“meIt was the day she turned 12 so of course she cried a little,” says Oleksandr Usyk quietly as he recalls how his daughter Yelizaveta’s birthday was overshadowed earlier this year, on the 24 February, the day Russia invaded Ukraine. The heavyweight champion of the world runs his hand through his damp hair, which is cut in the style of a Cossack warrior, and for a moment he feels as if he is back home on that terrible winter morning when the first bombs fell.
“My wife talked to her, explaining what happened, and my daughter soon understood very well what we are all facing in Ukraine,” says Usyk. “It was difficult but she got it and the main thing is that she is safe now. She will be fine.”
On a very hot Saturday evening in Dubai, almost six months since that abandoned birthday party, the ominous shadow of war still hangs over Usyk as he prepares to defend his IBF, WBA and WBO titles against Anthony Joshua. Next Saturday night in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Usyk and Joshua will be looking for their epic rematch.
Usyk stripped Joshua of all his belts with a devastating performance in London last September. But all the typical hoopla of a heavyweight world title fight is a more humane concern, at least for the new champion. He is not interested in making any predictions about what might happen between the ropes – or whether Joshua, who is now being guided by Robert Garcia, the great Mexican-American trainer, will overturn his forgotten strategy from the first fight.
There is every indication that Joshua will opt for a much more aggressive approach and look to use his considerable physical advantages to try to hurt and even out Usyk. The Ukrainian is the better and more natural boxer, with skills that Joshua doesn’t expect to match, and Garcia has spoken openly about the need to bully and attack Usyk.
In response to the looming threat Usyk has spent his long and intense training camp building up his body. He reigned supreme as the undisputed cruiserweight champion of the world before, in 2019, he moved up to heavyweight where most of boxing’s vast wealth is available.
He defeated Joshua in his third heavyweight contest but appears to have since packed on 15 kilos of muscle in preparation for Joshua’s renewed threat.
“In the first month of the war I lost 10 pounds,” says Usyk, recalling how he, like many Ukrainians, lost weight amid stress and anxiety. “But when I started preparing for this fight I gained weight quickly and my team did this incredible work to strengthen my body. I don’t want to say much about the weight but the main thing is that I feel very fit and strong. You can see it in the gym but I’m going to prove this in the ring.”
His team has posted videos on social media of Usyk looking horrified as he crawls into the heavy bag, and there are stories of how sparring partners have been forced to leave camp because of the punishment they took . I’m more interested in whether Usyk will maintain his usual speed and agility, even though he’s like a full heavyweight now. He grinned. “That’s not a problem at all.”
Usyk told me in London a few months ago that Joshua didn’t hurt him in his first fight, although he admitted it was a tough fight. He was in the UK for a media conference to publicize the rematch but, after his promotional duties, Usyk sat down with a few of us. It was amazing how open he was about the impact of the war on him as he reflected on the month he spent as a Ukrainian soldier.
“Every day I was there, I was praying and asking: ‘Please, God, don’t let anyone try to kill me. Please don’t let anyone shoot me. And please, don’t make me shoot anyone else.”
Even more slowly, Usyk said: “My children are asking: ‘Dad, why are they trying to kill us?'” The heavyweight champion of the world looked briefly helpless as he said, after a pause long: “I don’t know what to say to them.”
I return to that moment now and ask Usyk if, as the war drags on with no end in sight, his three children still ask that very human question. “They do,” he says, “but now I have the answer. I explain to my children that the Russians are trying to kill us because they are weak people. I also tell them that this is the same reason they are not going to win the war. We are stronger than them.”
He is still their father so they must be feeling fear and anxiety as he faces Joshua again. Will they be watching the fight? “I have a lot of confidence in my kids and it’s up to them to see the fight. And even if I tell them they can’t watch they’ll probably do it anyway. I don’t want them to have to lie and say they weren’t watching. I want to maintain that trusting relationship and be honest with them. I trust them to know what’s best for them and if they see me fight.”
Usyk has made sure that all Ukrainians will be able to watch him against Joshua. He was willing to cover any financial costs to remove the pay-per-view restrictions in Ukraine but an agreement was soon reached to make the fight available for free in his own country. “It’s great and it will show the connection between me and Ukraine. The fact that everyone at home can watch me will be encouraging.”
It is easy to imagine that Volodymyr Zelenskiy will be among those millions of viewers, since Usyk is one of the most famous and innovative people in Ukraine. Has Usyk spoken to Zelenskiy recently? “Our president has a lot of work going on at the moment so he is very busy with all the issues of the country. But I will talk to him later and it will be an honor.”
Usyk has built a foundation in response to the war and speaks passionately about his work with UK-based NFT sports platform Blockasset. They have launched an exclusive digital artwork collection of 2,000 items in an effort to raise $2m for the Usyk Foundation which will support humanitarian aid for Ukrainians in need of medical care, shelter and food. “It’s a great initiative,” says Usyk, “and the collection brings back great moments in my career, like meeting Anthony Joshua in London. They are all unique assets to raise money for Ukraine.”
Is Usyk worried the world is forgetting about the war? “I think some people are not doing enough to help Ukraine. Many people want to hide and wait until the war ends and hope that it will not touch them. But it is not possible because it will touch everyone in some way. We should all pay attention to what is happening and do something.”
What has been his lowest moment since the war? “The whole time was very difficult. I don’t want anyone to feel sorry for me but the most difficult time was at the beginning of the war because I was not with my family. Not being with my wife and children is the hardest for me. But I managed this because I prayed to God and I felt confident again.”
Russian soldiers broke into his family home in Vorzel and used it as a base for a short time. Usyk emphasizes: “I have people rebuilding, so everything will be fine.”
Due to such a confrontation, normal boxing questions seem unnecessary although another victory for Usyk would have a profound resonance in Ukraine. But will Joshua be desperate to win because a second consecutive defeat would be a disastrous result for him? “I’m going to box like it’s a normal fight, so I don’t know about Joshua. But I won’t be as good as any other time I’ve fought. I will be better.”
In the first fight there were times when it looked as if Usyk had the ability to even stop Joshua. Could he really win this weekend? “I’m not going to make any predictions but right now I need my dinner. I am very hungry. My time is up.”
He says this politely but with the kind of determination he carries in the ring. Our video call ends before I have time to ask Usyk about any misgivings he may have about fighting in Saudi Arabia – where the treatment of so many ordinary people is as cruel as it is deadly. No amount of sports washing can hide the executions and imprisonment that occur under a brutal regime. It’s a question that Usyk didn’t answer before but that hasn’t changed now. The interview is over and he wants a break on the last night of his training camp.
It’s hard to trust Usyk, a smart and friendly man who explained to us earlier this year how the war changed him. “Sometimes I force myself to smile,” he said in London. “Sometimes I force myself to sing. I don’t even know how to explain it.”
The seriousness of the Russian invasion has made him stand out and clouds the logic that suggests Usyk should again be too good for Joshua. The war means this is no ordinary world heavyweight title. Usyk could be even more driven in the ring, fueled by his desire to win for Ukraine, or the toll of the conflict may wear him down.
His team has no doubt that his resolve and determination are stronger than ever. Hearing again about the heat wave in Europe, Sergey Lapin, a central member of his camp, laughed: “It was 49 degrees in Dubai today but you look at Oleksandr and you wouldn’t even know it. He is a hero.”
The Ukrainian fighter is about to spend his last supper in Dubai, before flying to Saudi Arabia this morning, but he expresses his gratitude for the interview and says: “With God’s help, after this fight, I will come back to my life. Motherland, to Ukraine.”
Usyk raises his hand and in that grim moment he seems determined to return home to his family and his status as heavyweight champion of the world intact.