The consecration of a undisputed champion in the premier category for the first time since the four main governing bodies coexist, keeps the boxing world in suspense. However, one of the candidates for that recognition, the Ukrainian Oleksandr Usyk, deals with the challenge with unusual calm. Because she knows of much more critical situations than the one she will face on Saturday before the British Tyson Fury in Riyadh (Saudi Arabia). And because he is convinced that sport has already given him the greatest prize that any athlete can aspire to.

Like that of all his compatriots, the life of the heavyweight champion of the World Boxing Association (WBA), the International Boxing Federation (IBF) and the World Boxing Organization (WBO) took a drastic turn on February 24, 2022, when military actions of Russian troops began on Ukrainian territory. That conflict, whose presence in the media has decreased considerably, but whose outcome remains uncertain, has marked Usyk’s professional career ever since.

Although in those days he was negotiating a rematch with the British Anthony Joshua, from whom he had taken the three belts with a clear victory in London in September 2021, the monarch renounced his sporting commitments and joined the Territorial Defense Battalion of kyiv. The images in which he was seen dressed in a military uniform and holding an assault rifle spread around the world.

Usyk never saw combat, but his presence was a useful propaganda resource for the Ukrainian government and a motivating factor for his fellow citizens. “I spent a lot of time with the people who are fighting and many were not professional soldiers. They were normal people. One was a banker, another had a bakery, another had another business. They were there to achieve freedom for the country. Some who were on the front line told me: Why are you here? Some generals don’t come to this place.’ And I answered them: ‘I’m not a general, I’m a normal Ukrainian,’” he said last year.

Oleksandr Usyk had joined the kyiv Territorial Defense Battalion at the end of February.Oleksandr Usyk had joined the kyiv Territorial Defense Battalion at the end of February.

The boxer stayed in his country for a month. He then left to begin preparation for getting even with Joshua. He did so with authorization from the Minister of Sports, Vadym Gutzeit, since the Government of Volodymyr Zelensky had decreed general mobilization for 90 days, so all men between 18 and 60 years old had to remain on Ukrainian soil because they could be recruited. in case of need. His family left the country with him (his wife Yekaterina, his two sons and his two daughters). When they did, his home in Vorzel, on the outskirts of kyiv, was occupied and then destroyed.

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Even with that burden on his back, the champion prepared and beat Joshua again, this time in Jeddah (Saudi Arabia) in August 2022. “In the training camp he looked like a cyborg. He went through hell in recent months and that did not kill him, but made him stronger,” said Alexander Krassyuk, his promoter.

“It is not the war that motivates me, it is the people of Ukraine who are fighting hard to defend our independence, our freedom, our culture,” explained Usyk in those days, who during the days prior to the lawsuit walked through half of Jeddah with Lelik, his daughter Yelizaveta’s stuffed donkey. “We bought it when we were together at Disneyland Paris,” the fighter revealed. When we left Ukraine and our paths in Europe parted, she gave it to me to be my talisman. She told me that she had to have him next to me. That’s why she is always around.”

Oleksandr Usyk with his daughter Yelizaveta's stuffed donkey.  Photo: Andrew Couldridge / Reuters.Oleksandr Usyk with his daughter Yelizaveta’s stuffed donkey. Photo: Andrew Couldridge / Reuters.

Although the war has been a watershed, geopolitics has marked the life of this man from day zero who was born on January 17, 1987 (the same day, but 45 years after Muhammad Ali, his favorite boxer) in Simferopol, a city of around 340,000 on the Crimean peninsula that was then part of the Soviet Union, which from 1991 was part of the independent Ukraine and which since 2014 has been the capital of the Republic of Crimea, one of the 24 that make up the Russian Federation.

When he was a child, his sport was soccer, which he never completely gave up. In fact, on February 4, 2022, 20 days before the start of the war, he had the pleasure of playing a friendly match with the Polissya Zhytomyr shirt, which was then playing in the Ukrainian second division (today it is in the first). , against FC Veres. And in July 2023 he signed a contract with that club that enables him to play professional matches, something that he has not done for now.

Usyk trained in the lower divisions of Tavriya Simferopol, the club in his hometown, but the financial limitations of his family and a proposal from his father brought him closer to boxing when he was 15 years old. “Boxing was more accessible than football. The coach gave me his gloves, his wife fixed them for me so that they fit me well and my mother just had to give me money to travel,” he said in A Glimpse at Greatnessa documentary produced by Sky Sports in 2018. The bet worked out wonderfully.

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As an amateur, the southpaw had a lush and prolific career, in which he only lost 15 of his 350 fights. He became European champion in Liverpool 2008 in the medium heavyweight category and world heavyweight champion in Baku 2011. And he completed that brilliant period of his career, which he traveled with his colleague and friend Vasiliy Lomachenko (today IBF lightweight champion), with the medal gold at the 2012 London Olympic Games, a distinction, in his eyes, unsurpassed.

“My gold medal will always be better than the undisputed (professional) championship,” he said this week. in the prelude to his fight with Fury. And he justified: “Everyone who practices sports dreams of the Olympic Games. I know men with three world titles, but no Olympic gold. I participated in two Games and got a medal. It takes four years of work. In 2012, my opponent in the final was (Italian Clemente) Russo, who participated in four Games and did not win a gold medal.”

Oleksandr Usyk was Olympic champion of the category up to 91 kilos in London 2012.Oleksandr Usyk was Olympic champion of the category up to 91 kilos in London 2012.

After representing his country’s team, the Ukraine Otamans, in the 2012/12 edition of the World Series of Boxing of the International Boxing Association (AIBA), this Rare avis of boxing, a lover of literature, poetry and music, debuted as a professional in November 2013 with K2 Promotions, the company of brothers Wladimir and Vitaliy Klitschko, with a victory by knockout in the fifth round against the Mexican Felipe Romero in kyiv.

Although he fought his first four fights in the heavyweight division (he won them all quickly, including one against César David Crenz from Santa Fe), he then went down to cruise with an ambitious goal. “My dream is to break the record of Evander Holyfield, who won the world title in his 12th professional fight,” he said in December 2014. And he achieved it: on September 17, 2016, in his 10th outing, he beat the Polish Krzysztof Glowacki in Gdansk and won the WBO 200-pound belt.

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In January 2018 he took the World Boxing Council belt from the Latvian Mairis Briedis in Riga and six months later he took the WBA and IBF belts from the Russian Murat Gassiev in Moscow. Thus, always fighting as a visitor, he collected the four titles and became the first undisputed champion of cruise ships, a category that does not have much space on the big stages, and the fourth in the era of the four main organizations: before only The Americans Bernard Hopkins, Jermain Taylor (both in medium weight) and Terence Crawford (in super lightweight) had achieved it.

Oleksandr Usyk became the undisputed cruise champion in July 2018, after beating the Russian Murat Gassiev.  Photo: World Boxing Super Series.Oleksandr Usyk became the undisputed cruise champion in July 2018, after beating the Russian Murat Gassiev. Photo: World Boxing Super Series.

With that support, he made the jump in category with another very challenging challenge: equaling the achievement of Evander Holyfield and David Haye, the only two men who reigned among the cruisers and also among the heavyweights. His first steps were spaced out and not entirely convincing (he beat, without shining, the American Chazz Witherspoon and the Zimbabwean Derek Chisora), but then came the victories against Joshua, the consecration, the recognition. And also the war.

His last performance was 264 days ago, on August 26, 2023, when he knocked out Englishman Daniel Dubois in the ninth round at the Wrocław Municipal Stadium, in Poland, a country that has welcomed around 1.5 million Ukrainians since the start of military actions in February 2022, according to data from the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR). That night, 40,000 people, largely compatriots, applauded him.

Oleksandr Usyk traveled to Riyadh with 12 assistants and his daughter Yelizaveta's stuffed donkey.  Photo: Instagram @usykaa.Oleksandr Usyk traveled to Riyadh with 12 assistants and his daughter Yelizaveta’s stuffed donkey. Photo: Instagram @usykaa.

With the chance to become the undisputed king of the heavyweights, Usyk will star in only his sixth fight in the last five and a half years on Saturday. On Friday she landed in Riyadh along with a dozen assistants and a companion from whom she has not been separated for two years: Lelik, Yelizaveta’s stuffed donkey.

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