Outside of the two world champions and ex-title-holder Deontay Wilder, there were few heavyweights with a better résumé than Oleksandr Usyk. Olympic gold medallist, unbeaten as a pro having unified the cruiserweight division while winning the World Boxing Super Series tournament and with the added bragging rights of winning all his major fights on the road. The charismatic Ukranian came entered his challenge to unified (WBA Super, IBF, WBO) king Anthony Joshua, at a Tottenham Hotspur Stadium not too far away from the Brit’s native Watford, full of confidence despite his two outings thus far at heavyweight failing to match his cruiser feats.
Usyk had laboured to an extent against late substitute Chazz Witherspoon then a motivated Dereck Chisora, but was never in any danger of losing and Oleksandr is arguable the best fighter, in his prime, that AJ has ever faced. The big question was whether the southpaw’s supreme footwork, accuracy and boxing IQ could overcome the advantages held by Joshua – beaten only by Andy Ruiz, a shock setback quickly avenged – in size, strength and power.
Usyk resoundingly answered in the affirmative, boxing superbly from the start and nearly stopping Joshua in the final moments, before taking a well-deserved unanimous decision, 117-112, 116-112 and 115-113.
Usyk began typically fleet of foot, moving laterally as Joshua tried to establish the jab. A clean straight left from the challenger was the most notable shot landed in round one in a fight where the tension was palpable from the opening bell. Joshua got busier in the next but Usyk continued bouncing on his toes, chancing light flurries and forcing the champion to reset. He held the edge in handspeed but AJ, a huge man of course, is no slow-coach. The Ukranian scored with a sharp one-two in the third, constantly changing angles, and while Joshua moved his head more, it did not prevent Usyk hurting him with a left hook towards the end of the session.
Joshua looked a little stiff and apprehensive coming out for the fourth. Usyk’s perpetual motion made it so hard for the Watford man to gain a foothold but he kept chipping away, presumably hoping the later rounds would be his. Into round five and Usyk’s fast and intelligent footwork was a key factor. Joshua enjoyed success with jabs and right hands but he was still being outlanded. Joshua accelerated the weakening process in the next, trying to make his fewer but heavier shots count. The champ’s patience was impressive. I scored it 5-1 Usyk at halfway, but the momentum may have swung in favour of the Brit, who landed a jolting right that bothered Oleksandr.
Joshua connected with a fine left hook downstairs in the seventh and was better able to maneuver his opponent into the ropes and corners. Usyk came on strong in the second half of the round however, with fast combinations. The challenger’s output dipped in round eight and AJ took advantage, placing hefty rights to head and body, one particular hook downstairs appearing to trouble his unbeaten rival. Usyk edged the next for me, making Joshua miss and pecking away with both hands.
As we reached the championship rounds, it seemed Joshua needed a knockout to triumph. There were a few close stanzas but I was surprised by the champion’s lack of urgency. Usyk sustained a cut above the right eye and this seemed to inspire Joshua, who poured forward but into a shot that made his own right optic swell instantly. Joshua saw the writing on the wall and began chucking bombs in round 11. He remained cautious of being countered but must have felt his titles slipping away. I had Joshua in a five-point deficit heading into the 12th and final session. He never really got to grips with Usyk’s movement and variety. Joshua looked for the finish in the last but Usyk was still spry and focused, actually backing AJ up at times with threes and fours then very nearly halting him in the closing seconds. I scored 9-3 Usyk at the final bell, or 117-111.
There is a rematch clause and it will take a huge reversal of fortune for Joshua to get revenge, but he has been there before and done just that. For Usyk, this may well be the greatest achievement in what was already an outstanding career.
Hackney’s Lawrence Okolie retained the WBO cruiserweight title for the first time, dropping overmatched mandatory challenge Dilan Prasovic once each in the second and third rounds, the latter precipitating the stoppage. Prasovic owed his lofty ranking to a reign as WBO Youth champ but was well outclassed here. The first right hand Okolie landed in earnest decked him, then a left hook to the body ended the Montenegrin’s night in the following session.
Callum Smith made a stunning debut at light-heavyweight. The former Super WBA super-middleweight ruler – only defeat to Canelo – despatched usually durable Dominican gatekeeper Lenin Castillo with a pulverising right hand in the second round of their clash. Such was the impact that Castillo’s legs began shaking involuntarily as he lay prone on the canvas, a scary stoppage finish, though thankfully he recovered relatively rapidly.
Unbeaten ’Albanian King’ Florian Marku captured the IBF International welterweight title with a split 10-round decision over Italy-based Romanian Maxim Prodan.