“IIt was the day she turned 12 and so of course she cried a bit,” Oleksandr Usyk quietly recounts as he recalls how his daughter Yelizaveta’s birthday was eclipsed earlier this year on February 24. , the day Russia invaded Ukraine. The heavyweight champion of the world runs his hand through his damp hair, cut in the style of a Cossack warrior, and for a moment he feels like he has returned home on this terrible winter morning when the first bombs are raining down.
“My wife spoke to him, explained to him what had happened, and soon my daughter understood very well what we all face in Ukraine,” says Usyk. “It was tough but she got it and the main thing is she’s safe now. She’ll be fine.
On a ferociously hot Saturday night for him in Dubai, nearly six months after that abandoned birthday party, the ominous shadow of war still hangs over Usyk as he prepares to defend his IBF, WBA and WBO titles against Anthony Joshua. This Saturday night in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Usyk and Joshua will step into the ring for their riveting rematch.
Usyk stripped Joshua of all his belts with an imperious performance in London last September. But all the hype typical of a world heavyweight title fight, at least for the new champion, gives way to more human concerns. He’s not interested in making predictions about what might happen between the ropes – or whether Joshua, who is now guided by Robert Garcia, the excellent Mexican-American trainer, will tear up his misguided strategy in the first fight.
Everything indicates that Joshua will opt for a much more aggressive approach and look to use his considerable physical advantages to try to injure and even knock out Usyk. The Ukrainian is the superior and most natural boxer, with a skill set that Joshua can never hope to match, and Garcia has spoken openly about the need to bully and attack Usyk.
In response to the looming threat, Usyk spent his long and arduous training camp building up his physique. He was majestic in becoming the undisputed world heavyweight champion before, in 2019, moving up to heavyweight where most of boxing’s vast riches are on offer.
He only beat Joshua in his third heavyweight contest, but he’s apparently since built up 15 pounds of muscle in preparation for Joshua’s renewed threat.
“In the first month of the war, I lost 10 pounds,” Usyk says, recalling how, like so many Ukrainians, he lost weight amid stress and worry. “But when I started preparing for this fight, I put on weight quickly and my team did all this amazing work to strengthen my body. I don’t want to say much about the weight, but the main thing is that I feel incredibly fit and strong. You can see it in the gym, but I’m really going to prove it in the ring.
His team have posted videos on social media of Usyk looking terrific as he tears up the heavy bag, and there are stories of how sparring partners were forced out of camp because of the punishment they absorbed. I’m more interested to know if, despite now looking like a heavyweight in his own right, Usyk will retain his usual speed and dexterity. He smiles. “It’s not going to be a problem at all.”
Usyk told me a few months ago in London that Joshua didn’t hurt him in their first fight, although he admitted it was a tough fight. He was in the UK for a press conference to publicize the rematch but, after his promotional duties, Usyk sat down with a few of us. It was striking how open he was about the impact of the war on him as he reflected on his month as a Ukrainian soldier.
“Every day I was there, I was praying and asking, ‘Please God, don’t let anyone try to kill me. Please don’t let anyone shoot me. And please don’t make me shoot another person.
Even more moving, Usyk said: “My children are asking, ‘Father, why do they want to kill us? “” The world heavyweight champion looked briefly helpless when, after a long break, he said: “I don’t know to tell them.
I come back to that moment now and ask Usyk if, as the war continues with no end in sight, his three children still voice that very human question. “They do,” he says, “but I have the answer now. I explain to my children that the Russians are trying to kill us because they are weak people. reason why they will not win the war. We are stronger than them.”
He is still their father and so they must feel fear and worry as he faces Joshua again. Will they watch the fight? “I really trust my kids and it’s up to them if they see the fight. And even if I tell them they can’t watch, they probably will anyway. I don’t want them to lie and say they haven’t watched. I want to keep this relationship of trust and be honest with them. I trust them to know what is best for them and whether or not they will watch me fight.
Usyk assured that all Ukrainians will be able to watch him against Joshua. He was prepared to cover all financial costs to remove pay-per-view restrictions in Ukraine, but a deal was soon struck to make the fight available for free in his own country. “It’s great and it will show the connection between me and Ukraine. The fact that everyone at home can watch will inspire me.
It’s easy to imagine that Volodymyr Zelenskiy will be one of those millions of viewers, given that Usyk is one of Ukraine’s most famous and revered people. Has Usyk recently spoken to Zelenskiy? “Our president has a lot of work at the moment, so he is very busy with all the problems in the country. But I will talk to him later and it will be an honor.
Usyk set up a foundation in response to the war and he speaks passionately about his work with UK-based NFT sports platform Blockasset. They have just launched an exclusive digital art collection of 2,000 objects with the aim of raising $2 million for the Usyk Foundation which will support humanitarian aid to Ukrainians in need of medical care, shelter and of food. “It’s a great initiative,” says Usyk, “and the collection captures great moments of my career, like beating Anthony Joshua in London. These are totally unique assets to raise funds for Ukraine.
Is Usyk worried that the world is starting to forget about the war? “I think some people are not doing enough to help Ukraine. Many people try to hide and just wait for the war to end and hope it doesn’t affect them. But it is not possible because it will affect everyone in one way or another. We should all pay attention to what is happening and do something about it.
What has been the lowest moment for him since the start of the war? “The whole time has been really difficult. I don’t want to be pitied, but the hardest time was at the start of the war because I wasn’t with my family. Not being with my wife and children is the most difficult for me. But I got out of it because I prayed to God and I regained my self-confidence.
His family home in Vorzel was broken into by Russian soldiers who used it as a base for a short time. Usyk points out: “I have people rebuilding it, so it will be fine.”
Such clashes make routine questions about boxing superfluous, though another Usyk win would have deep resonance for Ukraine. But will Joshua be desperate to win because a second consecutive defeat would be a smashing result for him? “I’m just going to box like it’s a normal fight so I don’t know about Joshua. But I won’t be as good as any other time I fought. I will be better.
In the first fight, there were times when it looked like Usyk even had the ability to stop Joshua. Could he really win by KO this weekend? “I’m not going to make any predictions, but right now I need my dinner. I’m really hungry. My time is up.”
He says it politely but with the kind of conviction he carries in the ring. Our video call is about to end before I have had time to ask Usyk if he has any doubts about the fighting in Saudi Arabia – where the treatment of so many ordinary people is as cruel as it is murderous. No amount of sportswashing can mask the executions and imprisonments that occur under a brutal regime. It’s a question Usyk hasn’t answered before, but there’s no way to move it now. The interview is over and he wants to take a break on the very last night of his training camp.
It’s hard to blame Usyk, a smart and likeable man who told us earlier this year how the war had changed him. “Sometimes I force myself to smile,” he said in London. “Sometimes I force myself to sing. I don’t even know how to explain it.
The severity of the Russian invasion has scarred him and obscures the logic that suggests Usyk should once again be too good for Joshua. The war means this is no ordinary world heavyweight title fight. Usyk might even be more motivated in the ring, fueled by his desire to win for Ukraine, or perhaps the toll of the conflict will diminish him.
His team has no doubt that his determination and courage are stronger than ever. Hearing again about the heat wave in Europe, Sergey Lapin, a key member of his camp, smiles: “It was 49 degrees in Dubai today but you look at Oleksandr and you wouldn’t even know it. He’s a warrior.
The Ukrainian warrior is about to leave for his last supper in Dubai, before flying to Arabia in the morning, but he shouts his thanks for the interview and says: “God help, after this fight, I will return to my homeland, to Ukraine.
Usyk raises his hand and in this dark moment he seems determined to return home with his family and his status as world heavyweight champion intact.