From the archives: 'The Dancing Cossack' - Oleksandr Usyk interview
Back in our March 2017 issue, Graham MacLean interviewed Ukrainian cruiserweight Oleksandr Usyk, who could be crowned king of the 200lbs division on Saturday 21 July when he faces Murat Gassiev in the World Boxing Super Series final...
There’s plenty to like about Oleksandr Usyk. The gap-toothed smile, the propensity to dance in the ring after a fight, the Oseledets hairstyle which, until recently, paid homage to his Cossack ancestry. These are all factors that, when combined with the unquestionable ability that has led him to an Olympic gold medal, 10 knockouts in 11 professional appearances, and a first world title at cruiserweight, suggest star quality.
Some respected observers even envisage him adding a version of the heavyweight title to his résumé, in the manner of Evander Holyfield.
British fans, of course, will be familiar with the 6ft 3ins southpaw for his performance at the 2012 Olympics.
Alongside teammates Vasyl Lomachenko (who won gold at lightweight), Denys Berinchyk (silver at light-welterweight) and Oleksandr Gvozdyk and Taras Shelestyuk (who won the bronze medals at light-heavyweight and welterweight respectively), Usyk completed Ukraine’s remarkable haul of five medals with gold at heavyweight. His 14-11 victory against Italy’s Clemente Russo in the final brought the curtain down on a distinguished amateur career encompassing 335 victories in 350 contests, including light-heavyweight gold at the 2008 European championships in Liverpool and heavyweight gold at the 2011 World championships in Baku.
“That was a dream team,” Usyk told Boxing Monthly through an interpreter from his home in Crimea. “It’s a period of my life I like to look back on. We all did a huge job, and worked hard together to bring the medals home.
“To be honest, after getting gold in London I felt that I had already said everything I had to say in the amateurs, and I realised that it was time for the next step. After the Olympics we began to receive offers from different promoters, mostly from overseas, but after [the death of] my dad I couldn’t leave the family and travel to the States. So I joined the [World Series of Boxing team] Ukraine Otamans together with my [Olympic] teammates. It was a good experience as a stepping stone between the amateurs and professionals.”
The stint in WSB, in which he won all six of his fights, did nothing to dull the public’s anticipation when Usyk turned over as a fully fledged professional in November 2013. Kiev’s Sport Palace was packed as Usyk stopped Mexico’s Felipe Romero in the fifth round.
“I’d already been in the ring at the Sports Palace before when fighting for the Otamans,” Usyk said. “It was always sold out, so the number of people didn’t surprise me. However, this time I felt more responsibility than ever because the people came to see how I do my work, so I had to do it well. I did not upset my team, I did not upset my fans and family — I was happy that everything went well.”
Unlike most of his Olympic teammates, Usyk elected to turn professional in Ukraine, where he signed a promotional agreement with K2 Ukraine.
“I didn’t want to travel far from my family,” Usyk said. He lives in the Crimean city of Simferopol with his wife Yekaterina and their three young children — a daughter called Yelizaveta, and sons Kirill and Mikhail. “And, of course, K2 made me a good offer, so I could see no reason to go elsewhere.
Alexander Krassyuk is head of the promotional organisation, and the man who recruited Usyk.
“Oleksandr has a unique personality and is an outstanding sportsman,” he told BM. “He was born on the same day as the legendary Muhammed Ali [17 January], and possesses similar qualities in his character. His charisma is magnetic, and goes far beyond the regular boxer. People fall in love with him at first sight.” Not to mention his eye-catching dance routines, in training camp and after fights, which are becoming the stuff of legend.
“Dancing is his lifestyle,” Krassyuk explained. “Everything in his life is done with inspiration, a positive spirit and flexibility. He always tries to charge people with love for God and for each other. Dancing is the way he expresses love.
“But he’s in boxing for the long haul. He’s strong, goal-oriented, determined and hard working. His way of thinking is not to allow obstacles and challenges to get in the way of his objective to become the best fighter in the world.
“Over the last 20 years, the only name that mattered in Ukrainian boxing was Klitschko. Now people see him taking on the legacy of the brothers. Who knows, maybe one day he will eclipse their achievements.”
The political situation in Simferopol is delicate, and following what is widely considered as the annexation of the Crimean peninsula by the Russian Federation, Usyk has remained true to his Ukrainian roots.
“I won Olympic gold as captain of the Ukrainian national team,” he said. “Wherever I am, I enter the ring under the Ukrainian flag. After each fight I hold the belt together with the yellow and blue banner. Do I need to add anything else?”
His professional career has run virtually concurrently with the unrest in his country. At the height of the protests against President Viktor Yanukovych, Usyk’s second fight, a fourth-round stoppage of Colombia’s Epifanio Mendoza, was broadcast live at Kiev’s Maidan Square, a traditional venue for political rallies.
Usyk preferred not to comment on political issues for fear of being misquoted.
Nevertheless, his patriotism is beyond doubt. Even his Oseledets hairstyle, distinguished by a lock of hair sprouting from an otherwise closely cropped scalp, was worn up until his ninth fight in recognition of his forefathers.
“It’s not my personal creation,” he said. “The Oseledets was an official hairstyle of the Zaporozhian Cossacks [Ukrainian warriors who dated back to the 16th century].
“I’ve already changed it. I believe that hair has a memory, so with my new hairstyle I’m hoping for new memories [laughs]”.
Usyk fought seven times throughout 2014 and 2015, picking up the WBO Inter-Continental cruiserweight title as the level of his opposition steadily improved. But for one appearance on the undercard of the Wladimir Klitschko vs. Alex Leapai heavyweight title fight in Germany, Usyk fought solely in Ukraine.
That was to change when, in September of last year, he travelled to Gdansk, Poland to challenge Krzysztof Głowacki for the unbeaten Pole’s WBO cruiserweight title.
With a classy performance against a solid, albeit not supremely gifted champion, Usyk moved well behind his right jab, fired off clever combinations, and pulled ahead in the later rounds to pick up a clear 119-109, 117-111, 117-111 decision. In only his 10th professional outing, Usyk moved up to championship level with the poise and assurance of a seasoned campaigner.
“I hadn’t been the full distance before, although that wasn’t my fault,” Usyk said with a laugh. “In camp we normally do 12 to 15 rounds of sparring, so [the distance] wasn’t a problem for me.
“Krzysztof did his best to save his title, but I think I was more motivated — I was the challenger, I was fighting in an opponent’s homeland, and I’d done so much work to get this title.
“Głowacki didn’t surprise me, and he let me follow our plan for the fight. What did it mean to me? It meant that I am the champion, and need to take the next step — winning all of the titles in the division.”
With the victory, Tom Loeffler, the California-based managing director of K2 Promotions, felt the time had come for Usyk to broaden his fan base, and gain a foothold in the American market. His US debut, broadcast live on HBO, took place in December when he faced Thabiso Mchunu on the undercard of the Bernard Hopkins vs Joe Smith Jr fight in Inglewood, California.
“Usyk has very rare qualities,” Loeffler told BM over the phone from Los Angeles. “The cruiserweight division hasn’t really been highlighted over here in the United States, and Oleksandr is the first cruiserweight to fight on HBO since James Toney fought Vassiliy Jirov [in 2003], so they really saw a special talent in Usyk. By fighting for a major title over here, it could jump-start his career on the worldwide stage.”
The crowd became restless in the early stages as Usyk adopted a cautious approach against Mchunu, working the jab well but not really attempting to land any powerful shots.
As the contest progressed, however, Usyk displayed excellent footwork and fast hands as he outclassed the four-inch shorter South African, flooring Mchunu three times and forcing a stoppage in the ninth round.
“HBO were very happy with his performance against Mchunu,” Loeffler revealed. “Mchunu is very tricky, the kind of short and stocky fighter who can fight very well, and Usyk was able to stop him.”
Boxing can be a fickle business, though, and the ambiguous nature of Usyk’s decision in February to axe his chief coach, James Ali Bashir, who had been with him since his second fight, as well as his assistant Sergey Vatamanyuk, may not sit well with some fans. Such matters rarely reflect well on the boxer concerned, although Alexander Krassyuk doesn’t believe that Usyk, who will now be trained by his Olympic coach Anatoly Lomachenko (the father of Vasyl), should be considered disloyal.
“Usyk is the kind of person who is constantly working on improving himself,” Krassyuk said. “He’d absorbed as much as he could from Bashir, and took the decision to move forward. Bashir took Usyk to the world title. We all love our close friend James Ali. We respect him as a trainer, as a person and as a team member, and we are looking forward to his expertise in the future.
“I think American fans as well as the whole world will enjoy seeing Usyk becoming a stronger, more skillful and successful boxer in the next couple of years.”
The next opportunity will be on 8 April when Usyk takes on the undefeated Michael Hunter, sharing a bill in Maryland with Vasyl Lomachenko and Oleksandr Gvozdyk.
“The plan is to put him on the HBO show in April, where he’ll build on the exposure of the last fight,” Loeffler explained. “It’s similar to what we’ve seen with [Gennady] Golovkin, who had nine knockouts in his first 10 fights. With Usyk, it’s 11 fights and 10 knockouts. His dedication to the sport and his training and his personality is a very marketable combination.”
One question remains, though: will Usyk move up?
“Usyk has the frame to carry heavyweight,” Loeffler said. “I think he has the speed, and the technique. I think his plan is to dominate the cruiserweight division for a couple of years, but I could easily see him making the transition.”
Usyk echoed those sentiments: “No matter who holds and defends the titles, whenever and wherever those fights might be, I’ll be ready to face the best.
Since this interview was conducted Usyk's professional record has advanced to 14-0 and he now holds the WBC and WBO cruiserweight titles. He faces Murat Gassiev on 21 July in Moscow in the World Boxing Super Series final with the WBA 'Super' and IBF belts also at stake.