There will never be another Muhammad Ali. If you didn’t know that already, one look at Ken Burns’ documentary series on “The Greatest” is a good primer and reminder of that fact.
But that’s okay. Time moves on, and if there were 10 versions of Ali showing up after he threw his last punch, then we wouldn’t remember what he did in and out of the ring and what he meant to a generation of people around the globe.
So if you’re expecting to see the next Ali at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium this Saturday, don’t, as you will be disappointed. But if you can appreciate Anthony Joshua and Oleksandr Usyk for who they are, where they sit in the sport’s hierarchy and what they bring to the sport in 2021, you may be in for one of the best heavyweight fights we’ve seen in years, and one worthy of the sell out of over 60,000 tickets for the event.
Over 60,000. That’s not a typo, and it took less than 24 hours for those tickets to go bye-bye. That’s the power of Joshua in England, where fans of the holder of three of the four major sanctioning body titles (WBA, IBF, WBO) don’t really think about his 2019 loss to Andy Ruiz Jr. anymore.
Hell, he avenged that loss six months later with a near-shutout win, then bludgeoned Kubrat Pulev into defeat in nine rounds last December, making it clear that Ruiz was just a minor detour on his way to…I was going to say super stardom, but if you can sell out a soccer stadium with regularity, super stardom is already something in his back pocket.
So what do you say about Joshua’s path? A win over Usyk is huge to the hardcore fight fans but a mere blip on the mainstream radar. The fight…the REAL fight for AJ is a showdown with countryman Tyson Fury, one that should have happened, was rumored to be close to happening, and then disappeared thanks to some deft legal work from the team of Deontay Wilder, who forced their way into a third fight with Fury in early October, making it very conceivable that by this time next month, the biggest and most lucrative fight that can happen in boxing right now could go the way of Lennox Lewis vs Riddick Bowe, a great idea that just never happened.
That didn’t happen in Ali’s era, where the best fought the best, often back-to-back. In fact, one of the things that stuck out to me from Burns’ series is the reminder that after more than three years out of the ring, Ali came back in 1970 against Jerry Quarry. Top heavyweight contender Jerry Quarry. No tune-ups, no Peter McNeeley, just one of the toughest dudes out there.
Fast forward, and while Joshua and Fury were seemingly debating over minor contractual issues, Usyk and Wilder were preparing for the fights that could shatter the bank accounts of both their rivals.
This weekend, we see if Usyk can be the first to upset the applecart, and while many think that the former undisputed cruiserweight king is too small to reign as a heavyweight champion, this has been an end game the Ukrainian has been plotting for years. And it is a chess game for the 34-year-old, who gives up size, age, and divisional experience to the champion. But in chess, it’s not brawn that wins. It’s either the ability to see what an opponent does and react accordingly, or the willingness to attack smartly, not recklessly.
Usyk doesn’t win a firefight with Joshua, as he’s never been a Tyson-esque puncher, and even if he was at cruiserweight, he’s not at heavyweight, where his only two recent wins have been a late TKO over a fringe contender at best in Chazz Witherspoon (who was stopped in three of his four pro defeats), and a tougher-than-expected 12-rounder against Dereck Chisora. Usyk came in at 215 and 217 ¼ pounds, respectively, for those bouts, giving up huge amounts of weight in each.
Joshua is rumored to be coming in lighter for Saturday’s bout, but was 240 ¾ pounds for the Pulev fight, making it a distinct possibility that he will just try to either blitz Usyk early or make the fight an ugly trench battle as he tries to wear the challenger down. Either way, it doesn’t bode well for Usyk unless he calls on every ounce of the fight IQ he built up as an amateur star and professional champion. The odds of Usyk showing up in England and knocking Joshua out are slim and none. This is a distance fight if he wants to win it unless he can put doubt in the champion’s head early and bring him back to Madison Square Garden in June of 2019, when Ruiz silenced a pro-Joshua crowd in emphatic fashion.
That was a lightning in a bottle moment. Will people remember it forever and always assume that a stiff breeze will knock Joshua out? Absolutely, this is 2021, when the slightest imperfection is blown up and thrown in someone’s face forever. But the odds of it happening against a former cruiserweight like Usyk aren’t realistic.
What about Alexander Povetkin, you might ask; he was crafty with a high fight IQ. True, but when Joshua impressively halted him in seven rounds in 2018, he was already past his sell-by date, even if he did give the Brit some issues early on. Usyk is in his prime, and he is the first southpaw (second overall) Joshua has faced since Charles Martin in 2016.
Joshua stopped Martin in two rounds. Charles Martin is no Oleksandr Usyk. Instead, Usyk is a fighter showing up not just for a paycheck, but to change his life forever by winning. And with so many questions surrounding the actual in the ring action, it’s the type of beautiful confusion that will make everyone tuning in get those butterflies that only a legit heavyweight championship fight can bring. Such confusion can lead either fighter into places they don’t want to go, where one wrong move can be the difference between winning or losing. And both Joshua and Usyk need to win. Who needs it more? Who wants it more?
No, it’s not the golden age of heavyweight boxing when Muhammad Ali was in his heyday, but with one punch, or several punches delivered over 12 rounds, Usyk can do what “The Greatest” did.
He can shake up the world.