Ukrainian independence motivates Oleksandr Usyk going into mandatory clash with Daniel Dubois
Since his most recent fight – when little over a year ago in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, he was so impressive in outpointing Anthony Joshua for the second successive time – Oleksandr Usyk has been denied the undisputed heavyweight title fight he sought with Tyson Fury, and, to the minds of most observers, been replaced by Terence Crawford as the world’s finest active fighter.
In just 20 fights he had not only established himself as the undisputed cruiserweight champion, and perhaps the finest cruiserweight in history, he had moved to heavyweight to dethrone the revered Anthony Joshua and then, in their rematch, secured his financial future while earning the Ring Magazine championship and making his first defense of the IBF, WBA and WBO titles.
For all of the frustration he might have felt at being denied what could have proven his defining fight – and potentially crowning night – against the unpredictable WBC champion Fury, and in turn by being overshadowed by Naoya Inoue beating Stephen Fulton and Crawford stopping Errol Spence in the space of a week, at 36 years old he instead has a sense of perspective intensified by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
In the aftermath of his second victory over Joshua – the first, in September 2021, was before the war had started – Usyk spent time in the under-siege Ukrainian town of New York, and even visited the frontline. Thursday is Ukrainian Independence Day – displaced Ukrainians all over the world will commemorate the day in 1991 their country became independent from the Soviet Union – and ahead of Saturday’s fight with Daniel Dubois at Stadion Wroclaw in Wroclaw, Poland, where a significant portion of their population was forced to move to escape the Russian army, Usyk is more aware than ever of their need for a release.
“I lived with the soldiers,” Usyk explained. “I spent some time with them. Of course, with that, I’m getting more motivation. I get a lot of text messages from my fans, but I also get them from my friends who are on the frontline. Sometimes, when I’m talking with my friends on the phone, missiles are exploding and I hear bombing, then he says, ‘Brother, I’m gonna call you back if I’m still alive’. Most of the time, they’re still alive.
“By binoculars, at 900m, I saw my enemies running. I saw exploded tanks. I saw broken houses. I saw people with no legs, no arms. And I also saw some people walking, but who looked to me like they were dead.
“Then I was going in a car, around the city – I realized it’s a dead city. I saw children’s toys. I saw places for children to play, but it looked to me like everything was dead. There was no energy in that city. I realized one day, in that place, on that ground, kids were playing. But now, it’s completely dead.
“Some of the guys from the frontline said, ‘What are you doing here? We don’t understand – why do you come here? Some of the generals are not coming here to this place’, and I told them, ‘I am not a general – I am just a regular Ukrainian guy’.
“In the last year and a half, my family are separated. My kids cannot be in Ukraine – they live somewhere else, but all of this makes me stronger. I see how some people change in themselves. Even people I know are changing in a different way – not the best way.
“I spent a lot of time with those people, and they are not professional soldiers that are ready for war. They are regular people. One of them was a banker; another one had a bakery; the third one had a different business, but they went. Of course, there are soldiers who were in the army, but a lot of guys aren’t soldiers and they’re there to get freedom for the country.
“[Wroclaw] has a big Ukrainian community; boxing history; even Vitali Klitschko was fighting in Wroclaw. If I can bring them just a little bit of enjoyment, I would fight every day. I understand because they are there [on the frontline], they’re not watching anything, they’re fighting for freedom. But we’re gonna get the freedom later.”
The 25-year-old Dubois has arrived in Poland with not only his new trainer Don Charles, who he is working with for the first time following his separation from Shane McGuigan, but James Ali Bashir, for 17 years the assistant of the late, great Emanuel Steward, and in this context more relevantly the trainer of Usyk for three years.
Charles and Bashir met in 2010 in the days before Wladimir Klitschko – who like his brother Vitali is also committed to the efforts in Ukraine to repel Vladimir Putin’s troops – withdrew with an abdominal injury from his scheduled defense for the IBF and WBO titles against the then-undefeated Derek Chisora, then trained by Charles.
It will not be lost on the spiritual, bullish Charles that his opportunity to work with the talented Dubois was as unexpected as Klitschko’s injury, nor that Dubois’ status as the mandatory challenger for the WBA title means that he will also be challenging for the same IBF and WBO titles Chisora had been denied fighting for when Klitschko withdrew with only four days to go.
Bashir was Usyk’s first, long-term professional trainer, and therefore guided him from his second professional fight, against Epifanio Mendoza in December 2013, to the night he made the first defense of the WBO cruiserweight title won from Krzysztof Glowacki – against Thabiso Mchunu in December 2016.
The American claims that during his three years in Kiev, Ukraine, Usyk had told him he had become like a father, and yet that he was later dismissed via text message. He regardless also insists that his involvement in Saturday’s fight is strictly professional.
“My satisfaction would be seeing Daniel win,” he told RingTV. “The whole ball of wax. That would be my satisfaction. Not anything to do with Usyk.
“[Dubois] impressed me heavily. It was a no-brainer for me to come here. When Don invited me, I said, ‘Yes, I’d like to be a part of that’. I’m grateful and thankful to Don.”
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