Soon after Oleksandr Usyk unanimously outpointed Anthony Joshua in an upset last September in Joshua’s hometown of London to take his unified heavyweight titles, Joshua exercised his right to an immediate rematch — but there has been nothing immediate about it.
After Russia invaded Usyk’s home country of Ukraine in late February and started a war that still persists, planning the rematch became much more complicated. That is because Usyk elected to delay it and joined a territorial defense battalion to assist in defending his homeland.
Boxing was the last thing on Usyk’s mind, so proposed dates in June and July also were not feasible.
“Every day I was there, I was praying and asking, ‘Please, God, don’t let anybody try to kill me,” Usyk said through an interpreter during the kickoff media tour that took place when the fight was announced in June. “Please don’t let anybody shoot me. And please don’t make me shoot any other person. I really didn’t want to leave our country. I didn’t want to leave our city.
“At one point I went to the hospital where soldiers were wounded and getting rehabilitation and they asked me to go to fight (Joshua), to fight for the country. They said if you go there, you’re going to help our country even more instead of fighting inside Ukraine.”
Finally, Usyk decided he would fight, convinced to return by the words from his wounded countrymen who wanted him to represent their wounded nation on a worldwide stage. And then it still took time for Matchroom Boxing to finalize a complicated site deal — one that likely approaches $100 million — that will see the much-anticipated fight take place on Saturday (DAZN, 1 p.m. ET with main event at approximately 5:30 p.m. ET) at King Abdullah Sports City Arena in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. In Joshua’s home country of the United Kingdom, the fight will air on Sky Sports Box Office pay-per-view. It will air on free TV in Ukraine.
Hear a mid-week preview from Sean of TopHeavyweights.com along with T.J. Rives and David Payne of Boxingwriter.co.uk on the “TopHeavyweights.com Podcast” by clicking play below,
Once Usyk decided to return to give the rematch to two-time unified titlist Joshua (24-2, 22 KOs), 32, the 2012 Olympic super heavyweight gold medalist, he left Ukraine to train and to focus on the bout.
“When we watched Usyk’s videos from the training camp we realized that he looks like a cyborg,” said Alexander Krassyuk of K2 Promotions, Usyk’s promoter. “He went through hell in the training camp in the last three months. It did not kill him but it made him even stronger. I’ve never seen him more determined than now. Not many champions in the world can share their experience going through the war and making their way to the ring to defend their heavyweight crown. It was an extremely complicated challenge for him, but he seems to have passed it.”
Although former undisputed cruiserweight champion Usyk (19-0, 13 KOs), a 35-year-old southpaw and the 2012 Olympic heavyweight gold medalist, made brief comments about the war and his decision to go forward with the fight during the press tour in June, he has been a man of few words since arriving in Saudi Arabia.
He has left it to Krassyuk to do much of the talking.
“He made his decision to take the rematch in these circumstances after he had received massive support from his Ukrainian compatriots,” Krassyuk said. “He was in touch with high-ranking military officers and he visited the hospitals with injured soldiers. In every conversation he heard words of blessing and support to take the rematch. People wanted him to fight. People still want him to win. People want the Ukrainian flag to rise. People want the Ukrainian anthem to be heard throughout the whole planet. Not many men in the world can deliver this to millions of people. Usyk is able to do that. He does that through the sport of boxing.
“It won’t sound fair from my mouth if I start to say how good this man is, since I’ve been his promoter for probably more than nine years. So, let the history judge how good this man is.”
Egis Klimas, Usyk’s manager, said Usyk pushed himself like never before in his training camp, knowing how much his countrymen have invested in him emotionally to retain the belts.
“I’ve never seen anybody in 45 degree (Celsius, 113 Fahrenheit) heat ride a bicycle for 100 kilometers,” Klimas said. “I’ve never seen anybody swimming the day before a press conference in London for 10 kilometers in the pool for five hours. I’ve never seen anybody hold their breath underwater for four minutes and 40 seconds, almost passing away. I hope all of this is going to be helping him on Saturday night.”
When asked earlier this week about the war in Ukraine and leaving to prepare for the fight, Usyk had little to say.
“I’m very pleased that I am going to fight very soon, and I feel happy about that,” Usyk said.
He did acknowledge it was difficult for him to focus at times.
“Yes,” he said, “but I did it.”