On Saturday Oleksandr Usyk won hearts and minds making history under London skies.
The new unified heavyweight champion educated the London crowd on the beautiful side of a brutal sport
The new £1 billion Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in North London is hard to miss. Sticking its head out above the high-rise flats, tired pubs, hipster coffee shops and abundance of fast-food restaurants, you’d be forgiven for assuming – after a glass or two, granted – that a spaceship had landed in the middle of town.
abundance of fast-food restaurants, you’d be forgiven for assuming – after a glass or two, granted – that a spaceship had landed in the middle of town.
Neon, flashing lights dress the cladding of this impressive piece of architecture, with the sight of its sheer size and grandeur providing the foreplay to what excitement lies within. It’s enticing. It sucks you in with its very own gravitational pull.
On Saturday evening, North London’s newest toy played host to 70,000 fans, there to witness the next episode of The Anthony Joshua Show. No matter where, no matter when, no matter whom against; the British heavyweight has the unrivalled ability to pull colossal numbers to his fights without any questions asked or any justification needed.
Familiarity doesn’t breed contempt in the Anthony Joshua business. Familiarity breeds loyalty, and there are thousands that have willingly signed up as fully-fledged members of AJ’s growing fan club.
It’s an extension of the entertainment industry. A large portion of the attendance will only ever watch Joshua fights or be interested in Joshua fights – this is not a criticism, or an attempt to stoke the fires of a casual vs. hardcore fan debate, merely an observation. As Paul Weller once sang: “That’s Entertainment.”
As the queues for the bars inside the stadium snaked round the concourses, echoing chants of “Ohhhh, Anthony Joshua” – to the tune of the White Stripes’ Seven Nation Army – filled the humid autumnal air: in hindsight, those singing should have instead been wondering “Oh… Oleksandr Usyk!?
Usyk was cast as the villain long before he arrived at last week’s final press conference dressed as the Joker. “Some Ukrainian,” I overheard in the toilets in answer to a friend posing the question of whom Joshua was fighting, conveniently and ignorantly omitting his name or unbeaten record from the conversation.
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All would soon become apparent. Boos rang around the buoyant stadium as the former undisputed cruiserweight champion raced to the ring – almost as if Usyk couldn’t wait to show everyone the true art of boxing. If the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium was the spaceship, then Usyk was the alien that had arrived on planet earth, able and willing to show the public something they didn’t believe or deem to be possible.
Usyk set the pace throughout the 36 minutes of combat, showing footwork and movement of a man half his size, whilst simultaneously earning the champion’s respect with his spiteful power. Feints, body movement, head movement and an accurate backhand to the torso flowed majestically from the fists of the away fighter. Usyk proved a puzzle to which Joshua had to solve in the dark.
His conditioning was spot on. There are numerous opportunities to compare Usyk to a throwback fighter, but on Saturday night, his apparent ability to pace himself 15 rounds – if ever required – was clear for all to see.
Every punch landed, every attack slipped and every minute that ticked by, Usyk was able to further suck the life out of the pro-Joshua crowd. Pockets of Ukrainians grew louder, prouder, as the penny dropped amongst the paying public: Oleksandr Usyk is a special fighter.
As the final few rounds approached, Joshua showed heart and bravery in order to hear the final bell. The away fighter – about to win his seventh world title fight in the back garden of his opponent – pushed for the stoppage, underlining his dominance with a flurry of unanswered punches, at a volume that Joshua hasn’t experienced as a professional. Joshua stuck out his tongue in a final act of resistance, but the ink had dried on his second stint as champion.
Groans and grumbles inside the stadium turned to gasps and small ripples of applause – perhaps not realising it at the time, but they had just paid to witness an outstanding lesson in boxing. Fervent disappointment was still evident up and down the rows, but Usyk was able to go from ‘just another AJ opponent’ to winning the hearts and minds of the British public in just under an hour.
Usyk’s dominance across two weight classes and multiple countries is incredible. He joins the elite club of Evander Holyfield and David Haye in winning titles at cruiserweight and heavyweight, and looks far from finished in a sport he is close to mastering. A rematch may be ordered at the wishes of the dethroned champion, but on the evidence of Saturday night, it’s hard to see how Joshua can turn the tide.
Once again the heavyweight pack has been shuffled – until two more cards are re-drawn in a fortnight