He stands at the mouth of the tunnel, dressed in stark black (or deep purple?), an imposing figure. His long shadow falls in an arrangement of that resonant surname stretched lengthwise along the tunnel floor. The walls shift kaleidoscopically, projected images expanding and contracting, snippets of action in endless loop: violence, victory, repose.
A pulse of bass, a space-aged keyboard lick (like the sound of a dare sent in digitized morse code), a percussive scratch, and he begins that too familiar march from potential to actual. A voice of signature rasp alights on the beat:
When you think of me, you think of a problem,
Who, what, when, and how you gon’ solve ‘im?
Automatic or revolve ‘im?
The answer to that question awaits him, not yet in the ring but beyond the mouth of the tunnel, patiently poised for a champion’s entrance. There, icy and expressionless, awaits a man who has answered that question before—and answered it correctly.
In November 2018, Oleksandr Usyk, the reigning undisputed all-everything cruiserweight champion of the world, left the division he had conquered with a passport and metaphorical full tank of gas behind him. There is no reason to revisit that history—it defines Usyk, exalts him, and is familiar to anyone with more than a passing interest in boxing. His goal, if we are to read the predatory gaze Usyk set on Anthony Joshua from the stands at one of Joshua’s earlier fights, was not only heavyweight hardware but Joshua’s scalp in particular.
Usyk collected both last September in a fight that confirmed better than a scale ever could, Usyk’s membership in the division. He left Tottenham Hotspur Stadium with a face coming apart at the seams—a testament to the caliber of ammunition men without a weight limit wield—but wrapped in leather and metal enough to insulate him from a pipe bomb. As he had after his stunning knockout loss to pumpkinly Cinderella man, Andy Ruiz, Joshua invoked his rematch clause against Usyk, resulting in the “Rage by the Red Sea” at the Jeddah Superdome in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on Saturday. Rage was hardly in the offing, but Usyk again left the ring a champion, the split-decision victory in his favor speaking to a modicum of improvement on Joshua’s part.
Few active fighters have spent more time on the proverbial shrink’s couch than Joshua, so difficult is it to reconcile his shortcomings with his absurd gifts. But if fatigue is Joshua’s Achilles heel, one exacerbated by his inability to relax, new trainer Robert Garcia could prove a fitting whisperer. Joshua seemed more relaxed in his second crack at Usyk, as confounding and exhausting an opponent as any fighter 200 pounds or greater can encounter. And when he dug his beautiful, destructive punches to the body, there was an undeniable hint of catastrophe coloring Usyk’s response.
Yet even with the one scorecard in his favor, Joshua fared no better than last time. Joshua cannot outbox Usyk, nor has he the stamina to apply the consistent pressure required to make the fight his. And both fighters know it. Joshua can change any fight with one punch, but in twenty-four rounds he could not land it against Usyk. Indeed, he came closer last September when, in defeat, he showed Usyk what being a heavyweight champion should demand.
Because of his popularity, because of investments financial, emotional, and patriotic in nature, Joshua will be psychoanalyzed and unpacked again in the aftermath of his second loss to Usyk. This scrutiny is performed with an eye to refurbishing, remaking a finished product that is not allowed to be a fighter who figures only in his era. An answer for why Joshua again fell short will be sought mistakenly in the Watford, UK, fighter, in his constitution, his fragility, his development. But the best explanation was in the ring with him that night. Joshua is a very good heavyweight; Usyk is a better one. He is the reason Joshua is no longer a champion and Joshua disclosed as much in a postfight rant that revealed just how physically and psychically taxing his efforts to unseat the Ukrainian had been.
Automatic or revolve ‘im?
The short answer for Usyk is the former. His crafty frontside offense, augmented by his southpaw stance—the clever lefts that prod and pierce. His full clip, the one that spits rounds as you reload, blasting away while you duck and cover, futilely waiting out the barrage. Joshua, despite his heavy artillery, had little answer for it. But in the ninth round, preluded by a handful of sickening body shots in the eighth, Joshua put Usyk in on his heels. What followed was remarkable. What followed was the revolver.
Usyk responded to his worst round of the fight—one that coaxed a grin out of “A. J.”—like a champion. As he had for so many rounds previous, Usyk exited behind his own punches or away from Joshua’s with a tiny counterclockwise revolution. But then he planted his feet and unloaded. No more turning and tormenting Joshua, no more doing just enough to win—with this handful of evil punches Usyk escalated the terms of engagement, and if for a moment turned a boxing match into a fight.
This was not an act of desperation, some all-or-nothing response to an either/or proposition. But it was an impressive response to a moment of genuine peril, one only the finest fighters can produce, one Joshua could not match (though, it should be noted, one he did not shy from). And only the memory of their more intriguing first fight robbed the championship rounds of any particular drama.
The questions travel their familiar route: from interviewer to translator to fighter and back. Do they lose something in translation? Do they perhaps gain some charm as a result? He focuses on his knuckles, webbed by the pesky sinews of tape embedded by impact. His answers are largely perfunctory—that is all he owes anyone. Indeed, the quirkiness that Usyk exhibits seems like a playful way of showing us how silly the rigmarole beyond the ropes really is. Asked about who he would like to fight next, Usyk responds perfectly: “I’m sure, I’m convinced he wants to fight me. I want to fight him and if I’m not fighting Tyson Fury, I’m not fighting at all.” It is the correct answer. The only kind Usyk gives.