fighter than Joshua. Sometimes the simplest explanation is the best one.

Joshua deserves respect for a great effort. Usyk, who added The Ring heavyweight championship to his collection, deserves all the attention for being a truly great fighter.

And more important than anything else, Usyk prepared for this fight while thousands of his countrymen were being slaughtered by Russian forces. He’s a champion for his people before anything else.

 

Tom Gray is managing editor for Ring Magazine. Follow him on Twitter: @Tom_Gray_Boxing

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