‘Fighting for glory’: Oleksandr Usyk interview
Luke G. Williams
As he prepares to defend his undisputed cruiserweight crown against Tony Bellew, Oleksandr Usyk gives a wide-ranging interview to Boxing Monthly’s Luke G. Williams in which he reveals he fights for glory, honour and national pride, not money…
Most boxers detest the final days before a fight.
The clocks stand still, the wait to be unleashed feels interminable, the tension and doubts start to creep in and - save for heavyweights - the sometimes unending battle with the scales often drains away valuable energy.
Oleksandr Usyk, however, is a picture of calm and concentration as the clock ticks inexorably towards his undisputed cruiserweight World Championship showdown with Tony Bellew at the Manchester Arena on 10 November.
“We are close to finishing up camp in the Ukraine,” the 31-year-old undisputed cruiserweight champion told Boxing Monthly last week. “We trained really hard, my team brought me good eleven sparring partners who helped get me prepared for Bellew’s style.”
As though suddenly conscious that he might give away his tactics for Saturday, Usyk then injected a note of mystery into his words: “Obviously, I cannot reveal anything about our strategy, but I encourage fans to tune in on 10 November so you can witness the strategy that I will display in the ring.”
The playful nature of Usyk’s response highlights one of his most endearing qualities – namely, his sense of humour and charisma. The Ukrainian is a man who seems at ease oscillating between the role of light-hearted charmer out of the ring and cold-blooded assassin within it.
It’s a duality that is summed up perfectly by Usyk’s facial countenance – his gap-toothed grin and somewhat bulging eyes can, by turns, make him look like a wild-eyed killer or a loveable clown.
In many respects Usyk is the ultimate professional, with a stellar career thus far in the amateur and professional ranks which is already Hall of Fame quality, incorporating European, World and Olympic gold medals in his unpaid career and all four major world cruiserweight title belts after just 15 fights as a professional.
Before he unified the cruiserweight belts via his participation in the World Boxing Super Series, Usyk’s was a name that only really reverberated in die-hard boxing circles, as well as in his homeland.
Now though Usyk finds himself top of the bill of a pay-per-view Matchroom card in the UK, one of the most vibrant boxing marketplaces in the world. Indeed his clash with English cruiser and ‘crossover’ star Tony Bellew has the potential to propel Usyk into the boxing stratosphere and towards the status of fistic superstar.
Should he defeat the Liverpudlian then a move to heavyweight and a potential showdown with Anthony Joshua – arguably boxing’s sole current mainstream superstar alongside Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez – will inch closer.
Yet Usyk is clear that his motivation lies not in the gaudy props that attach themselves to superstardom, but rather in the ideal of fighting for glory, honour, family and country.
“I do not fight for money,” he emphasised. “I am not looking for fame, I prefer to have a normal life. I live in Ukraine with my family. I love my country, family, friends, people. I fight for them. I fight for Ukraine.”
Usyk’s pride in his Ukrainian-Cossack roots is well-documented and endearing. For much of his career he has sported an Oseledets hairstyle in homage to his Cossack ancestry, while his popular post-fight victory jigs represent his interpretation of the traditional Ukrainian ’hopak’ dance.
Usyk also radiated pride when BM asked him about the current success Ukrainian boxing is experiencing, as the likes of himself and Vasyl Lomachenko follow in the pioneering footsteps of the Klitschko brothers.
“We [Ukraine] are leading [the way] because we think differently,” is Usyk’s interpretation of why the country is enjoying such a golden age in the prize ring. “Unlike the vast majority of boxers around the world who seek money and fame, both Lomachenko and myself are fighting for glory.
“Other guys like [Oleksandr] Gvozdyk, [Sergiy] Derevyanchenko, and [Denys] Berinchyk are successful for the same reason. We are coming from the same school. We are proud to be Ukrainians, and proudly represent another mindset that makes us different to other fighters in world boxing.”
Usyk was born in Simferopol, the Crimean city which was annexed by the Russian Federation in 2014 and whose status is fiercely debated to this day between Russia and the Ukraine. Politically, therefore his position is somewhat delicate.
It is clear that he is a Ukrainian patriot, but he often – wisely perhaps – sidesteps questions concerning the complex geo-political situation that exists between his homeland and Russia.
Soon after the controversial annexation Usyk was reported as saying that he would not exchange his Ukrainian citizenship for a Russian passport, but this was a rare instance of a public political declaration. On other occasions he has refused to answer political questions, citing the possibility of being mis-quoted or having his words taken out of context.
Given the tension between the Ukraine and Russia, it was perhaps inevitable in the build-up to the WBSS cruiserweight final between Usyk and Murat Gassiev in Moscow, that there would be whisperings concerning the choice of venue. Without any clear evidence, some media outlets even claimed that Usyk was not happy about fighting in Russia and the contest might be cancelled.
Usyk himself – with his words and actions – disproved such fanciful reports, repeatedly emphasising how willing he was to fight in Russia and the fact that he has many Russian fans.
“Before the Gassiev fight, lots of people in boxing questioned my will to take on Gassiev in Russia,” he told BM. “Some also claimed my skills would not be enough to handle the power of Murat.
“Those comments and views just made me more motivated to travel to Moscow and show the world that Oleksandr Usyk is the best cruiserweight in the world.”
Usyk’s performance against Gassiev was pitch perfect, resulting in near shut-out scorecards in his favour of 120-108 and 119-109 (twice). He admitted to BM that it is a performance he is still proud of.
“I think the first season of the WBSS, especially the one launched at cruiserweight became a huge success story. Remember that in that one [fight] all four of the major world titles were present. Winning the series not only made me the first ever fighter grabbing the Ali Trophy, but also made me the undisputed champion in my weight class. That is a huge achievement.
“I used my footwork and ability to always find the distance that serves me well. I beat Gassiev with my boxing brain. The feeling to win a fight of this magnitude with all the belts on the line as well as lifting the prestigious Ali Trophy up in the air was one of a kind.”
That forensic boxing brain is now turning its attention to Britain’s Bellew, as fierce and single-minded a customer as there is in world boxing right now.
“Tony is a pretty good boxer and a tough competitor,” is Usyk’s assessment of his foe. “I rate him really high. People in general underestimate his boxing IQ but he knows a lot about the game inside out. I respect him as a fighter and as a man. He will be a tough challenge and I take him very seriously.”
Usyk anoints Latvian Mairis Briedis as the trickiest foe he has faced in his career thus far. “Probably it was Briedis,” he said. “It is difficult to say as I had issues within my team leading up to that bout in Riga. I know my mistakes and we've discussed them with my camp to avoid same ones in future fights.”
Remarkably, the Bellew match-up will represent the sixth time in seven world title fights that Usyk has ceded home advantage to his opponent, having fought Krzysztof Glowacki in Poland, Michael Hunter in the United States, Marco Huck in Germany, Briedis in Latvia and Gassiev, of course, in Russia.
However, far from feeling intimidated, Usyk has expressed his delight with the fact he is fighting in England, where he has previously dazzled as an amateur, winning Olympic gold in London in 2012 and European gold in Liverpool in 2008. Furthermore, he defeated Joe Joyce at York Hall in a British Lionhearts vs Ukraine Otamans match-up in the 2012-13 season of the World Series of Boxing.
“I love England,” he said. “I will never forget the 2012 Olympic Games in London. I love the atmosphere over there. Truth is England was always good to me, and I expect to achieve another unforgettable triumph there on 10 November.”
Among the experienced and expert team who will surround Usyk in England are trainer Anatoly Lomachenko and Canada’s master of all corner trades Russ Anber, who has also trained Usyk in the past.
Usyk explained to BM the influence that ‘Papa Lomachenko’ has had on is career. “Well, I became Olympic champion under his guidance. He taught me moves that I did not know about before that. Until I started to work with him, I was a simple counterattacking boxer.
“He taught me how to cut the ring, how to box forward. I became much stronger physically as well as mentally thanks to his unique training methods. We swim, run, ride, juggle, hold breath and so on. We have unusual elements in our preparations that help gain an edge in the heat of battle.”
Anber, for his part, is unswerving in his view that the fight against Bellew will act as a great boost to Usyk’s career.
“I think the British people are going to love him,” the Canadian told BM. "Of course Tony Bellew is a great fan favourite, he’s great on the mic, he talks well, he’s a good guy, good for the sport, but so is Usyk. I think this is just guaranteed to be a great event.”
If he conquers Bellew then a move to heavyweight for Usyk seems inevitable. However - ever the professional - he is all too conscious of the fact he overlooks the scouser at his peril.
“The heavyweight division is an exciting playing field now. I would say Joshua is the number one guy out there as he unified titles like I did at cruiserweight. Wilder vs Fury is a highly interesting matchup and the winner of that one is clearly the number one challenger of Joshua at the undisputed throne. I love to be undisputed at 200lbs, and it is great to see that things are going in the same direction at heavyweight as well.
“But let me concentrate on the task at hand, that is Tony Bellew on 10 November. Obviously, the heavyweight journey is right around the corner, but I can only reach that corner if I am successful at the Manchester Arena. Bellew is a tough opponent and my concentration is solely on him.”
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