A critical look at the past week in boxing
One great thing about being a boxing fan is watching a special performance unfold.
It became clear early in the fight between heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua and Oleksandr Usyk on Saturday that Usyk had a genuine chance of scoring an upset. He boxed brilliantly, avoiding most of Joshua’s big punches and consistently finding a home for his straight left hand.
Even when Joshua seemed to pick up momentum in the middle rounds, when his size and power advantages seemed to become a factor, Usyk withstood the storm and then dominated the later rounds.
And in the final moments, with Joshua dead tired and his right eye almost closed, Usyk punctuated his defining performance by unleashing a flurry of hard, accurate shots that might’ve ended the fight had it happened earlier in the round.
There was little doubt at that point that the Ukrainian had turned in one of the bigger upsets in recent memory, taking Joshua’s three heavyweight titles by a unanimous decision and spoiling – at least for now – a potential Joshua-Tyson Fury showdown next year.
What made the difference in the fight? That’s not complicated: Usyk is better than Joshua.
I thought Joshua’s size advantage, combined with his solid ability, would be the deciding factor. After all, the now-former champion is a naturally gigantic man and Usyk isn’t. However, in the end, Usyk’s superior skills and toughness made the size issue irrelevant.
In the process, Usyk became only the third former cruiserweight champion to become a heavyweight titleholder, after Evander Holyfield and David Haye, and underscored the notion that he’s one of the best in the world pound for pound.
Indeed, Usyk is a special fighter.
The idea behind rematch clauses isn’t complicated.
The fighter with more leverage – Joshua, in this case – demands that the clause be included in the contract to protect himself in the event he loses, which is what happened at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in London. He’ll now have the opportunity to recoup what he lost.
And fighters in Usyk’s position have no choice but to agree to the stipulation. If they don’t, they don’t get the fight.
I’ve always thought that’s unfair.
Usyk (19-0, 13 KOs) turned in the performance of his life, beating his favored opponent convincingly in front of 70,000 hostile fans. And now he must do it again to realize the full benefits of becoming champion, as if he didn’t already prove that he’s superior to Joshua.
I can’t feel too sorry for Usyk. He’ll make a fortune in the rematch, far more than the reported $4 million he earned on Saturday. And he did put pen to the contract.
At the same time, it feels as if he won’t receive the full benefits of his accomplishment unless he’s able to repeat it, which obviously is no given. Joshua could turn the tables if he makes the right adjustments going into a second fight.
I hesitate to call for the banning of rematch clauses because I believe in the free marketplace but I’ll never comfortable with them.
The last thing we should do it write off Joshua.
The two-time heavyweight champ has already overcome adversity, rebounding from his stunning knockout loss to Andy Ruiz Jr. in 2019 by easily outpointing Ruiz to regain his titles six months later. If he could do the same in the rematch with Usyk, everyone will praise his resilience and say he’s once again on par with Tyson Fury.
He will have deserved the accolades, at least to some degree. It’s not easy to turn the tables on an opponent after a humbling defeat.
And let me be clear about something: Joshua’s setback on Saturday had more to do with Usyk’s ability than any deficiency on his part. Also, Joshua (24-2, 22 KOs) was competitive until the final round or two, which must be acknowledged.
That said, I don’t think Joshua is as good as he’s perceived by some people.
His performance in the first fight Ruiz was weak. He seemed to be lost after he was hurt and then came to realization that he couldn’t adequately defend himself, after which he gave up. It was fair to question his mental toughness.
To his credit, he won the rematch by outpointing an ill-prepared Ruiz to regain his titles and much of his status. However, he fought cautiously – too cautiously, to my taste. I wanted to see him fight like Lennox Lewis did in his rematches with Oliver McCall and Hasim Rahman. Instead, he fought scared.
And, on Saturday, he was outboxed by a smaller fighter who is better than he is. No one complained about the decision afterward.
Again, it wouldn’t be wise to dismiss Joshua. He’s a good heavyweight who probably could beat anyone on the right night. He’s just not quite as good as many thought he was.