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. 

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