Oleksandr Usyk: Plotting Tyson Fury's downfall and fighting for all of Ukraine

The WBA, WBO and IBF heavyweight champion says he's been planning for his British rival for almost a decade ahead of Saturday's undisputed clash in Riyadh

Powered by automated translation

Oleksandr Usyk was deep in camp, working over sparring partners and peaking physically when the call came.

It was bad but not entirely unexpected news. It was February 2, and word arrived that Tyson Fury, the 2.06m giant standing between him and heavyweight immortality, had suffered a cut and their era-defining bout was to be postponed.

Those around him say Usyk didn’t skip a beat, instead returning methodically to his drills.

“He just smiled,” said manager Egis Klimas, while promoter Alex Krassyuk posted a picture of him sparring just hours after the news had broken. “Usyk, right now,” read the caption.

Usyk’s team was prepared for the delay. They had spent the previous 18 months frustrated by Fury’s perceived stalling tactics ahead of a bout to decide the first undisputed heavyweight champion since Lennox Lewis in 1999.

But with Saudi Arabia on board, and a signed contract in place, Usyk remained calm.

Besides, what were a few more months when you had been working on a game plan to beat Fury for almost a decade?

“I’ve been preparing for Fury for a few years now, since he beat Wladimir [Klitschko, in 2015],” explained Usyk, 21-0 as a pro. “He didn’t know about me back then because I wasn’t famous in the world of boxing, but I have been preparing for him and Anthony Joshua from the very beginning – since I started professional boxing."

That win over Usyk's compatriot made Fury’s name and kick-started the long chain of events that leads us to Kingdom Arena in Riyadh on Saturday night.

Back in 2015, Fury’s feints and awkward rhythm bewitched Klitschko as he dethroned the long-reigning champion.

Eighteen months later, Anthony Joshua underlined that a new era had begun when he thumped Klitschko into retirement at Wembley. Usyk, unknown to a mainstream audience, studied events from afar.

To say he has come from nowhere would be misleading given his elite amateur pedigree. But as a former cruiserweight, he has been the dark horse as a generation of heavyweight melodrama has played out.

One month after Fury defused Klitschko’s bombs in Dusseldorf, Usyk outclassed Cuba’s Pedro Rodriguez in Kyiv in his ninth professional outing.

The following year he became cruiserweight champion. Not long after, around the same time as Joshua turbocharged his career against Klitschko in London, Usyk set about unifying his division.

Fury imploded; a three-year hiatus followed with well-documented personal problems, before he soared back to the top by dominating a trilogy with Deontay Wilder. His absence put Usyk and Joshua on a collision course – a tantalising rivalry between the heavyweight and super-heavyweight gold medallists from London 2012.

Usyk was written off as “too small” at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in September 2021. Thirty-six minutes later, Joshua – his height and weight advantage included – had been beaten to the brink of a mercy stoppage. The following August, in the kingdom, Usyk repeated the trick.

Usyk v Joshua 2 - in pictures

The former amateur European, world and Olympic champion had become a unified cruiserweight and heavyweight champion in the paid ranks, making him one of the most decorated fighters of the modern era. On Saturday, he could become the first to fully unify at both cruiser and heavy, to cement a place among the all-time greats.

But once again, he’s been labelled by some as being too small. More fuel for the fire.

"Size doesn't matter," said Usyk. "If only size mattered then the elephant would be the king of the jungle."

A fresh narrative has also emerged: that Usyk is vulnerable to the body. Fury delights in saying so himself, suggesting that one well-placed blow will expose a fatal flaw like Luke Skywalker bringing down the Death Star.

My surname is Usyk, which means ‘whisker’ [in Ukrainian]. I also have the gap between my teeth. So, a lot of the other kids often bullied me
Oleksandr Usyk

Fury has also tried – and failed – to intimidate him, mocking his size and physical appearance. Usyk never flinched. If he has been preparing to box Fury since 2015, he’s been dealing with bullies since childhood.

“I grew up mostly on the street in Simferopol. It was quite a rough environment,” Usyk told the British broadcaster TNT Sports this week.

“We moved frequently, so I had to change schools a lot. It wasn’t easy for me. My surname is Usyk, which means ‘whisker’ [in Ukrainian]. I also have the gap between my teeth. So, a lot of the other kids often bullied me.”

Usyk started boxing relatively late, at 15, but flourished after some early difficulties, compiling a glittering amateur record of 335-15 and winning every major title available to him. He says he logged every bout in a notebook and can remember each one perfectly.

“I played football as well as different kinds of sports but we had no money to pay for it, so I started boxing,” he said. “I got punched in the face very hard. When I asked the coach when the next training session was he laughed and said, ‘I’ve got a feeling you won’t come back’.

“But I did come back, a day later, I was the first one. The gym was still closed and I was already standing by the door.

“I didn’t know how far I could go but I knew that I just had to work. I saw it in my dreams. I imagined I was fighting in a big stadium, walking out with all the lights and them announcing: ‘Here comes Usyk’.

“I became a member of the Ukrainian national team in 2006, when I was 19. Since then, my boxing career has been going up and up.”

His father encouraged him and watched on television as he won the Olympics, but then passed away before he could greet his son.

“My father, he told me I could do it,” added Usyk. “He managed to watch me become Olympic champion. But I didn’t make it on time to show him the gold medal. When I arrived, he was already lying in the coffin. I put down my bag, took the medal, held it in his hand, then left the room.

“Sometimes he comes the day before a fight and smiles. Some people say men should never cry but men cry with very strong tears. Very powerful tears.”

Since then, it has mostly been tears of joy as Usyk’s talent has taken him to the pinnacle of boxing. He puts his success down to discipline, and a constant search for self-improvement that has created a fighter dominant across two divisions.

A southpaw with unrivalled footwork among the big men, elite athleticism and a cerebral approach to dismantling opponents, Usyk looks to exert constant pressure. Opponents are forced to work when they don’t want to, eventually becoming complicit in their own downfall. He attacks with variety, particularly in terms of power, with bursts of softer, placed punches making the disguised hard shot even more shocking when it invariably connects.

On top of that, he has typically grown stronger as fights progress, ready to take command in the championship rounds. He pushed Joshua to the verge of a stoppage in the final round of their first fight, and swept the 10th, 11th and 12th in the rematch.

"Sparring with him was just like a mental battle, even probably more than a physical battle," Fabio Wardley, the British and European heavyweight champion told Sky Sports of his trips to Usyk’s training camps.

"Because he does so many small little things to keep you agitated, keep you on the edge, keep you thinking, keep you guessing, keep you wondering about what his next move is, what his next plan is, how he's going to look to approach you? Is he going to go through the same things? Is he going do something different? It just constantly keeps you under pressure.”

All of that skill is backed up by a deep sense of purpose. A brush with death after a severe bout of pneumonia as a child reinforced his religious faith, while his determination to provide for his family remains as strong as ever.

Yet, as a high-profile Ukrainian athlete, Usyk, 37, increasingly speaks of how his victories mean much more since the Russian invasion of his homeland in February 2022.

“Many guys from the front line wrote to me [about the Joshua rematch], they need motivation, they want this victory. This is like their victory. It’s like a victory for my whole country,” he said.

“On May 18 there will be only one champion. I feel incredible. As good as I did at the 2012 Olympic Games. Just as young and energetic, with a big desire to move forward.

“It’s the most important fight of my career. I want to say that my victory is the victory of the entire Ukrainian people.”

Updated: May 15, 2024, 8:05 AM