Plus: Eddie Hearn on why this will be Joshua’s toughest fight – but he’s backing the Briton to win
It is Anthony Joshua’s fight to lose on Saturday against Oleksandr Usyk, as the British heavyweight carries his four world title belts into the ring against the unbeaten Ukrainian, who presents the greatest challenge, in pure boxing terms, in the Londoner’s decorated career.
Joshua weighed in at 240lbs on Friday, looking long and lean, with Usyk the heaviest of his career at 221 and one quarter pounds. The defending champion must make his size, power and weight advantages tell from the start. He must also establish a rhythm and impose himself on the former undefeated cruiserweight king, who has had just two outings in the blue riband division before challenging for ultimate glory.
Both men are Olympic gold medallists from London 2012, Joshua at super-heavyweight, Usyk at heavyweight. It is a compelling contest, an intriguing potential physical chess match, with many imponderables. Outside the prospect of a fight with fellow Briton Tyson Fury this is the most dangerous fight in the division stylistically for the towering Joshua.
But the Briton has over the past five years, won the IBF, WBA , WBO and IBO belts, then lost them all before regaining them against Andy Ruiz in 2019 – he’s experienced.
Joshua’s trainer Rob McCracken has been insistent throughout the process of developing his fighter that he remains “a work in progress” and is still at 80 per cent of what he could go on to be. Camp by camp, fight by fight, Joshua has added to his armoury, developing his defence in recent years having wrecked his first eighteen opponents in just 44 rounds.
There was a huge learning curve in his 19th contest against former heavyweight king Wladimir Klitschko, in an 11-round thriller at Wembley Stadium in 2017 – a night when Joshua displayed heart, guts, stamina, survival instincts and a desire for finishing opponents which has become part of his trademark.
There are parallels here in this contest against another vastly experienced boxer. After the protagonists had weighed in on Friday at the 02 Arena, before a raucous crowd of 3,000 fans, Joshua told Telegraph Sport that he had seen in Usyk’s eyes, as they stared each other down with a deep intensity, a desire for a classic. “I saw in him an opponent who wants to have fun in this fight. I can see he wants to have a fast chess match. I am fully ready, I am prepared to go the full 12 rounds and defeat Usyk, but if I have to put hand on heart, I believe I will stop him close to the 10th round.”
Boxers are never paid for overtime, and a concise, decisive stoppage of Usyk would bring the house down at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. As is often said in boxing, ‘a good big un’ beats a good little un’.
That will be Joshua’s mantra as he hopes to show off his improved jab and unquestionable power and finishing against a fighter who has 10 times more amateur experience – 350 bouts to Joshua’s 35 – and a style and ring generalship that the British fighter will not have experienced in his eight-year professional career.
Joshua risks it all in his fifth stadium fight in the UK, all victorious, but had no choice but to face his WBO mandatory challenger, after the much-heralded undisputed fight with Fury fell through in June after an arbitration ruling in the USA forced Fury through contractual rights into a third fight against Deontay Wilder. But it are the imponderables in this contest which will carry debate until the first bell tolls.
The Ukrainian has brilliant fighting IQ, and make no bones about it, carries the potential to scupper Joshua vs Fury, the biggest, richest fight in British boxing history and worth an estimated £200 million, next year. It makes Usyk a high-risk, low-reward opponent, even though the Ukrainian is still unproven at heavyweight.
Joshua must be patient, disciplined and box Usyk from range and, when exchanging, wary of the dangerous counter-puncher who will be looking – as his ring nickname ‘The Cat’ suggests – to pounce on Joshua falling in with his punches and leaving himself exposed. Usyk, meanwhile will be looking to keep the fight long, set traps and get inside to use his hand speed against the champion.
Joshua will be looking to draw inspiration from the huge crowd of 68,000 at the impressive stadium in north London, who will have come largely to see the big man triumph once more, and continue towards his ambition of claiming the undisputed title.
“I live and train for these moments and I want to entertain all the fans who support our sport and support me. I want to give them a knockout, because that’s what they have come to see,” Joshua said.
All the talk and hype is over. It is time for the long walk to the ring, and for Joshua to deliver on his promise to be an enforcer, a throwback fighter, and use his brute strength while matching Usyk for ringcraft and skills. Joshua should prevail by knockout, between rounds seven and 10, but it is impossible to write off Usyk’s brilliance causing an upset. It has had the feel of a thriller and we could be set for a classic.
AJ will be ready for what Usyk throws at him – but this will be a tough fight
By Eddie Hearn
It has felt huge all week. I’m nervous – as I always am – whenever Anthony Joshua fights. We have come up together, AJ as boxer, me as promoter with Matchroom. At times like this you just have to revert back to this being sport and have to go, ‘well, isn’t that how it
How exciting will it be on Saturday when we sit there and watch it all unfold? I’d much rather a walkover. But why do we watch sport? Why do we love sport? For moments like this. As nervous as I’ll be, you’ve got embrace it and love it and enjoy it. You’ve got to just cross your fingers and hope he’s the better man. I believe he is and I believe he wins the fight but my god is it a tough fight.
Oleksandr Usyk gets in the ring and I think, ‘Blimey, look at his neck. Look at his shoulders’. He looks massive. Then AJ gets in the ring and then I think, ‘look at the size of him’. I’ve never seen AJ so assured going into a fight, which is quite ironic because this is technically probably his toughest fight. He’s just seasoned now. I think that’s the best way to describe it. He knows the game.
I used to get more nervous because he didn’t know what he was doing. When he boxed Klitschko, when he boxed Martin, even Povetkin and Parker, I don’t think he knew what he he was doing. But he does now. He’s still got to execute it and he’s got to do it against Usyk.
This isn’t a basic heavyweight where he can just easily work him out. This is a guy who is going to be feinting and his feet will be moving. He could go three rounds and think, ‘What the f**k’s going on here?’ He will get to him in my opinion, but he’s got to get to him smartly and when he gets to hit he’s got to hurt him and sting him and punish him. He’s got to make him think, no way do I want to engage. There are so many different ways the fight can unfold and that’s what’s so thrilling about it.
AJ looks fantastic. People talk about him being lean. It’s just he’s training in different ways now. He’s doing a lot more boxing now, a lot more sparring. He’s not doing so much lifting. He’s a lot more nimble now. He’s training differently. He’s one of the biggest stars in combat sports. He’s been such a huge part of the growth of our business and British boxing. To lose him would be a huge blow to the business. Yes, we would have carried on and been hugely successful but he’s been our flagbearer for a long time.
It’s not just even financial. It’s a deep personal relationship. It was a thrill that AJ has signed his whole career to me in our
fourth contract together. He’s pledged his entire career to Matchroom.
It means a lot. Loyalty is hard to come by in boxing, especially when they’re at that level. Show me a massive big-name fighter over the last era who has the same promoter their whole career. I don’t think there is one. It shows his incredible loyalty. But he was the main guy who when all the Fury stuff fell through he almost kept me sane and positive. He phoned me up and said: ‘Listen, you did a great f**king job. I know it hasn’t worked out but you did everything you could. Hold your head up and keep going.’
If I didn’t promote AJ, I’d have to question my role in the sport because I would lose a little bit of the heart and passion I have. He gives that to me. The four contracts that we’ve signed were all different. The first one was, will we get him? The second one was, will he stay? The third one was, I’m pretty sure he’ll stay. And the fourth one was pretty routine.
We could have done it on a handshake but to put it in a contract is a nice statement. When he stands up there and says Matchroom are the best promoter and he wouldn’t want to be with anyone else, that’s the greatest advert we can have to bring any fighter to the stable.
All that matters right now is Saturday. Beyond that all that matters is undisputed. This is a bigger fight than Klitschko and a more challenging fight. The biggest challenge with that one was that AJ wasn’t ready. The biggest challenge here is the fight.