Oleksandr Usyk, who found himself in deep trouble against Anthony Joshua in the ninth round, rallied big time.
Usyk found another gear and with a dominating final three rounds of a highly entertaining fight, he retained his unified heavyweight title – and claimed the vacant Ring magazine belt — by split decision on Saturday at King Abdullah Sports City Arena in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
Then Usyk called out Tyson Fury to fight him for the undisputed championship in what would be the biggest fight in boxing.
Eleven months ago, Usyk lifted the IBF, WBO and WBA titles from Joshua by clear unanimous decision in an upset in Joshua’s hometown of London, after which he invoked his contractual right to an immediate rematch.
The sequel was delayed for a few months while Usyk took time to serve in the territorial defense of his home country of Ukraine following the Russian invasion but he was convinced by his countrymen and wounded soldiers he met visiting them in the hospital to return to boxing and bring glory to their country on the world sports stage.
“I did all this victory for my country, for my family, to my team, to all the military who is defending the country,” an emotional Usyk, who was draped in a Ukrainian flag, said through an interpreter.
Although Joshua fought much better in the rematch, which he went into having brought on trainer Robert Garcia to replace career-long cornerman Robert McCracken, he was not good enough to deal with the skills, speed and toughness of Usyk, the former undisputed cruiserweight champion and one of boxing’s pound-for-pound elites.
In the end, judge Victor Fesechko had it 116-112 and Steve Gray 115-113 for Usyk while Glenn Feldman surprisingly scored it 115-113 for Joshua, which seemed impossible. Big Fight Weekend also had it 116-112 for Usyk.
“What a performance from Oleksandr Usyk,” Matchroom Boxing promoter Eddie Hearn said. “I mean in the ninth round I ran over (to Joshua’s corner). I thought we had him. The 10th round was one of the best rounds I’ve seen to turn a fight – not back around because it was very close at that point – but what Usyk did in the 10th, 11th and the 12th was incredible and that was the difference tonight.”
After the scores were announced a deeply disappointed Joshua immediately left the ring, but before he had gotten to the dressing room he turned around and returned to the ring, where he had what can only be described as an emotional meltdown as he took the ring microphone and addressed the crowd.
“Usyk is one hell of a f—— fighter. Let’s give him a round of applause,” Joshua said. “For this guy to beat me tonight, maybe I could have done better. But it shows the levels of hard work he must have put in, so please give him around of applause as our heavyweight champion of the world.”
Joshua (24-3, 22 KOs), 32, also ranted about his past, his youth troubles that nearly saw him sent to jail and past heavyweight greats and the criticism he has taken when compared to others. Then he composed himself and again lauded Usyk (20-0, 13 KOs).
“This guy here is a phenomena talent. We’re gonna cheer for him three times,” Joshua said before leading the crowd in a cheer for Usyk and then exiting the ring.
The fight was awfully close through the first eight rounds with both men having their moments. Usyk landed many good left hands and combinations and Joshua was strong with his left hook and body attack.
Referee Luis Pabon warned Joshua for a low blow in the fifth round, but he kept firing his left to the body. Usyk retaliated with a clean straight left to the head.
They went back and forth and late in the eighth round Joshua appeared to hurt Usyk with a three-punch combination to the body.
But it was the ninth round which was his biggest of the fight. Joshua landed a right-left combination that knocked Usyk back and followed with more body punches. Usyk seemed to be in serious trouble as Joshua pounded him.
Usyk, however, showed impressive recuperative powers by rallying for a huge 10th round. He scored with head shots and even after Joshua blunted the attack by landing a heavy right hand, Usyk did not let up. A tiring Joshua sagged into the ropes and Usyk took advantage by dishing out more punishment.
“This is already history. Many generations are gonna watch this fight, especially the (10th) round when someone tried to beat me hard but I withstood it and turned it in a different way, thank God,” Usyk said.
The 35-year-old southpaw Usyk continued the attack in the 11th round, landing a clean right hook early on and outlanding Joshua 32-9, and in the 12th round to close the fight titled “Rage on the Red Sea” strong.
“(Joshua) hurt Usyk badly in the ninth and I felt like he was going to come on strong, but Usyk came out like a train and that 10th round was the moment he decided to regain the fight,” Hearn said. “It was an incredible performance. He’s just too good and there’s no shame in it. You saw the reaction from AJ. That was from a human who wanted to win so badly. With so much pressure on his shoulders I think he just exploded because he lost and he was devastated. He has given everything to win this fight and he couldn’t win this fight. He’s a competitor. He’s a winner.
“This man (Usyk) is too good. The 10th round, the 11th round, the 12th round is why (I think) this guys is pound-for-pound No. 1. I felt it was 115-113 for Usyk. I thought it was close, but I felt Usyk won the fight because of the 10th, the 11th and 12th. (Usyk is) a pound-for-pound great. That was the difference and it was a great performance from Anthony Joshua.”
According to CompuBox punch statistics, Usyk landed 170 of 712 punches (24 percent) and Joshua landed 124 of 492 (25 percent). Usyk outlanded Joshua in nine of the 12 rounds, including a dominating 79-29 over the final three rounds. The 170 punches landed were the most ever by a Joshua opponent and he 39 landed in the 10th round were the most every landed on Joshua in a single round.
Going into the 10th round, Usyk was clinging to an 86-85 lead on Fesechko’s card but won the final three rounds. He was down 86-85 on Gray’s card and also swept the final three rounds to pull secure the win. Feldman had Joshua up 87-84 after the ninth and gave Usyk only two of the last three rounds.
Usyk, who became the first fight fighter to win The Ring magazine cruiserweight and heavyweight titles, earned the vacant Ring heavyweight belt because Fury recently vacated it, claiming to be retired, which he has done several times. But he has yet to vacate the WBC title and has until Aug. 26 to notify the organization of his plans.
Usyk, of course, wants to fight him for the undisputed crown.
“I’m sure that Tyson Fury is not retired yet. I am convinced he wants to fight me,” Usyk said. “I want to fight him and if I’m not fighting Tyson Fury I’m not fighting at all.”
Hearn wasn’t about to make a pick between the two should they meet for heavyweight supremacy.
“They’re both tremendous fighters,” Hearn said. “I’m not sure anyone can beat Oleksandr Usyk. Tyson Fury is a clever man. He had the chance to fight him and he chose not to. Will he come out of retirement? Good luck to both of them but this man is an incredible fighter.”