This weekend’s heavyweight showdown between Oleksandr Usyk and Anthony Joshua is far more than a prize fight or a chance for redemption for the Briton.
Scratch the surface, and it’s a fight whose turbulent geo-political context reveals uncomfortable truths and complex debates. Luke G. Williams previews the action and examines the context.
“How does one hate a country, or love one?” – Ursula K. Le Guin
At this week’s press conference ahead of Saturday night’s WBA Super, IBF and WBO world heavyweight title showdown against Anthony Joshua, champion Oleksandr Usyk was dressed in traditional Ukrainian Cossack style.
After the customary head-to-head photo opportunity between the two men, Usyk took centre stage and began to sing. Among the assembled throng of international press it’s unlikely that many recognised his song of choice or realised its significance.
‘Oi u luzi chervona kalyna’ was written in 1875 and has served ever since as a rallying cry for Ukrainian independence and national pride. Regarded by many Ukrainians as a ‘second national anthem’, during the years in which the country was a Soviet republic – from 1919 until 1991 – singing ‘Oi u luzi chervona kalyna’ in public would most likely have seen you imprisoned, beaten or banished. Since Russia’s 24 February invasion of Ukraine the song has served as a rallying call – a defiant symbol of a nation’s resistance against flagrant aggression.
Such shared and patriotic songs are a longstanding totem of Ukrainian culture. As Lubow Wolynetz, curator of the Ukrainian Museum and Library of Stamford, has described, songs are a vital method by which the Ukrainian people “document our historic past, glorify heroic deeds”.
It is songs – Wolynetz argues – which enable Ukrainians to “grieve over ruin and devastation…express hopes and dreams … give comfort in moments of sadness … reproach the weak, the traitors; support and strengthen one’s faith [and] uplift one’s spirit to lofty ideals”.
Usyk’s rendition of ‘Oi u luzi chervona kalyna’ completed what has been – for the 35-year-old – a remarkable journey from a politically ambivalent and controversial, even divisive, figure in his homeland to a man who now apparently shoulders the weight of a nation’s hopes and expectations. The former undisputed cruiserweight champion has been firmly cast in the role of a patriotic icon.
Prior to February’s invasion of Ukraine by Russia, Usyk had seemingly resisted calls to make overtly political or openly critical comments relating to Russia, whose troubled and complex relationship with Ukraine intensified after the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea, the disputed territory where Usyk was born on 17 January 1987.
Concurrent with his rise to boxing stardom – facilitated by a gold medal at the London Olympics in 2012, his sensational run from pro debut in November 2013 to the undisputed cruiserweight crown by July 2018 and then his annexation of Joshua’s three heavyweight alphabet titles last year – Usyk was criticised by some within Ukraine for what was perceived as an ambivalent and conciliatory attitude towards the complex geo-political issues bound up with Russian and Ukrainian relations.
Usyk’s Russian orthodox Christian faith was viewed with suspicion by some of his countrymen, while his comment in 2016 that “Crimea is Crimea” (as opposed to “Crimea is Ukrainian”) proved particularly controversial. His victory against Joshua last September – hailed throughout the boxing world as a masterclass – was not, however, greeted with universal acclaim in his homeland.
“I am very amused by the victory of Usyk.,” was the scathing reaction of influential social activist Serhii Sternenko. “Now the world champion as a heavyweight will be able to tell this very world that we have no war, the Russians are our brothers, and the Crimea is God.
Much, however, has changed in the months since Usyk defeated AJ. In the wake of Vladimir Putin’s aggressive February invasion of Ukraine, Usyk has shed his previously low key and ambiguous stance and unequivocally nailed his colours to the mast of Ukrainian independence and resistance.
Boxing fans are well used to Usyk the prankster and Usyk the entertainer. This is the man – after all – who performed coin tricks at this week’s public work-out, and dressed as the Joker at the final press conference before his first fight with Joshua.
Now, however, the clown prince of boxing is wearing a more serious face and fighting for a higher cause than mere personal glory. In the last week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has urged Usyk, through his performance in the rematch against Joshua, to “show that Ukraine is the country of serious, strong, motivated, developed and spiritual people”.
“His mission is inspiration,” Usyk’s promoter Alex Krassyuk has stated. “[He wants] to give people motivation, give the incentive to soldiers to fight hard for their homeland.”
The world heavyweight championship, of course, has often served as a lightning rod for issues of patriotism, as well as national and ethnic pride. When Jack Johnson destroyed Tommy Burns and then Jim Jeffries he shattered the hateful myth of white supremacy upon which the United States’ constitution and growing sense of self-image had been built; when Joe Louis slaughtered Max Schmeling he dealt a blow to Adolf Hitler’s despicable Nazi regime; and on nearly every occasion that Muhammad Ali fought after his conversion to Islam and rejection of his ‘slave name’ Cassius Clay, underlying issues relating to race, religion and nationalism, as well as American foreign and domestic policy, bubbled under the surface, occasionally exploding.
In years to come Usyk may come to be seen as the true heir of Ali (whose 17 January birthday he shares), a man worthy of carrying that rarely conferred title of ‘the people’s champion’, a man whose charisma and willingness to ‘fight for a cause’ creates the potential for him to transcend national boundaries.
Given the near universal international condemnation that has greeted the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Usyk has been able to become, simultaneously, a Ukrainian patriotic icon but also a figure with a wider level of global support that transcends geographical boundaries in the way that Ali once did, albeit on a smaller scale.
For a while it looked as though lineal champion Tyson Fury, through his inspirational comeback and championing of the cause of mental health awareness, might be able to carry Ali’s ‘people’s champion’ mantle, but the Gypsy King’s case to be recognised as such has unfortunately collapsed under the weight of his own blustering contradictions.
While Fury is a man whose significant sound (and fury) often ends up signifying nothing, Usyk is a man of relatively few words, all of them sincere. The Gypsy King may have spoken about donating his multi-million dollar fight purse to the homeless, and of fighting on free-to-air television, but it is Usyk who is using the Joshua rematch as a vehicle to raise money for his newly established foundation that provides military vehicles and food to the people of Ukraine, and it is Usyk who has ensured that the fight will be available free of charge to all Ukrainians via state television and his own youtube channel.
This is not to say that Usyk is free of contradictions. The irony of a man battling for the cause of Ukrainian freedom in a sporting contest staged by a regime in Saudi Arabia whose dictatorial and restrictive nature rivals Putin’s Russia is undeniable, although such economic and ethnic compromises are commonplace within the almost lawless marketplace of professional prize fighting.
Usyk’s popularity – however – seems set to survive the foul stench of sportswashing. It is a popularity, interestingly enough, which extends to a large section of British fight fans, raising attendant issues of loyalty and patriotism in connection with Anthony Joshua. Namely, is it the patriotic duty of British fight fans to support “their man” this weekend?
It’s a debate that boxer Gamal Yafai waded into this week on Twitter when he declared: “Saturday night in Ukraine not one person will want to see Usyk lose. Saturday night in England they’ll be 100s of thousands wanting to see AJ lose, don’t be one of those. Support one of our own.”
To a hateful, racist minority of the British public, of course, Joshua will never be seen as British. But those sort of people are not worth dwelling on – they can be left to their anonymised Twitter accounts and the hollow triumphalism surrounding Brexit which they believe has validated their pathetic existences.
The most sensible view to take, of course, is that it is a matter of personal preference whether you view an individual sport such as boxing as a vehicle for national pride and patriotism or not.
Many in the UK who support Usyk will do so not because they hate Joshua or are racist, but because they are drawn to the Ukrainian’s charisma and superlative skills, and because they view him as a more authentic prize fighter than AJ, who has the house money and the Matchroom media machine behind him.
Others will root for Usyk for the simple reason that they feel sympathy for the plight of the Ukrainian people, and recognise the joy and pleasure, albeit fleeting, that an Usyk win will give to a country which is beleaguered and downtrodden.
Amid such patriot games and contextual pondering, dear reader, you are probably wondering where the examination and analysis are of what might actually happen in the ring at the Jedda Superdome on Saturday night.
So here goes. (At last, I hear some of you cry).
Usyk is a master boxer. His use of footwork, feints and head movement are superlative and he is difficult to tag with the sort of huge head or body shots that Joshua will need to land if he is to force a stoppage. Joshua is an underrated boxer, but a mechanical one. The case for him winning by knockout rests on his new trainer Robert Garcia having somehow engendered layers of subtlety into AJ’s fighting toolkit which one training camp can surely not achieve. Usyk’s ability to slip and evade big shots is superb and his capacity to absorb punishment impressive, thus rendering a Joshua win by stoppage unlikely.
It is fanciful to imagine that Usyk will be overawed, or intimidated. However, if he fights in an overly cautious manner, or if the subtleties of his ring-craft escape the attention of dullard judges, then it is possible he will drop an undeserved decision against a man who is – after all – the house fighter and a significant cash cow.
On balance, however, after leaning towards a Joshua win by what you might term ‘bullshit decision’ earlier in the week, I now lean towards Usyk retaining his titles via a deserved decision victory with scorecards that nevertheless flatter Joshua, the exhausted but gutsy Briton having hung on grimly for survival after emptying his tank early on.
Cue patriotic celebrations in Ukraine, and an uncomfortable mixture – no doubt – of both elation and despair in the UK.