Sunday, September 26, 2021

Opinions and Observations: Joshua-Usyk

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.

Adam Abramowitz is the founder and head writer of saturdaynightboxing.comHe's a member of Ring Magazine's Ring Ratings Panel and a Board Member for the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board. 
snboxing on twitter. SN Boxing on Facebook. 

Thursday, September 23, 2021

Joshua-Usyk: Keys to the Fight

Heavyweight hardware will be on the line Saturday at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in London as Anthony Joshua (24-1, 22 KOs) will be defending his belts against former cruiserweight king Oleksandr Usyk (18-0, 13 KOs). An attempt to match Joshua and fellow heavyweight titlist Tyson Fury fell through over the summer after an arbitrator ruled that Fury was mandated to give Deontay Wilder a third fight. The winner of Joshua-Usyk is still slated to face the winner of Fury-Wilder 3, but first things first, getting the victory in the semifinal of this de facto heavyweight tournament.  

Although most boxing fans would have preferred for Joshua to face Fury for all the marbles in the division, Usyk presents a tasty alternative. A 6'3" southpaw with mobility, refined boxing skills and a sturdy chin, Usyk possesses numerous dimensions that are unique in the heavyweight division. Although his first two heavyweight fights haven't wowed boxing fans, an opponent like Joshua shares few similarities with Dereck Chisora, Usyk's last foe. The avenues that led to Chisora having periods of success against Usyk – inside fighting, relentless pressure – aren’t how Joshua fights, nor should they be. They are two distinct styles for fighters with significantly different physical dimensions and inherent boxing gifts. 

Joshua (left) and Usyk (right) at the fight week presser
Photo courtesy of Mark Robinson

Joshua still has an intimidating 88% knockout rate, but since his loss to Andy Ruiz in 2019, he's been far more cautious in the ring. He boxed to a wide decision victory against Ruiz in the rematch and although he knocked out Kubrat Pulev in his last fight, he sure did take his time in getting there. A further wrinkle is that Joshua hasn't fought a southpaw in five years and a tricky lefthander could continue the trend of Joshua fighting cautiously. 

Below will be the keys to the fight. My prediction will be at the end of the article. 

1. Joshua needs to keep it basic.

By utilizing just his jab and right hand, Joshua can defeat most top heavyweights. These two punches keep opponents on the outside, where many heavyweights are far from their best. Joseph Parker and Andy Ruiz couldn't do anything with Joshua when he kept the fight at range. And although Joshua has faced a couple of opponents who can damage him from distance (Klitschko, Povetkin), those have been few and far between in his career. 

If this fight becomes a battle of one-twos, Joshua will win. Usyk's jab and straight left hand from distance, although solid, aren't his money shots. Usyk is at his best in mid-range, where he can throw his hooks and create angles, often unpredictable ones, to land his power shots. It would benefit Joshua to throw his jab consistently throughout the fight. It may not land with regularity, but it will keep Usyk busy enough on defense to prevent rushes on the inside. 

Joshua needs to remain disciplined with this approach, similar to how he was against Ruiz in the rematch (although he won't need to move as much as he did there). Yes, Joshua has a great left hook and his right uppercut might be his best knockout weapon, but those punches create opportunities for Usyk, whereas if Joshua sticks with the jab and straight right, he should be able to limit Usyk's offensive forays. 

2. Usyk often takes a few rounds to start his offense; don't do that here.

Similar to many top boxers, such as Lomachenko, Crawford, Mayweather and Hopkins, Usyk will often be stingy will his offense in the initial rounds of a fight, waiting to see what his opponent has to offer. Often, he'll give up some early rounds, like he did against Michael Hunter, Tony Bellew and Chisora. But in my estimation, that strategy would be a severe miscalculation against Joshua. 

As the home fighter, Joshua will have the crowd on his side. If Joshua can claw out a few early rounds with just a few jabs and a nice right hand or two, that would play directly into what I think his fight strategy is going to be. I don't think that Joshua will be looking for a battle royale. He's mature enough, I believe, to understand that at this phase of his career a win is a win. 

Usyk has to get Joshua out of his Plan A and force him to fight at a faster pace than he would like. Joshua can make mistakes. He can misjudge range and throw the wrong shots at the wrong time. But that will only happen if Usyk applies real pressure. And if we want to talk about round-by-round scoring, if Usyk gives Joshua a courtesy two rounds before he gets started, he will need to win seven of the next ten to win a decision. That's a tall order and leaves very little margin to play with, especially as the opponent. Usyk has to contest every round. 

3. Usyk needs to hurt Joshua.

Anthony Joshua doesn't have strong recuperative powers. After being knocked down against Klitschko, it took him three rounds to get back to trying to win the fight. In the first Ruiz fight, he wasn't much of a factor after he was dropped in the second round. There's a saying in boxing that a wounded fighter is the most dangerous fighter, but that's not the case with Joshua. When he's hurt, he's not doing much on offense. 

For Usyk to capitalize on this weakness of Joshua's he'll have to do two things: commit to his power shots, and don't leave it too late. There's a scenario where Usyk might want to pot-shot his way to win some rounds. And maybe that will work at parts of the fight. But Joshua still has that thudding straight right that does damage. His power shots are easy to see for the judges. Usyk can go in-and-out on Joshua to limit damage; however, he's still going to have to get enough done offensively for judges to give him rounds. And it's not going to be a touch jab or a pushed left hand to erase a Joshua right hand thunderbolt. 

Usyk's best way of winning the fight is for Joshua to be in those situations where he doesn't throw anything back, where he's too concerned about surviving instead of launching his own offense. But Usyk needs to get him to that point, and that means some of his craftier power shots need to come into play – his high-arching right hook that lands on the top of the head or the ear, and a slinging left hand between the gloves (that's the punch that knocked out Tony Bellew). Usyk must be untraditional with his attack. He'll have the element of surprise with these shots, but he has to commit to them. 

And let's say that Usyk will have three rounds to play with if he's able to hurt Joshua. That's only relevant if he's able to inflict damage early enough in the fight for those rounds to matter. In other words, hurt Joshua in the seventh, where there are five rounds left in the fight, instead of the 12th, where all AJ needs to do is survive until the final bell. Usyk not only must take initiative in the fight in terms of pace and volume, but he has to cause damage, and early enough for it to matter. 

4. Joshua must ignore the crowd. 

Joshua admitted that he was reckless in the first Ruiz fight, rushing in for the stoppage after he had knocked Ruiz down. That display of machismo from Joshua enabled Ruiz to turn the tables in that round, and essentially won him the fight. Joshua's fans love him and they want to see knockouts. But Joshua can't play to the crowd. Usyk is too tricky and accomplished at making opponents pay for their mistakes. 

The goal should be to limit Usyk's opportunities, to take the sting out of the fight. This will give Joshua his best chance of winning. Joshua becomes vulnerable once a fight turns into a shootout, and that's something he wants to avoid on Saturday. I think the duller the better for Joshua, and if the crowd boos, let them; many of them are Tottenham fans – they are used to not getting what they want. 


I'd love to tell you that Joshua-Usyk will be a can't-miss action fight, but I don't see that happening. I think that we'll see a cagey, technical 12-round fight with few memorable punches landed. Ultimately, it's a matchup issue. Both fighters are smart enough to respect their opponent and they also have the specific skills to negate what the other one wants to do. Usyk's feet and herky-jerky rhythms will stop Joshua from establishing a consistent offensive flow. Joshua's right hands will cause Usyk to be more cautious than he would like to be.

It will be an interesting fight for those who like chess matches: one or two big shots a round could be enough to take it. And how they set these shots up will require maximum skill and craft. But for the bloodthirsty ghouls, I'm afraid that Joshua-Usyk could disappoint. 

But that's boxing. I'm glad that Joshua-Usyk is happening. Usyk's a terrific opponent. However, I just don't think that the fight's going to catch fire. And that's OK. Ultimately, I think that Joshua's jab and right hand land enough for him to win a decision in a competitive fight, something like 8 rounds to 4 or 9 rounds to 3.  

Anthony Joshua defeats Oleksandr Usyk by decision.

Adam Abramowitz is the founder and head writer of saturdaynightboxing.comHe's a member of Ring Magazine's Ring Ratings Panel and a Board Member for the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board. 
snboxing on twitter. SN Boxing on Facebook. 

Punch 2 the Face Podcast

In this week's Punch 2 the Face Podcast, Brandon and I gave our preview and prediction for this weekend's Joshua-Usyk battle. We also looked ahead to the big fall fights, including Canelo-Plant, Fury-Wilder 3, and Crawford-Porter. To listen to the podcast, click on the links below: 

Apple podcast link:

Spotify link:

I heart radio link:

Stitcher link:

Adam Abramowitz is the founder and head writer of saturdaynightboxing.comHe's a member of Ring Magazine's Ring Ratings Panel and a Board Member for the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board. 
snboxing on twitter. SN Boxing on Facebook. 

Sunday, September 12, 2021

Tim Bradley's Time

Tim Bradley had a great night on Friday. The ESPN commentator and former world champ provided a clinic in how a sharp boxing analyst can enlighten a broadcast. At the top of the show, Bradley pulled no punches when it came to discussing Oscar Valdez's failed PED test. In an emotional monologue, Bradley was adamant in how allowing Valdez to continue to fight despite the failed test helped erode the credibility of boxing and he condemned the powers that be in their failure to regulate the sport properly.  

And this theme was repeated throughout the extraordinary broadcast. Far too often we see boxing commentators and networks gently push unpleasantries aside. How often do we hear announcers nebulously refer to damaging behavior as "out-of-the ring difficulties" and just leave it at that, a mere footnote before the action commences? But ESPN and Bradley in particular went all in. Bradley didn't allow Valdez any wiggle room. To him a fighter was responsible for any substance he or she may use or ingest. And for proponents of a clean sport, Bradley was singing the perfect tune. 

ESPN Boxing Analyst Tim Bradley
Photo Courtesy of ESPN

Friday's broadcast was unusual in another aspect: ESPN was biting the hand that feeds it. ESPN has an exclusive contract with Top Rank to provide boxing content. And yet it was Top Rank that helped lead the charge to clear Valdez. However, Bradley, Andre Ward and Bernardo Osuna didn't succumb to those political considerations. In their mind, a wrong was committed, an egregious one, and it was more important to them to draw a line in the sand and stake a position on the clean side of the drug testing issue than to play nice with their corporate partners. 

In short, ESPN's commentators were being advocates for the sport, a position that HBO often held during its heyday, as well as former ESPN boxing analyst Teddy Atlas. To the ESPN broadcast crew, boxing's health and legitimacy were far more important than the transactional nature of broadcasting an Oscar Valdez fight or towing the Valdez/Top Rank company line for the reason for the failed drug test. It was refreshing to say the least. 

But it wasn't just the drug issue where Bradley shined on Friday. Throughout the broadcast he provided incisive commentary. During Gabe Flores' bout, where the young prospect was dismantled by Luis Alberto Lopez, Bradley shed light on a personality issue of Flores' that was contributing to his difficulty during the fight. Bradley relayed that he had asked Flores in Thursday's fighter meeting if he was going to work on keeping his left hand up more. To which, in Bradley's telling, Flores responded that he's going to be himself in the ring. In that answer from Flores, there was a hint of stubbornness, a refusal to examine criticism. After the fight, Flores, beaten up and demoralized, blamed himself for the loss saying that his dad provided him with the right instruction in the corner, but he had refused to listen. 

Bradley also pointed out additional aspects of Flores' style that he had failed to develop in his young career. While Flores maintained that he was getting more comfortable holding his feet and fighting on the inside, Bradley astutely pointed out that Flores resorted to backing up against the pressure fighter repeatedly, which invited even more aggression from Lopez. 

In the Xander Zayas fight, where the undefeated prospect was facing the toughest test of his young career against Jose Luis Sanchez, Bradley immediately saw that Sanchez could have success with his right hand over the top because of Xander's poor glove positioning with his left hand. And although Sanchez didn't win the fight, he repeatedly landed those right hands throughout the contest. It was a gut check fight for Zayas and he came through it well, but Bradley and Ward didn't act as a Greek Chorus marveling at the young fighter, as many broadcasters do. The commentators saw real issues and pointed them out. The final scores of the bout, which were a shutout for Zayas, didn't convey the competitiveness of the fight or the issues that Zayas still has to address. And it wasn't all negative. Bradley praised Zayas' skills, power and heart at points in the fight, but it was mixed with the type of reality check that he often gives as part of his commentary. 

The main event between Oscar Valdez and Robson Conceicao saw all three judges and the ESPN crew having Valdez at the victor, but many scoring at home thought that Conceicao had done enough to win. After a fast start from Conceicao, Valdez had more success in the back half of the fight. And as the rounds progressed, the number of authoritative punches from Conceicao started to drop. Yet Conceicao was dancing in the ring, holding his arms up, showboating. Bradley and Ward correctly pointed out that the judges may not respond well to that kind of display when the fighter isn't doing enough offensively to warrant it. There can be room for showboating in boxing, but it only works when one fighter is dominating the other. For Conceicao, he was playing with his food too much instead of putting more punches together, the kinds that can sway judges. 

It was no surprise to Bradley and Ward that the judges scored it for Valdez. And whether you agree with Bradley on who should have won the fight, the fact that he and his team pointed out that professional judges might not take kindly to a fighter (especially a challenger) who engages in those antics, and they were proven correct, is a point in their favor. They were right about how this behavior in the ring would be perceived, and that is what an astute analyst does – illuminate the action at hand. 

Tim Bradley is still growing into his role as a boxing commentator. Sometimes he can be overly negative on young fighters, wanting them to do things that are beyond their capabilities. Other times he, and his team at ESPN, can engage in too much hyping of a network favorite son. 

But he sees the action well. He's not afraid to be bold and he wants to matter in his position. Bradley understands that he has an ability to affect the sport and how it's perceived, and he takes that responsibility seriously. His performance of Friday was another sign that he possesses special qualities. I hope he continues to be bold and incisive. The sport has enough empty suits. 

Adam Abramowitz is the founder and head writer of saturdaynightboxing.comHe's a member of Ring Magazine's Ring Ratings Panel and a Board Member for the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board. 
snboxing on twitter. SN Boxing on Facebook.