Oleksandr Usyk, who had the same birthday as Muhammad Ali, may have always been destined for great boxing.
‘The Cat’, as the swift-footed left-hander is known, has just 15 defeats to his staggering record of 368 matches, all of which came as amateurs, with the Ukrainian waltzing to European, world and Olympic glory.
But even after a quick run through the cruiserweight division, in which he made history by becoming the first boxer to hold all four belts simultaneously — doing this in just his 15th professional outing — the 34-year-old is still somewhat of a unknown amount in the heavyweight division as he prepares for his toughest test yet.
Oleksandr Usyk has arrived in London for his fight against Anthony Joshua on Saturday
The former cruiserweight king wants to win Joshua’s IBF, WBA and WBO ties
On Saturday, Usyk will take on Anthony Joshua in the first-ever fight at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, as the Ukrainian tries to wipe out the heavyweight’s IBF, WBA and WBO ties – and ultimately avoid what could be a historic moment in the tournament. British sport. .
Joshua appeared to be on the brink of an all-British undisputed showdown with Tyson Fury, with both sides finally singing from the same hymn sheet as a summer date approached.
However, with Fury forced into a trilogy fight against longtime rival Deontay Wilder, it was WBO mandatory challenger Usyk who took his place in a match where boxing purists and Joshua fans might be a little upset.
Even without Joshua’s fight with Fury failing, he and Usyk have been on a collision course for the past 10 years – dating all the way back to Azerbaijan in 2011, when the Ukrainian was on hand when his future opponent suffered an unfortunate defeat.
Usyk was born in Ukraine in 1987, coincidentally on the same birthday as Mohammad Ali
He started boxing at the age of 15, having previously played football at academy level
But before we get into the obvious parallels that can be drawn in their careers, let’s go back to January 17, 1987, when Usyk was born in Simferpol, Ukraine.
Usyk was born into a family that was struggling financially. He had a number of jobs growing up to support his parents, including working on a farm and selling fruit and ice cream on the street.
This even led to Usyk discovering boxing at the age of 15. Before ever trying on a pair of gloves, football was at the forefront of his mind, having played for the then Ukrainian Prime Minister’s academy. League side SC Tavriya Simferopol.
But the financial burden was too heavy for his family and he couldn’t go on.
“(I) played for Tavria from Simferopol and I did quite well,” said Usyk. “I was never a bench warmer, I was always a starter.
“Football claimed some very serious costs. And two or three hundred hryvnias was a considerable sum for my parents.
“Boxing was easier, more social. The coach gave me his gloves, his wife sewed them in the right shape.
“The only thing my mother spent money on was a travel ticket.”
With the lightning-fast success that has followed for Usyk, the transition to boxing is one that is clearly paying off.
Usyk reached the semi-finals of the European Championships in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, just four years after starting the sport, before winning gold in the same competition – this time in Liverpool – two years later in 2008.
Usyk, who married his childhood sweetheart Yekaterina in 2009, closed his eyes to Joshua for the first time in 2011. By participating in the World Championships for the second time, after winning a bronze medal two years earlier, Usyk has really made his mark in amateur sports. game.
Usyk defeated Artur Beterbiev, now the unified light-heavyweight champion, en route to the final, then took gold in emphatic style by beating Teymur Mammadov.
Meanwhile, a 21-year-old Joshua, who competed in the weight class above, was not expected to clinch a medal after being knocked out just three months earlier. But he exceeded all expectations when he reached the final where he fell short against Mahammadrasul Majidovin as Usyk watched from the stands.
Joshua won Olympic gold in London 2012, just a year after Usyk saw his future opponent fall in the World Cup final in Azerbaijan
But even after his defeat, Usyk knew he was witnessing the birth of a star, and he told his team that Joshua was a future Olympic champion, as revealed in a recent interview with Sky Sports.
“It was a good final, you know. I saw it live,” he said. “I said to my team: ‘This man is the future Olympic champion’.
“Next year, in 2012, Anthony was Olympic champion. Why did I think this? I saw his fight. I looked at Anthony. I saw him progress, progress, progress.’
As Usyk said, his prediction was one that came true, with Joshua winning super heavy gold at the 2012 London Olympics as his remarkably rapid development continued.
But Joshua wasn’t the only one to win gold. Usyk put the finishing touches to his incredible amateur career by winning an Olympic title himself and beating Clemente Russo in the heavyweight final with a bold and impressive display.
Usyk was crowned Olympic champion in 2012 when he defeated Italian Clemente Russo in the final
It was a sensational end to his phenomenal amateur career as a new chapter began
Both Usyk and Joshua made their professional debuts in 2013 with a one-month interval, with the former racing through the cruiserweight division and the latter through the heavyweight division.
In just his 10th professional appearance, Usyk captured the WBO cruiserweight title with an impressive unanimous victory over Krzysztof Glowacki, who recently lost to Lawrence Okolie.
And just five fights later, Usyk became the undisputed cruiserweight champion, claiming all the titles by completely defeating Murat Gassiev in the World Boxing Super Series final.
It wasn’t until his 16th fight that Joshua became world heavyweight champion when he dismantled Charles Martin in two clinical rounds.
After Usyk showed his class again in his final cruiserweight appearance with a smashing performance against Tony Bellew, who then announced his retirement, he and Joshua were finally within reach. The Ukrainian made the switch to heavyweight.
Usyk’s final appearance in the cruiserweight division came against Tony Bellew (left), who was full of confidence after beating David Haye twice
Bellew fought well but he was floored and quit emphatically in the eighth lap
The jump from cruiserweight to heavyweight is dramatic, but not impossible to overcome. Just look at David Haye and Evander Holyfield, who are the only cruiserweight champions in history to go on to win heavyweight titles.
And according to Johnny Nelson, in 2015, Usyk was sparring – and beating up – heavyweight great Wladimir Klitschko during the lead-up to his fellow Ukrainian’s match against Tyson Fury, which he lost.
“I appreciate Usyk,” Nelson told Behind the Gloves in 2018. “When I saw him sparring with Wladimir as Wladimir was preparing for Tyson Fury, I said, ‘Who is that guy? Who is he?”
“I had no idea, but I know there was something special about him. He made a round with Wladimir, and Wladimir hurled him out and said, “Go away, not while the press is here.”
‘He made it difficult for Wladimir. He was as if he were in charge of Wladimir. “Take him out. Get someone else in.”‘
Usyk defeated American Chazz Witherspoon in his first appearance in the heavyweight division
Usyk’s sparring success may pose a danger to Joshua, who is similar to Klitschko in both stature and style.
However, Usyk hasn’t really made headlines since he became a heavyweight. He has had two fights so far, the first was against Chazz Witherspoon, who took the fight just four days in advance.
Usyk won with Witherspoon withdrawing in the seventh round, but it wasn’t a show-stopping performance. Nor was his performance in his first – and only – legitimate heavyweight outing against Derek Chisora, where he boxed well and deservedly took a unanimous points win, but again failed to catch the eye of the crowd.
In Joshua, Usyk faces a very different prospect. Now trained by Vasyl Lomachenko’s father, the Ukrainian will have to put down a great career if he is to conquer the younger, taller and stronger man. Simply put, his performance as a heavyweight thus far would not be enough – not even close.
He then defeated Derek Chisora on points in what was his first meaningful heavyweight fight
But in the spotlight Usyk shines. And interestingly, as he builds to establish himself as a true heavyweight, Joshua has continued to lose his unnecessary mass and looks extremely slim.
Usyk’s team believes in this, Joshua only diminishes his physical advantages and evens the playing field. That remains to be seen, of course, but the Brit is clearly aware it could be a long night after speaking at length about his opponent’s masterful move.
Joshua, who looks thin and mean, treats Usyk with the utmost respect. And if Usyk gets this right, delivering the 31-year-old the second loss of his career, the current pound-for-pound contender would certainly cement his place in history as an all-time great.