Ahead of this weekend’s heavyweight showdown between Oleksandr Usyk and Dereck Chisora, Russ Anber talks Boxing Social through the seven fights he has been in the Ukrainian’s corner…

Thabiso Mchunu, December 2016, WKO9.

As I explained in my last column, Egis Klimas asked me to come on board with Oleksandr Usyk after I’d been part of Vasiliy Lomachenko’s team for several fights. 

The first time I worked with Usyk I wrapped his hands and was the cut man for his WBO cruiserweight title fight against Thabiso Mchunu. It was an excellent performance by Usyk. He stopped Mchunu late and made a real statement.

Something else that really stuck in my mind from that evening is that it was the night that Bernard Hopkins got hit through the ropes by Joe Smith Jr. I remember getting up on the ring apron during the Usyk fight and realising there was hardly any room to stand. The ropes were so far back there was virtually no room to spare on the apron at all. I also remember how loose the ropes were. As I touched them they were so floppy. I remember turning to James Bashir Ali who was training Usyk at the time and saying: ‘Yo, these ropes are really loose, we gotta be careful here. Usyk has to watch out whenever he goes on to the ropes’.

Sure enough, down went Hopkins later that night and he fell straight out of the ring. That really was a dismal excuse for a ring in California that night!

Michael Hunter, April 2017, W12.

Before the Hunter fight, Egis asked me if I would act as Usyk’s lead trainer, which was a real honour. I loved training him and feel I brought something extra to this already very gifted guy for this fight. One of the things that I loved about training Usyk was that he was so responsive and very open to ideas and suggestions. He would always try out the things I talked to him about. Our partnership worked as well because Usyk’s performance against Hunter was a really good one, particularly when you bear in mind how solid and well schooled Hunter is. No one really gives him much credit but Hunter is an excellent fighter: However, Usyk put on a hard-fought yet dominating performance and a very impressive display.

Marco Huck, September 2017, WTKO10.

After being head trainer for the Hunter fight I thought maybe it would be the start of a long-term arrangement with Usyk but for his next fight he decided to train again in the Ukraine, which sort of put me out of the picture in terms of being head trainer. Although my time as Usyk’s head trainer was short-lived, I really loved it and ever since I’ve been the lead man in the corner during his fights which, of course, is another real honour.

Anyway, for the Huck fight, Usyk was now training in Ukraine with Serhiy Vatamanyuk. Usyk and I would talk on WhatsApp and FaceTime and, although I felt sad I couldn’t be there in camp with him, it was still great to be a part of the team after we all met up in Germany for the fight.
Something I remember really well is that at one of the media events in fight week – possibly the weigh-in or possibly the final press conference – Usyk and Huck faced off and Huck with two hands shoved him in the chest and pushed him backwards.

Everyone was thinking: ‘Oh shit! What’s gonna happen next?’ But Usyk stayed super cool. All he did was smile, lift his finger and shake it at Huck as though admonishing a child. It was like he was saying: ‘No, no Marco, you just wait!’

That was brilliant psychology by Usyk and he put on a very convincing performance against Huck. This fight was a perfect illustration of the fact that although Usyk is a great talent it’s the sheer pressure he puts on that breaks fighters.

Against Huck he was like a runaway train that just would not stop moving and in the end – inevitably – Huck basically collapsed under the pressure. Sure the punches Usyk hit him with were hard and hurt him but it was the constant pressure that destroyed him. Usyk just kept coming and coming and Huck couldn’t keep Usyk off him. In the end the pressure crushed him. 

Mairis Briedis, January 2018, W12.

I love Riga. This was my second visit to the city and I absolutely love that town and Latvia – everything about it was sensational from the hotel to the food to the pool hall! Going to work for Usyk against Briedis felt like going home, that’s how comfortable I felt there.

The atmosphere that night was incredible and it was a hell of a tough fight. That fight exposed more flaws in Usyk than I’d ever seen before and in retrospect I realise that maybe we all underestimated Mairis Briedis. He was a far better fighter than anyone in the boxing world had given him credit for. I, too, underestimated just how good this kid was.

Time has shown that Briedis is a quality operator and he gave Usyk easily his toughest fight to date. It was a majority  decision to Usyk and I thought he won the fight but it was a close fight. I think Usuk landed the better shots as the fight went in and shaded it but Briedis fought a great fight. 

Murat Gassiev, July 2018, W12.

I love Gassiev. He’s a great fighter with devastating power. He’s trained by Abel Sanchez so you know he’s bringing the hardware as well as having dynamite in his fists because those are the sort of fighters Abel likes.
But I was very confident going into this fight.  Everybody thought it would be a close fight but I always felt that stylistically Gassiev was perfect for Usyk and that’s how it played out. Gassiev was always going to be dogged and determined  but I knew that Usyk would have the answers. I was in camp for this fight along with Papachenko who had Usyk working with a lot of bigger guys who put him under the kind of pressure that we felt Gassiev would bring.

Usyk was fighting in Russia, of course – just as he fought in Latvia against Briedis and Germany against Huck – but I never had any worries or concerns that he wouldn’t get past Gassiev.

It was a great night – a memorable night. On a personal level, the fact both fighters wore Rival gloves was an extra honour and source of pride for me. On top of that to be in the corner of the first man to win the World Boxing Super Series was amazing – and a feat I repeated when I was in Callum Smith’s corner in September the same year when he beat George Groves to become the second WBSS winner at 168lbs. That’s a record no one can ever take away from me!

Tony Bellew, November 2018, WTKO8.

This fight gave me a very different perspective on the British boxing scene. Previously, most of the times I’d been at fights in Britain over the years I’d been in the corner of the hometown fighter – whether it was for Liam ‘Beefy’ Smith or his brother Callum or whoever. So I was used to being treated well, having the crowd on our side and so on.

Suddenly here I was for the Bellew fight walking out and I realised: ‘Hang on, we’re the enemy now!’ And boy the verbal tirade and the profanity we were subjected to in Manchester was really something else! I remember thinking: ‘Holy smoke, I’ve never heard anything like this!’

The fans had had their share of pints by the time of the main event and I had flashbacks of the scenes of crowd unrest at Marvin Hagler vs Alan Minter and I was thinking to myself: ‘Oh shit, where are we going to hide if something goes wrong?’

Anyway it was a great fight. Bellew is a great competitor and tried everything he could to catch Usyk. But at the end of the day Usyk was just that level above him. Yes, Bellew won some rounds but you just sensed that even when Usyk lost a round he was still winning the war of attrition. He was making Bellew expend so much energy, he was draining him. Usyk was controlling the pace even in the rounds he lost and in the end – of course – he landed a crushing shot which ended the fight – one of the most beautiful shots Usyk has ever thrown.

Chazz Witherspoon, October 2019, WRTD7.

This was Usyk’s heavyweight debut but it was a low key fight in many ways. Witherspoon was a last minute replacement and as such It didn’t generate the excitement of Usyk’s previous few fights. It took place in Chicago and locally the fight didn’t really mean anything. Witherspoon is a decent enough fighter but he isn’t a Chicago guy so that big fight vibe wasn’t really there.

Usyk did what he had to do and won, but for me the Chisora fight this weekend is the real test of Usyk at heavyweight.

Russ Anber was talking to Luke G. Williams.

Main image: Simon Stacpoole/Matchroom Boxing

Russ is the founder/ CEO of Rival Boxing, as well as a highly respected trainer (of both pros and amateurs), a gym owner, a cut-man, an entrepreneur, a broadcaster and one of the best hand wrappers in the boxing business. Vasiliy Lomachenko, Oleksandr Usyk, Artur Beterbiev and Callum Smith are among the many top boxers Russ currently works with.