“No punches yet—use your feet, change direction. Hands up, but no punches yet.”
Can you see the trainer, scrutinizing from beyond the ropes the boxer moving about the ring?
“Okay, now add the jab, but move your head before and after you throw.”
The sounds in the ring sharpen, concentration, exertion, percussion. There is work happening now. Not punching is work too.
“Good, relax your shoulders, breathe. Add the cross, either with the jab or on its own. But keep moving your head. And if you’re not going to move your head after, get out. Don’t wait for what’s coming back.”
The malignant shadow, the invisible menace has upped his effort. The boxer has responded. Whatever his fighting aspirations, he will come closer to them for committing these instructions to memory. They will not a champion make, but no champion has been made (or made to last) without them.
Oleksandr Usyk is almost an undisputed champion again. The former undisputed cruiserweight champion took four titles from Anthony Joshua Saturday, winning a unanimous decision over the UK fighter before a thunderous crowd at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in Tottenham, England. This is what Usyk does: he fights to become undisputed, and he does so in hostile territory. Each of his titles—all that cruiserweight hardware, and Saturday’s heavyweight haul—he won on the champion’s home soil. A remarkable feat when the first blow in a fight, even the defining one, can be landed in negotiations. But there is no gaming Usyk. Eventually, those who fight with ink must clear out of the ring, and the men they work for are left alone with their reckoning.
Usyk wore a sort of stylized spacesuit to the ring, an absurdity of LED lights and fishbowl headgear, one in keeping with his reputation for hijinks. But it makes sense, doesn’t it? He is alien in his conduct. That otherworldly ambition, the 19-0 fighter who has already claimed one division and is but one fight from annexing another. He is an invader, after all.
“Take me to your leader, earthling. I come in peace.,” he grins mischievously.
If only Bart Barry still gifted us a weekly column. Smitten with pressure fighters, Bart had a deep affinity for Usyk, a fighter who with fitness and nerve unnerves fighters less fit. Bart also laughed at the undulating Andy Ruiz’s upset over Joshua in 2019, in the mockery it made of the body-beautiful fetish and supposed greatness of a division that has been anything but for too long.
Still, he might have been concerned for Usyk Saturday. Bart observed that what Usyk could accomplish in a step against cruisers required too many at heavyweight. That shift from acute to obtuse angles took something special from Usyk. Against heavyweights, Usyk’s angles came at the expense of his offense, or his offense at the expense of his angles. The former left him less dangerous, the latter, more vulnerable. And now he faced one of the heavyweight goliaths.
Ironically, perhaps what Usyk needed to return to his spellbinding ways was an opponent large enough to restore his cruiserweight advantages. Granted, there was no turning Joshua, no skirting him gracefully, as Usyk had against, say, Murat Gassiev, in the fight that made Usyk the undisputed cruiserweight champion. But Usyk didn’t need footwork that dramatic to confound Joshua. Instead, he used his advantage in footspeed and a tireless array of feints and jabs to get his lead foot outside of Joshua’s and spear the bigger man with left hands. It’s a simple southpaw tactic, one Manny Pacquiao used to what was for his opponents a maddening, mulching effect. Usyk employed it expertly in taking the fight to Joshua; his success augmented by Joshua’s efforts to counter those stinging punches with something eviler, and therefore slower.
This isn’t to suggest Usyk is a tiny heavyweight: his six-feet-three frame has incorporated the added twenty pounds well. But he was distinctly smaller than even the slimmed-down Joshua he faced Saturday and would be at a significant height and reach disadvantage against knockout artist Deontay Wilder; the gargantuan Tyson Fury would dwarf him. He is better than all three, though, and after his showing against Joshua, there is no reason to think Usyk could not make those men lament the advantages of their genetic endowment.
Because Usyk is a heavyweight now. Joshua learned that in the championship rounds, when after taxing Usyk to the body, after cutting him under both eyes and bringing the outcome of the fight into question, he was overwhelmed.
That smile was there again, Joshua’s tell, his irrepressible betrayal; it broke out broadest with mere seconds left in the final round. Usyk had answered the challenge of Joshua’s mid-fight rally by returning to—and amplifying—what worked. And so it was Joshua, smiling and sagging into the ropes, suffering punch upon punch as the seconds ticked away just fast enough for him to relinquish his titles on his feet rather than his back. The fighter who committed extra time to the heavy bag in training drowned by an opponent who never stops moving, one who moves his head before and after he punches, who knows not to be there when the return fire comes—and yet who seemingly gets bigger as the fight wears on. What Bart might’ve written about that.
What now for Joshua, for whom there has been too much tinkering since he sent Wladimir Klitschko dramatically, captivatingly into retirement? Once a destroyer, an elite finisher who sought the scalp of the man before him, Joshua is now a shaky front-runner, an unfortunate regression attributable as much to the changes implemented to correct his faults as the faults themselves.
Is that what’s happened?
Nietzsche writes about our tendency to conflate effect and cause. Perhaps that is at work with Joshua. Perhaps the Ruiz loss, the efforts to rebuild him from it, were not the cause of Joshua’s shifting ring identity so much as the effect of causes that went overlooked while his record remained perfect. Perhaps he was always this flawed and somewhat fragile fighter, and what is hardest to accept is how embarrassing that revelation was.
There will be changes made, surely, their significance reflective of how comfortable Joshua is about his latest performance. Those changes may result in the appearance of a return to form, or his brain trust may let matchmaking see to that. But if he just lost to the best heavyweight in the world (or even the second or third best), and in a fight that may not warrant a second viewing but should warrant a rematch, he remains a relevant and exciting player in what is—for now—a four-man division. He retains the tools, if not quite the confidence to wield them destructively against genuine resistance. But perfection is boring, and Joshua is anything but.
He was the first giant to tempt the slayer. May the others do the same.