In this week's Punch 2 the Face Podcast, Brandon and I focused on the heavyweight division. We dived into the Usyk-Joshua 2 and Hrgovic-Zhang fights from Saturday, and looked into what's next in the division: Parker-Joyce, Wilder-Helenius, Ruiz-Ortiz and more. We reviewed a busy fight weekend including Navarrete and Lipinets. We also looked ahead to Saturday's Pedraza-Commey fight card. To listen to the podcast, click on the links below:
Thursday, August 25, 2022
Sunday, August 21, 2022
Certain heavyweight fights etch themselves into our memory banks. These fights stay with us for years and in some cases generations. They become our shorthand for the history of the sport's glamour division. Saturday's heavyweight title rematch between Oleksandr Usyk and Anthony Joshua won't be a part of this storied list. It was three stars out of five. Although skills and competence were on display, very little from the fight would make either boxer's individual highlight reel.
Ultimately, it was a tactical battle, one where two superpowers didn't want to go nuclear. They were happy to stay in conventional warfare. Neither was that interested in going for the jugular or seeing what that might look like...maybe another day against another opponent.
|The cagey battle in the Usyk (left) and Joshua rematch|
Photo courtesy of Mark Robinson
The first eight rounds featured mostly cagey stuff. Usyk was picking and pawing with feints, angles, jabs and straight lefts. Joshua was coming forward with right hands and a couple of crafty counters. But there was little sustained action.
The ninth and tenth rounds were the memorable parts of the fight from my vantage point. In the former, Joshua attacked Usyk ferociously, mauled him, and launched a sustained attack that showed true menace. It's the approach that many wanted him to engage in from the opening bell (more on that in a bit).
But as in the first fight, where Joshua had a lot of success in the eighth round only to be beat back in the subsequent frame, the same story applied here. On Saturday Usyk responded to duress in the ninth by exploding with his best power shots in the tenth. These were not punches to keep Joshua at bay; they were thrown to take back control of the fight. And by hurting Joshua at multiple points during the round he did just that.
Essentially, that was the real last hurrah in the fight. Usyk won by split decision with scores of 116-112, 115-113 and 113-115. I had him winning by 115-113 and can't see a plausible case for Joshua getting the nod.
Overall, I was underwhelmed. I thought that Usyk was more dynamic in the first fight, much livelier on his feet. The word that kept coming to mind when watching him on Saturday was "labored." He seemed like a much older man in the ring. I can only imagine how much the war in Ukraine and his subsequent involvement in defending his homeland has affected him. There was very little joy in his performance. The famed, maniacal Usyk smile was nowhere to be found.
After the fight, he seemed grateful for it to be over, as if he needed all of his reserves to get through it. He won under trying circumstances and that fact further illustrates his supreme internal fortitude. He has won big fights all over the world, almost never on home soil. Few could accomplish what he has even with all of their big fights as home games. Yet, Saturday's fight to me illustrated limits for Usyk. He could only give so much at this moment. It was enough. It wasn't his truly best, but he got through it and persevered.
|Usyk after the victory in silent reflection|
Photo courtesy of Mark Robinson
As for Joshua, he was better, but still not good enough. He had a new corner and successfully incorporated changes in the ring. Tactically, he featured more head movement and incorporated a wider variety of punches. He had a few nifty counter right uppercuts. His straight rights to the body kept Usyk honest. He also finished the fight in better shape. Although Usyk won at least two of the final three rounds, Joshua wasn't in the same danger of being knocked out that he was in their first match. Even after being cuffed around in the tenth round, he recovered well enough and was lucid in the championship rounds.
But Usyk happens to be a horrific style matchup for him. Usyk demonstrated that Joshua isn't adept enough at creating his own openings at the highest level; he's dependent on his opponent to have success and Usyk didn't give Joshua enough to work with. Joshua was never able to figure out on a consistent basis where Usyk was going to be, what he was going to do or when he was going to throw. Joshua is a thinking man's fighter rather than a brute banger, but he couldn't get a handle on Usyk's patterns or rhythms, which led to a lot of indecision and waiting.
Those insisting that Joshua would have had success bull rushing Usyk from the opening bell were living in fantasy land. For one, Joshua just isn't that type of fighter. He likes to set punches up. He has never been a true pressure fighter and that style negates his considerable weapons from the outside. And also, Usyk if not faster than Joshua, is certainly quicker. He moves better. He's just not an easy fighter to contain for any sustained period. Usyk may have touched the ropes two of three times in Saturday's fight, not because Joshua wasn't trying to apply pressure, but because Usyk is an expert at maneuvering around the ring.
I think the most telling aspect of Saturday's fight was that after Joshua had his one-round blitzkrieg offensive and then Usyk responded in kind, that both didn't go to the well again. Throughout the fight both seemed pleased with mid-tempo. Joshua doesn't have the tank to fight in a kamikaze style for sustained periods, and it was clear that even after reestablishing his advantage, Usyk didn't want to either. Both can now go home, see their families and fight another day. Ultimately, much of Saturday's fight was about risk mitigation and concluding this series with a degree of dignity and grace.
Wednesday, August 17, 2022
The heavyweight title rematch between Oleksandr Usyk (19-0, 13 KOs) and Anthony Joshua (24-2, 22 KOs) takes place on Saturday at the Jeddah Superdome in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. When they met last September, Usyk won a convincing unanimous decision over Joshua, dominating the early and late portions of the fight. Usyk's best moments of the match were in the fight's final third, where he stepped on the gas and battered Joshua with straight left hands. Although Joshua did make it to the final bell, he was in bad shape, exhausted, and focused much more on staying upright than launching any sustained final attacks.
In the aftermath of the defeat, Joshua made a significant change to his corner, firing longtime compatriot Robert McCracken and hiring noted American trainer Robert Garcia. Usyk has experienced tumult over the past 11 months as well. His native Ukraine was attacked by Russia. Usyk initially joined the war effort to defend his country, but eventually decided to participate in the Joshua rematch.
After Joshua's loss, there was significant handwringing over the fighter's tactics. Joshua's attempt at outboxing a master boxer was disastrous. For much of the fight, Joshua set-up in mid-range, which was probably the worst place that he could be against Usyk. At that distance, Joshua was unable to use his physicality on the inside or his length to keep Usyk away on the outside.
|Usyk and Joshua ready for battle|
Photo courtesy of Mark Robinson
This leads us to how Joshua can improve in the rematch and there are two schools of thought: inside or outside. With the selection of Garcia, who is known for working with well-rounded, aggressive power-punchers (although not exclusively), it would seem that Joshua is opting to use his size and power to wear down the naturally smaller man.
But there is another possible path to victory; let's call it the Emanuel Steward approach. Steward would look at Joshua's height and length and most likely try to have Joshua control the fight from the outside. Consider Steward's success with tall heavyweights such as Lennox Lewis and Wladimir Klitschko for what that might look like. From my perspective, the Steward approach could make more sense, but it would depend on a number of factors to execute correctly: Joshua would need a consistent jab over 12 rounds, and he would also have to stay disciplined throughout the fight. I don't doubt Joshua's ability to win a fight on the outside (look at the Andy Ruiz rematch or the Joseph Parker fight), but I do question whether he wants to fight and win that way.
In essence, Joshua's selection of Robert Garcia is a function of self-perception. Joshua wants to be seen as a killer in the ring, a bulldog. He would rather knock someone out in a blaze of glory with bullets flying everywhere than skate to a composed, clean victory, like he did in the Ruiz rematch.
But what about the Usyk side of the equation? What might he have up his sleeve for the rematch?
I got into some trouble online after their fight last year where I mocked those who claimed that Usyk put on a master class. I posted a picture of Usyk's banged up face, which illustrated the effects of Joshua's right hands. And people blasted me saying "THAT'S NOT HOW FIGHTS ARE SCORED," as if I didn't know that. But what I wanted to point out was that Usyk definitely got hit in the fight, and not by one or two grazing shots. He took some real punishment. In the middle rounds of the fight, especially in the sixth and eighth, Joshua landed serious thunder. The correct score in my opinion was 116-112 or 117-111 for Usyk, a clear win, but not a domination whatsoever. Joshua competed and after eight rounds he had a path toward winning the fight.
As good as Usyk was against Joshua, I don't think that fight was his most comprehensive performance. He beat Joshua with essentially just his left hand, which is noteworthy, but also illustrates that there are elements of his game that he can improve. Usyk waved his right hand in front of Joshua to disrupt his timing, but he didn't jab consistently with authority. His right hook wasn't a factor in the fight (more on this in a bit). His performance also reiterated to me that in certain fights he has weaknesses with his footwork. Usyk is a master at using angles on offense, but he doesn't move his feet nearly as well on defense. He can be hit and he can be timed. Tony Bellew hit Usyk plenty with counter right hands. Mairis Briedis caught Usyk with all sorts of clever shit in the trenches. Michael Hunter landed at will at the early rounds of their fight.
To me Usyk beat Joshua in two main areas. He carved out space on Joshua's left side darting in and out from that area. This accomplished a few things: he took away Joshua's right hand in the early portion of the fight. He could land his straight left without worrying about being countered by Joshua's best punch.
Secondly, Usyk's conditioning was far superior. When it looked like the fight was on the table to start the ninth round, Usyk found another level. As Joshua started to fatigue, Usyk still had plenty of reserves. Even after experiencing heavy fire, it was Usyk who thought more clearly and reacted better physically and mentally. Similar to many master boxers, Usyk is often at his best in the second half of fights, once he's gotten a good look at his opponent.
Leading up to Saturday's rematch, Usyk looks noticeably more muscular. The former undisputed cruiserweight champion now appears to be a comfortable heavyweight. Now, extra muscle can be a double-edged sword. It can help with power, punch resistance and grappling, but it can also deplete the body of energy and agility. Usyk deserves the benefit of the doubt for his approach to the rematch, but he hasn't gotten where he has in the sport by being a grappler.
Usyk won the strategic battle in the first fight, but I'm sure that Garcia and Joshua know that the left hook, which can be an excellent weapon for Joshua, can punish Usyk if he gets too predictable with his offensive setup. And I believe that Usyk knows this too. I would expect to see Usyk spend time on Joshua's right side as well this fight and I think that his lead right hook could be a factor as he's evading Joshua. I also would expect Usyk's uppercut to play a role as Joshua attempts to come inside. Quick uppercuts to the body may be an effective tool against an impatient Joshua who wants to stamp his authority on the fight.
I expect Joshua to start the fight faster than last year's outing. Although I don't foresee him making too many daredevil bullrushes towards Usyk, I think he will look to come in after a landed shot, either a solid jab or a straight right. And Garcia will advise Joshua to stay in the kitchen once he's there. He shouldn't be the one holding or accepting clinches. That's where he needs to go to work. I think Usyk is too good for Joshua to be able to execute large portions of rounds on the inside, but Joshua will need to make the most of two to three forays per round where he can cause damage, land eye-catching shots and try to deplete Usyk.
In the early rounds Usyk will do his best to weather the storm. I don't think he will be trying to pitch a shutout by over-moving or running a race. He will need to pick and paw from the outside and mid-range and to limit Joshua's opportunities for sustained offensive sequences. He can't get hit by something he doesn't see and he needs to keep his combinations short and quick.
Usyk may spend the first four rounds of the fight trying different things, which at first may appear to lack a coherent plan. He may circle in both directions. He may move up and back to stay well out of range. I wouldn't be surprised to see him clinching more than expected. Early in the fight is where he needs to be cautious, to get Joshua thinking, and to get Joshua to burn off a lot of energy. Maybe he does run around the ring for a round, and then spends the next round doing lots of holding – anything to prevent patterns from being formed or Joshua from making easy adjustments.
I expect Joshua to have a couple of rounds of success early in the fight. He will try to go for the stoppage, but I don't think he will be able to put the right shots together to do that. By the fifth or sixth round I see Usyk starting to take over. Whereas the earlier rounds featured both fighters having their moments, Usyk will now start to go to work with his best power punches.
If Usyk can establish additional power punches other than his straight left, I don't think that a fatigued Joshua will be able to defend himself properly. Gradually Usyk will put a more consistent hurting on Joshua as the fight progresses into the second half. I think that the fight will end in the late rounds, more from Joshua taking sustained punishment than a singular final blow. Usyk will weather the early storm and leave no doubt that he is a deserving heavyweight champion.
Oleksandr Usyk TKO 11 Anthony Joshua