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.