Thoughts of a £200m fight with Tyson Fury are now gone… Oleksandr Usyk stands in the way of Joshua’s career progress for a second time
The £200 million mega-meeting of Tyson Fury and Anthony Joshua for the undisputed heavyweight throne is now a cracked mirror, a shattered dream, another ‘woulda, shoulda, coulda’ in the history of the sport’s blue riband division. Dead in the water.
Blame who you like, how you like, but it is further away from happening now than it was when a judge in the USA ruled through arbitration in June that Fury, contractually, must face Deontay Wilder, for a third time. That fight, for the WBC heavyweight belt, is still scheduled to go ahead in a fortnight in a Las Vegas ring.
There will be plenty of observers, not least Fury, who will feel even more assured now as the dust from the home of Spurs that a fight with Joshua would have suited him. Styles make fights, as one of boxing’s most truthful axioms runs, and it was there in technicolour at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, witnessed by 68,000 fans live in a raucous melee, and by the millions watching screens.
Nothing – absolutely nothing – should be taken away from the brilliant performance by Oleksandr Usyk, a steal, with movement like ‘The Cat’ – as his ring sobriquet suggests – moving in and out of range, creating angles for his punches, wobbling Joshua in the seventh round and almost stopping the falling champion in the 12th round as he dominated the closing stanzas, with pure boxing ability. Usyk wrecked the aura of his rival Joshua, whose sculpted physique, athleticism, power and strength still mask the fact that he needs more boxing smarts.
Nine rounds to three was my assessment, the same way the Ukrainian judge scored the fight, 117-112. Eight rounds to four at a push, as seen by the American judge. The British judge, Howard Foster, scored the bout 115-113, but seven rounds to five in favour of Usyk was generous to Joshua.
Joshua had success in the fifth and sixth rounds, the rounds indeed when he went hunting, as he became more like the predator that he is naturally. That is the style Joshua might reconsider fighting Usyk with in the rematch, as that is what the Londoner insisted immediately after the bout he has decided on. It makes sense because it gives Joshua the opportunity to claim back the IBF, WBA, WBO and IBO belts, and promoter Eddie Hearn has said that the fight will most likely take place in February 2022.
But outside the business of a rematch, the fight itself is going to be another difficult assignment for Joshua, who already knows that aggression and blasting Usyk must be his tactics. Joshua, although he closed the space quickly as the fight began, appeared to be attempting to box the boxer once the two men settled, a visual demonstration of the frustration he harbours over the long-held claims that Fury has always been the better boxer out of the pair.
But if they do meet again in five months’ time, Joshua must transform into a destroyer, and force Usyk into the corners, let his hands go, and ‘fight’.
Joshua has done this once before, losing to Andy Ruiz and coming back to claim his belts to become a two-time world champion, but Usyk is not Ruiz, who let himself go between their two fights. Usyk will not do that. The Ukrainian left Joshua looking flat in this fight, running out of ideas as the rounds ticked away, and if Joshua is to be one of the greats of the era, the 31-year-old will need to find a way, next time out as the underdog, to dethrone his nemesis.
Hidden in plain sight, moreover, is that Joshua is a work in progress, and always has been – a point acknowledged both by himself and trainer Robert McCracken – and, as the dust settles and Joshua and his team wake up to the hangover of shattered plans from last night, the realisation will be that they came up against a supreme boxer, who, outside Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez, is arguably the best pound-for-pound boxer in the world at present. Timing is everything in sport, micro and macro, and here, Usyk had poise and perfection in his game of ‘hit and not be hit’, meeting the perfect opponent at the perfect time to etch himself into the history books.
Can Joshua turn a ‘loss into a lesson’? Does he have the boxing acumen to turn the tide? If he does, then the fight with Fury could be a runner again. And Fury, indeed, must defeat the dangerous Wilder for his heavyweight journey to continue undiminished. But right now, Joshua-Fury is a long, long way off. In the way, an elusive boxer of Cossack descent from the Crimea, holding the belts and positioned high in a fortress which could well be impregnable. Credit to Joshua for wanting the immediate rematch, but it could be foolhardy, as it will be a difficult result to reverse. To repeat – styles make fights – and Usyk may just have Joshua’s number.