Oleksandr Usyk thinking of home as he prepares to face Anthony Joshua in Jeddah

Ukrainian world heavyweight champion is motivated by his country's struggle to 'defend our independence'

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As Oleksandr Usyk stood up from the table after a series of interviews in Jeddah this week, he made sure to shake the hand of every journalist present. After one exchange he gave a huge grin before revealing in his hand the wristband that had previously been fixed around the reporter’s arm.

“Sorry, it’s my previous occupation,” he said, with a big smile.

It’s unlikely that Usyk was ever a pickpocket, or a stage magician, but he is always a great entertainer, inside and out of the ring.

Keeping a smile on his face at the present time must be tricky. Not only is he just a few days away from defending his WBA, WBO and IBF heavyweight titles against Anthony Joshua in Jeddah, but he gets daily updates from back home from friends defending Ukraine against the Russian invasion.

Six weeks ago, when Joshua and Usyk had held a press conference in London, he had been sullen as he recalled stories of the problems facing friends or hearing his home had been invaded by Russian troops.

“My wife is here,” he said as the reason for the better mood, as well as encouraging news from friends back home.

“Some of my friends, military guys, came back from their assignments safe and sound. Their assignments were really complicated and dangerous, but they managed to get home safe and sound and accomplish it.

“We are hearing fewer explosions and see the enemy activity reducing, which might be considered positive news for us.”

Usyk, who claimed the titles from Joshua on a split points decision at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in London in September last year, had been in the UK filming for a video game when Russia invaded Ukraine in February.

Rather than stay away, he flew home and signed up with Ukraine’s volunteer armed forces.

Usyk beats Joshua - in pictures

This rematch, which was originally mooted for April, was pushed back indefinitely, until Usyk was given permission to leave the country to train and told he could do more for his country by winning a high-profile fight than in the military.

The event’s Saudi promoters gave Usyk the television rights for Ukraine, allowing him to ensure that it is watched for free there, both on television and online. His nation will be behind him, including its president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy. “He will be watching my fight and cheering me,” Usyk said.

“I am not motivated by the news, nor the war, I am motivated by the people of Ukraine who are struggling hard to defend our independence, to defend our freedom and defend our culture that other people want to demolish and destroy.

“I am in touch with many guys from the frontline. I receive voice and video messages from them with words of support and news that they are praying for me and for my victory.”

While his family were allowed to leave Ukraine too, he hasn’t seen his children for months, but carries with him everywhere his daughter Elizabeth’s favourite toy, a cuddly Eeyore donkey bought on a trip to Disneyland Paris. She calls it Loila.

“She gave it to me to be my talisman,” Usyk said. “We left Ukraine together but our roads separated in Europe. My daughter gave this toy to me and said ‘this needs to be right next to you’.

“It sleeps with me, is always close to me and today she told me to take it to my media event.”

While a victory for Usyk will lead to inevitable talks about a fight with Tyson Fury for the undisputed heavyweight title, there is only one group of people that Usyk is interested in speaking to before heading home to stand with his countrymen again.

“I just want to see my kids, who I have not seen properly for almost half a year, I want to see my mum, they are all now in Europe,” he said.

“I want to see them and hug them and have dinner with them. And then I will go back to Kiev.”

Updated: August 17, 2022, 11:16 AM