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