Oleksandr Usyk raised a few eyebrows with his sartorial choices during Thursday’s press conference with Anthony Joshua but the Ukrainian slugger remains ideally poised to cause a shock at boxing’s heavyweight summit.
You know what they say about best laid plans.
Boxing has long had an issue with timing. No, not the type of timing one might expect to see in the ring in the crossfire of a fist-fight, but rather one of the sport consistently failing to set up the type of fights that fans wants to see.
The primary evidence of this, in recent years at least, was the so-called ‘Fight of the Century’ between Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao – a bout which it is unanimously agreed upon took place about five years too late.
The years following have sometimes seen a similar script. It can be argued that Gennady Golovkin was past his best in his two-fight series with Canelo Alvarez, while boxing fans can also point to a host of other scraps which either haven’t happened, or haven’t happened when they should have.
Boxing’s latest iteration of this familiar tale concerns the two men who hold all the marbles in the sport’s heavyweight frame: Tyson Fury and Anthony Joshua. The two British fighters have repeatedly cleared a path towards one another, only for road blocks to emerge just at it seemed likely a deal may be agreed.
For Fury, it was the court arbitration which ruled that he was contractually obligated to fight Deontay Wilder for a third time, again scuppering talks aimed at placing the world’s two best heavyweight fighters in the ring together.
The resulting gap in Joshua’s schedule allowed for the the WBO’s mandatory challenger Oleksandr Usyk to jump the line – with the undefeated Ukrainian now cast in the role of being spoiler to the hypothetical Joshua-Fury showdown.
In a certain light, it seems as if both Usyk and Joshua have been on a collision course for much of their careers. Both men won gold at the 2012 Olympic Games in London; Joshua at super-heavyweight and Usyk at heavyweight, and both have progressed through their ensuing professional careers with relative ease (Andy Ruiz notwithstanding).
And as Usyk has told the media on fight week, he sees all the pressure as being on Joshua to perform in front of his hometown crowd at London’s Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.
“I believe it will be more difficult for him because he has three titles to defend and he’s fighting at home and defending at home,” said Usyk. “Then a baldish guy from Ukraine will come to his home country and will be looking for a big fight.
“In 2012, I was not thinking about fighting him because at that time I didn’t enter professional boxing yet but it was obvious he would become a superstar even back then because of the combination of factors; a guy from the UK, a heavyweight and many many other things. It was obvious that he would be a superstar.
“He says he does not remember me from back then… well, I believe he is joking. It doesn’t matter. I do remember him and have been watching his fights for quite a long time.“
Usyk brings a refreshing charm with him into the upper echelon of heavyweight boxing, having already ploughed through the cruiserweight ranks as undisputed champion.
The Ukrainian is hailed as being one of the sport’s more interesting characters – as evidenced by the shaven-headed fighter attending Thursday press conference with Joshua dressed as Joaquin Phoenix’s ‘Joker’ character from the movie of the same name.
Embodying that role even further, the Ukrainian boxer even showcased his juggling skills to the media this week as he inches ever closer to the biggest fight of his life.
FIRST FACE OFF #JoshuaUsyk
— Matchroom Boxing (@MatchroomBoxing) September 23, 2021
— Eat Sleep Boxing Repeat (@ESBRBoxing) September 21, 2021
Usyk’s affable nature and savvy media tricks might well lead to some dropping their guard as to the concussive dangers he poses in the ring – but one suspects that if Joshua quite literally does that in their fight on Saturday, there will be a right hook coming his way as if it was delivered from the muddy banks of the Dnieper.
More than all of that, though, Usyk finds himself with an enviable opportunity to insert his name into a heavyweight division which has been dominated by just three names since the retirement of Wladimir Klitschko: Fury, Joshua and Wilder.
And not only can he play spoiler by beating Joshua and delaying, or even cancelling, the mooted Joshua-Fury fight, Usyk can announce himself as one of the world’s best heavyweights as he looks to follow in Evander Holyfield’s footsteps by claiming gold in both the cruiserweight and heavyweight frames.
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If, as Usyk predicts, it is Joshua who will be lying on his back and staring at the lights in London this weekend, it will be a crushing blow not just to the man he defeated, but to British boxing fans as a whole who have long craved the ‘Battle of Britain’ at the sport’s heavyweight summit.
There will be no happier man than the Ukrainian in this instance, as well as being yet another reminder that boxing should be obliged to strike while the iron is hot and better navigate the hurdles which keep its top stars separate.
But one suspects that Usyk will have a wry smile should this particular scenario unfold.
“Some people,” as Alfred Pennyworth said of Heath Ledger’s Joker in ‘The Dark Knight’, “just want to watch the world burn“.