“It has no future,” said then heavyweight champion James Corbett of boxing in 1895. “In a year or two, all there will be left of it will be an occasional encounter in a barn for 1,000 dollars a side. You can’t stand out against public opinion … Pugilism will not last.”
One hundred and twenty-six years later, we find ourselves a matter of hours away from the moment when Britain’s WBA Super, IBF and WBO heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua will take to the ring at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in front of around 60,000 spectators – as well as millions watching on television around the world – to defend his hard-earned titles against Ukrainian maverick Oleksandr Usyk.
So much for a barn and 1,000 dollars a side.
Corbett may not have possessed gifts of foresight equal to his undoubted pugilistic skills, nevertheless there is a widespread feeling that the Joshua vs Usyk fight – as well as other upcoming events such as Tyson Fury vs Deontay Wilder III and Canelo Alvarez vs Caleb Plant – needs to ignite and entertain royally in order to bolster the reputation of a sport that has suffered an alarming few months.
Over the summer, the rise in profile and popularity of what one might term ‘novelty fights’ involving a motley assortment of faded former boxers, upstart Youtubers and cross-over combatants from MMA seems to have grown to near epidemic (or should that be ‘pandemic’?) proportions.
Such contests, although better suited to a circus sideshow, have always been a part of boxing. But, as we have witnessed Jake Paul’s pay-per-view numbers depressingly dwarf those of established and accomplished world champions and we have seen the shell of what used to be Evander Holyfield stumbling haplessly around a ring, longtime followers of the sport have been entitled to wonder whether the clowns and the circus – for so long a minority – have now actually taken over the sport.
Against this concerning backdrop – therefore – it becomes all the more important that genuinely competitive and intriguing contests such as Joshua versus Usyk live up to their billing.
All too often in boxing such events collapse under the weight of their own hype or the burden of inflated expectations and descend into farce or controversy. Nevertheless, if any fight can deliver the sort of feel-good shot in the arm boxing needs surely this is it.
Both men are certainly speaking with the confidence one might expect of men among the most feted prize fighters in the world, raising hopes they may conjure a fight worthy of the heavyweight division’s often glorious history.
“I’m in there with the ultimate aim of winning,” Joshua declared this week to Sky Sports. “My goal is to either hurt you or beat you until I get the win.
Whether it’s the right hand, the uppercut or the jab, as long as it leads to a win. I could box on the front foot or the back foot. There is no real strategy except for winning.”
For his part, Usyk – whose typically eccentric media workout this weekend consisted of around 60 seconds of juggling a set of white balls – has insisted that all the pressure is on Joshua.
“It will be more difficult for him because he is defending three titles and fighting at home,” he told Don McRae of The Guardian. “A bald guy will come to his home country and look for a big fight. It will be a great pleasure for me to box here again. I love London and the UK and it is my lucky place. But I am not showing my emotions much and I don’t think I should.”
Joshua – logically and deservedly – starts as favourite, and will be hard to topple on home soil, even for a man like Usyk who has no fear of fighting on the road, having toppled Mairis Briedis in Latvia and Murat Gassiev in Moscow.
But neither Brieidis nor Gassiev possessed AJ’s high profile and, in boxing, profile matters – particularly if a close fight goes to the scorecards.
There’s no denying it. Despite the tiresomely expansive managerial and promotional entourage that surrounds him, and the motivational banalities and advertorials that appear with depressing regularity on his social media outlets, Joshua is – defiantly and undoubtedly – a star and a talent to savour.
It’s also easy to forget just how precocious a rise the now 31-year-old has enjoyed since that fateful day in 2007 when he first walked into Finchley ABC in Barnet and laced up a pair of gloves.
Five years later he was Olympic super-heavyweight champion – ending an unpaid career that by most accounts only stretched to either 43 or 51 contests, depending on which sources you believe (in contrast, Usyk – three years Joshua’s senior – reportedly accumulated an extraordinary amateur record of 335-15).
Once a pro, Joshua acceded to the status of IBF heavyweight champion in his 16th fight – albeit against a woeful Charles Martin – and was a unified champion in his 19th contest – an unforgettable tussle for the ages against the great Wladimir Klitschko.
Despite losing his titles via a shocking seventh-round TKO against Andy Ruiz in June 2019, he rebounded to easily outpoint the overweight Mexican-American just over six months later and is seemingly now at the peak of his powers and pugilistic prowess.
One of Joshua’s greatest virtues is his work ethic, coupled with his constant thirst for improvement. Not the most natural or flexible of fighters, he nevertheless possesses extremely good fundamentals, chief among them an ever improving and hurtful jab, as well as an excellent temperament. He is also extremely heavy-handed and – belying his naturally sunny and often charming persona – he possesses the ruthless streak that all boxers aspiring to greatness require. Once he has a man hurt, he is probably the best finisher in the division.
Despite the parallels between them – including engaging personalities, folk hero status in their homelands and Olympic gold medals at London 2012 – Usyk is, in many ways, Joshua’s polar opposite.
Instinctive and improvisational rather than learned and mechanical, fleet of hand and foot, rather than one-paced and occasionally plodding, the Ukrainian has all the tools and skills required to upset the odds and become just the third former cruiserweight world champion to succeed in winning a title (or titles) at heavyweight.
An awkward southpaw (is there any other sort?), Usyk has an enviable ability to exert at times indiscernible but nevertheless extremely intense pressure. His control of distance is often subtle and frequently masterful, and he is able to score with shots to his opponent’s head and body that often do not look possible or conceivable.
Usyk circa 2018 I would have confidently picked to befuddle and box rings around the Joshua of the same vintage, even without significantly bulking up for such a fight from the cruiserweight limit of 200lbs at which he was then operating.
However, in the near three years since Usyk pole-axed Tony Bellew to defend the full range of 200lbs titles he had unified against Murat Gassiev, the Ukrainian has fought just twice, both times at heavyweight. In those appearances he secured solid if unspectacular wins against Chazz Witherspoon and Dereck Chisora which have left us wondering whether – like many men before him have found – the jump from cruiserweight to the modern heavyweight division is simply too large a leap.
Usyk’s inactivity has been concerning. His almost peerless run at cruiserweight owed much to momentum and regular activity. He has also suffered worrying bicep and elbow injuries in the last three years which make one wonder if he is now past his physical peak.
Furthermore, compare Usyk’s physique now with how he looked against Bellew and one cannot help but conclude he has bulked up too much, and in doing so eroded by small but crucial margins his advantages over Joshua in skill, speed and stamina.
The approach both men take on Saturday will be crucial. Joshua must show controlled aggression early on, so as not to allow Usyk to find his rhythm. If he can hurt the Ukrainian in the first six rounds and win the majority of them against a man who has a tendency to start slowly, then one would fancy him to secure a comfortable points victory. There may even be a path to a late stoppage victory for Joshua if Usyk becomes desperate in the later rounds and tries to mount an all-out attack to turn the fight around.
Usyk must ensure he banks early rounds to put pressure on Joshua and force him to take risks which in turn create openings for his counters. If he can frustrate Joshua and appear the general in the ring then a points victory could be his.
Ultimately, however, Joshua surely has more routes to victory than Usyk. The Ukrainian has a sturdy chin but one that is comparatively untested at heavyweight. One could envisage Joshua catching him cold and icing him early, or indeed, stopping him at any stage of the fight whereas it is hard to envisage Usyk securing a stoppage, unless Joshua gasses and is overwhelmed with tiredness in the latter rounds.
Taking all things into account, principally the fact that Usyk appears slightly past his best and that Joshua has the greater power and wider range of routes to victory, my pick is for the home fighter to triumph.
Usyk is a subtle artist whose cleverness and mastery of time, space and distance do not always resonate with the judges. Most likely, Joshua will prevail via a close and possibly contentious points decision after a fight in which he is out-boxed for stretches, but produces enough moments of clear physical supremacy to get the nod.
The UK is probably the least likely country for an ‘away’ boxer to get a fair shake on the cards these days. However, with one UK, one American and one Ukrainian judge appointed, here the decision of the sole ‘neutral’ arbiter – New Jersey’s Steve Weisfeld – will be crucial. Weisfeld’s rendering of a too wide 117-111 verdict when Teofimo Lopez toppled Vasiliy Lomachenko is not a good omen for Usyk backers.
Main image: Mark Robinson/Matchroom Boxing.