In the ninth round of his heavyweight title rematch against Anthony Joshua, Oleksandr Usyk looked like he was headed toward a heartbreaking ending. After 21 rounds of fighting, the hulking Joshua had finally been able to impose his physical strength on Usyk and was grinding him down with a sustained body attack. For the first time in their pair of fights, Usyk didn’t have any answer other than to retreat and cover up.
As he sat down in his corner after the round, Usyk needed to not just dig into his vast bag of skills as a boxer, but into a well of motivation. This was a moment that would require more than just dexterity and a clever jab to work his way out of. A crucial moment in his career and his life was in danger of being taken by a bigger, younger, stronger man.
Few fighters have entered the ring for a championship fight with more motivation, or more of a burden than Usyk on this night. With war raging in his home of Ukraine, his friends and family members under siege, Usyk agreed to fight as a means of inspiration and joy for his people.
“I really didn’t want to leave our country. I didn’t want to leave our city,” Usyk said in July. “At one point, I went to the hospital where soldiers were wounded and getting rehabilitation and they asked me to go, to fight (Joshua) for the country. They said: ‘If you go there, you’re going to help our country even more instead of fighting inside Ukraine.'”
Before he left his family safely behind in Europe to complete training camp, his daughter gave him a stuffed doll of Winnie The Pooh character Eeyore. She told him to bring it with him to his media events in Saudi Arabia, which he did. Usyk slept with the doll in the lead-up to the fight, and when he walked to the ring in Jeddah, it sat in his locker room for good luck.
The weight of the moment was visible on the face of Usyk, whose gaze during press obligations, and even during his entrance to the venue on fight night, oscillated between his comical smile and stare and an evident look of sadness.
As the 10th round began, Usyk had the look of a man possessed. His eyes widened, his mouth agape as he hurled punches, Usyk responded with a level of ferocity and urgency that could have only been summoned by a man in his circumstances, and with a precision and variety of attack only a generational talent could put together. For the better part of three minutes, Usyk swatted Joshua around the ring, overwhelming him with punches coming from directions and in cadences no other fighter in the sport can replicate exactly.
Usyk didn’t need quite the ferocity he displayed in the next round. He had proven his point to Joshua that if needed, he could bully him back, and if required, there was a gear he could switch into that was indefensible. Though Joshua would battle valiantly to the end, it was the tenth round that ultimately dashed the chances of a new champion being crowned that night for good. Usyk’s frenzied rally in the tenth is perhaps one of the great momentum shifts in heavyweight title fight history.
Prior to the final round, Usyk sat on his stool with his eyes closed, talking to himself. Whether he was saying a prayer, or engaging in self-talk, he was searching for a reserve of motivation, be it supernatural or all too real, to propel him through the final three minutes. The image of Usyk engrossed in his own thoughts, mentally preparing himself for the final moments of a heavyweight title fight under those circumstances was a scene a film director might write that true boxing fans would scoff at—except it was actually happening.
Usyk ultimately retained his titles via split decision, with scores of 116-112, 115-113 and 115-113 for Joshua. As the announcement was read, Usyk burst into tears and covered his face with the Ukrainian flag, before emerging from under his cloak with his trademark gap-toothed celebratory howl.
As cinematic as the fight was for Usyk, the night will also be remembered for what transpired afterwards. After leaving the ring abruptly, Joshua returned and took the live microphone. What followed was a man who had just lost the biggest fight of his career unleashing all of the emotions he felt in real time without any filter. Traditionally, the winner of a bout is heard from first, a customary acknowledgement of the victor’s achievements, the stage gets to be theirs. Instead, Joshua ranted about his childhood, about the history of conflict in Ukraine, and hinted at the root of his frustration—the version of Joshua in the ring on that night was as good as any we’ve ever seen, and it wasn’t enough. To be elite and still bested by greatness is a helpless feeling, and Joshua’s emotions got the best of him, just as his opponent did.
As Joshua’s soliloquy went on, and even as it became directed at Usyk, the champion remained calm and never tried to interrupt Joshua, with one exception. Joshua tried to drape himself in the Ukrainian flag, ostensibly as a sign of unity, but Usyk snatched the flag back, prompting an apology from Joshua.
That moment encapsulated the night for Usyk. Joshua could steal a few rounds in the fight, he could steal a few minutes of the spotlight afterwards, that didn’t matter to Usyk. But no one on that night was going to take that triumph away from Ukraine so long as he was still able to stand.
Everything was secondary to what was happening in his country, even in his finest hour.
Corey Erdman is a boxing writer and commentator based in Toronto, ON, Canada. Follow him on Twitter @corey_erdman