Saturday in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia (DAZN, 1 PM EST), a fighter who has done almost everything will try to repeat the victory that brought him one fight from the pinnacle of boxing.
35-year old Oleksandr Usyk (19-0, 13 KO) has always been a winner. He captured Gold at the 2011 World Amateur Championships and did it again the next year at the Olympics. As a professional, Usyk captured his first major title in his tenth pro fight, defended twice, and then entered one of the most impressive tournaments ever assembled in boxing.
Over three fights, Usyk won the first World Boxing Super Series to unify every major title in the class. As an encore, he defeated a Tony Bellew who had lost his WBC belt outside the ring to complete a veritable clean-out.
After two time marking starts at heavyweight, Usyk added the WBA, IBF, and WBO heavyweight straps with a decisive decision victory over Anthony Joshua to expand his trophy case. Tyson Fury’s WBC and lineal claims to the flagship of boxing, the singular heavyweight crown, are all that’s left for Usyk to complete the most impressive run on boxing’s two heaviest classes since Evander Holyfield a generation ago.
For Joshua (24-2, 22 KO), now 32, it was just his second professional loss and first on points. Joshua, like Usyk, has been a winner. After falling short in the gold medal round at the 2011 World Amateur championship, Joshua ended a truncated unpaid career with Super Heavyweight Gold at the 2012 Games. Four years later, in just his sixteenth start, Joshua won his first alphabet crown.
Three fights later, in front of nearly 100,000 fans, Joshua traded knockdowns with former champion Wladimir Klitschko to add another strap to his collection in the Fight of the Year. Joseph Parker gave him a lopsided win in a unification clash two fights laters. Deontay Wilder was the only obstacle to having every major strap. Tyson Fury lingered with history’s crown in tow.
A bona fide ticket attraction, Joshua’s attempt at crashing the US market crashed at the hands of Andy Ruiz. Joshua rebounded from that seventh-round stoppage shocker to win a decision in an immediate rematch. Another win followed and after months wasted on a Fury showdown that couldn’t happen given Fury’s contractual obligations for a third Wilder fight, Usyk remained as a mandatory.
For the second time in five fights, Joshua is trying to avenge a defeat with no breaks in between and start his third reign as a heavyweight titlist.
Both men need to win this weekend. What does a win, or loss, mean for both men? And who really needs to win more?
Aside from the alphabet belts, the winner of Saturday’s fight will be recognized by both TBRB and Ring Magazine as the successor to Tyson Fury as heavyweight champion. For those scratching their head, that’s fair.
It’s hard to find anyone who thinks Fury is really retired.
It doesn’t matter what belts Fury has. Until someone beats him, and until everyone thinks he’s really done, Fury is going to be seen as the real king of the class. He should be. Fury earned it in the ring.
Fury’s public pronouncements just create chaos for anyone trying to follow any sort of structure. Fury went from announcing he was pursuing a ridiculous third fight with Dereck Chisora early last week to again announcing retirement. Ring Magazine editor Tom Gray reported he’d received confirmation from Fury that he would vacate his rights to the magazine’s belt. Given the duality of those announcements, Fury is being treated the way anyone else would in that situation even if it feels more likely that Fury, who has yet to vacate the WBC belt, will declare “still lineal,” call the winner of Usyk-Joshua II a dosser, and start the build to an inevitable showdown with the winner.
A Joshua win could expedite that situation. Joshua-Fury, if it were staged in the UK, is easily the biggest fight ever on those shores and the biggest ticket attraction in the sport anywhere in the world by a distance. It’s a monster no matter where it’s staged.
An Usyk win certainly keeps alive what should at that point be the finish line fight for Fury to attempt to clean out the title picture. Fury has had more to say about Usyk recently, calling him a middleweight and dismissing his chances, but Usyk doesn’t bring the box office of Joshua or Wilder. If Fury does ultimately vacate the WBC strap, that belt could be filled by the upcoming Wilder-Robert Helenius fight.
Would Usyk need to fight that winner in a unification fight to raise the ante enough for Fury to fully embrace the fight? It’s possible and it’s why Usyk might have more to lose this weekend than just belts.
Joshua-Fury is a monster whether Joshua wins this weekend or not. Joshua also remains a more attractive opponent for Wilder because so many people have wanted to see the two punchers together for more than five years. They can put Fury-Joshua in Wembley any time in the foreseeable future, pack it to the stratosphere, and have the eyes of the world on them. Wilder-Joshua is box-office on either side of the Atlantic and big pay-per-view business in the States.
Usyk keeping straps matters much more in generating demand for a showdown with Fury or Wilder in the game of glory and riches that is heavyweight boxing. Both Joshua and Usyk are in must-win positions this weekend, but Uysk may be the man with more pressure on him in this one. Add in the drama of Usyk’s home nation, Ukraine, remaining under siege in war with Russia and the drama heightens.
It’s hard to ask for more heading into a big heavyweight fight. Fistic drama. Human drama.
And barring a draw, only one man with their hand raised.
Cliff Rold is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene, a founding member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, a member of the International Boxing Research Organization, and a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America.