Oleksandr Usyk had a rough eighth round on Saturday. Repeatedly tagged by Anthony Joshua's right hand and not throwing back during large sections of the round, Usyk was feeling the weight of the blows from the heavyweight champ. Usyk had started the fight wonderfully, but now the scores were tightening and Joshua was the fighter on the ascendency.
Anthony Joshua would not win another round in the fight.
Usyk is among a rare breed who can perform expertly under duress. Whenever he's been hit with hard shots, whether by Tony Bellew, Mairis Briedis or Michael Hunter to name three additional examples, he has an ability to persevere, to redouble his efforts, to execute even better.
|Usyk (left) lands a left hand|
Photo courtesy of Mark Robinson
Usyk's performance in in the last third of the fight on Saturday demonstrates how considerable his gifts are. In the business-end of the fight, he thought more clearly, he seized his opportunities better, he willed his way to perform to the best of his abilities. Joshua didn't gas; he kept throwing and trying. However, it was Usyk who was the more seasoned pro down the stretch. He was the one who could land more consistently and minimize incoming fire when it was most critical.
By the 12th round, Joshua was fortunate to make it to the final bell (which might have rung a few seconds early). He was in bad shape. Usyk's straight left hands did too much damage. Joshua didn't collapse or fall apart mentally, but he no longer was clear-headed; he was being outmaneuvered and outfought.
Usyk won by a unanimous decision and displayed a number of world-class skills. His head movement and feinting perplexed Joshua early in the fight. His footwork didn't allow Joshua to establish a consistent rhythm. His quick straight left hand found its mark repeatedly in the fight. He had faster hands and feet, and was more accurate.
But as much as the above helped him to win the fight, his "intangibles" put him over the top. Usyk can take an excellent punch. But it's not just that he has a sturdy chin; he can still think clearly after getting rattled. He doesn't lose his wits, even against huge punchers like Gassiev or Joshua. He has supreme confidence in his abilities, but it's not just self-belief: he acts on it. From the ninth round on he drew a line in the sand. He would not retreat any more. He would push forward. He would not lose this fight.
It's this strong psychological makeup that helps make Usyk such a special fighter. There are all kinds of elite fighters. Some are knockout artists, some are frontrunners. Usyk is one that can take (and I mean "get hit with") whatever an opponent has to offer and keep coming. And his answer isn't just throwing more punches or letting fights devolve into wars. When the chips are down, he's at his sharpest, his most focused. The separation of talent between him and his opponent becomes greater.
As for some other aspects of the fight that caught my eye, I think that the first three rounds were fascinating to watch. Usyk started off much faster than he often does and met Joshua with a number of stinging left hands. Fighting against a popular fighter in his hometown (spare me the Watford vs. London stuff), Usyk understood that he didn't have rounds to play with. He had to make an early, definitive statement, and he did just that.
To be honest, I'm not exactly sure what the plan was for Joshua in the first three rounds. For some reason he started out in mid-range, a geography where Usyk could reach him. Joshua was jabbing a lot, but also from too close, which made it possible for Usyk to counter with relative ease. He was also overshooting his right hand. If Joshua had taken a huge step back and executed a similar game plan, he would have had more success, but he got his range wrong from the first minute of the fight. I don't know if that was a Joshua problem or his trainer's (Rob McCracken), but either way it was a significant technical error, which led to becoming a larger strategic one.
|Usyk displaying his belts after the win|
Photo courtesy of Mark Robinson
I thought that Joshua started to feel his way into the fight more consistently in the fourth round. Whether he won that round or not, he finally had the distance right. At long range, Usyk had to reach more, to jump in. Joshua was safer there and didn't take as many big shots. He could also uncork his right hand from distance and land it with real authority.
From the fourth round to the eighth, a semblance of a coherent game plan formed for Joshua (although Usyk won the seventh round clearly). He would land his right hand and then come in behind it, when Usyk wasn't looking to counter too quickly. Again, if Joshua had performed in this manner from the start of the fight, it's possible that the bout could have played out differently. But the first three rounds were critical in setting up the last third of the fight. For whatever success Joshua started to have, Usyk already knew that he could land his best shots on Joshua. He wouldn't have to invent new angles or unholster additional punches. He could get his left hand home. It became a matter of willing himself to do so. And he met that challenge head-on.
There are many potential takeaways from Joshua-Usyk. It's not every day when a former cruiserweight champion wins a heavyweight title. But for me, the size disadvantage isn't what made Usyk's performance special. It was his ability to perform after his most difficult moments of the fight. Usyk wouldn't wilt. He wouldn't let doubts creep into his head. There were no excuses. He would face down one of the biggest punches in the sport and take a stand:
This is my ring. I am going to take this fight. And there's nothing you can do about it.
This was Usyk. This was greatness.