A few weeks ago, two of the very best prizefighters in the world, Gennady Golovkin and Roman Gonzalez, were again featured together by HBO in matches which promised to be triumphs. But both were tested and, in Gonzalez’s case, controversially bested, leading to a slew of panic-stricken, reactionary claims from various quarters, all quick to either undermine or double down on the status of the two elite-level pugilists. Such is now the nature of debates surrounding boxing’s best fighters, and such are the expectations that Aleksandr Usyk is starting to grapple with.
At least, that’s what one would assume. Usyk holds an 11-0 record and is the WBO cruiserweight champion but the inherent stress that should come with being a burgeoning flagship fighter on HBO, not to mention being the kind of skilled boxer and devastating puncher that hints at eventual pound-for-pound status, doesn’t seem to register. Usyk is direct when answering questions, and his borderline detachment, if not indifference, to the expectations of critical fans and pundits, is refreshing and runs counter to the North American tendency to rabidly assess the fluctuating stocks of boxers ad nauseam.
Usyk’s first fight in the United States came in his last outing, which happened to be the first defense of his WBO cruiserweight title. He had claimed the belt in dominant fashion after utterly outclassing Krzysztof Glowacki, who had previously drilled Marco Huck in a firefight. Because of the Glowacki performance, Usyk was expected to dispose of the rugged and tricky, but ultimately unheralded, Thabiso Mchunu in short order.
What transpired instead should hardly be viewed as disappointing, as Usyk scored a ninth round stoppage after comfortably outboxing the diminutive and awkward Mchunu over the fight’s duration. “In a couple of rounds, I was trying to feel out what he had, and it was not very pleasant,” Usyk says [via manager Egis Klimas]. “But I didn’t pay much attention to it. I had my strategy, and after the fourth round I was happy to open up.”
In the aftermath of his win over Mchunu, there was a tendency to poke holes in Usyk’s performance and debate whether the rising Ukrainian lived up to the mystique surrounding him. Usyk, though, didn’t fall prey to such questioning and he looks back fondly on his Stateside debut.
“I was very happy and thankful for everybody who put that together,” Usyk says. “HBO showed my first bout, my first defense. That was very precious.”
As Usyk begins a new phase of his career, one that will hopefully include unifying the cruiserweight belts before an expected move to heavyweight, some crucial changes have occurred. He now trains in California and he has parted ways with coach James Ali Bashir, working instead with Russ Anber, not Anatoly Lomachenko, as manager Egis Klimas made clear. Although no reason was given for parting ways with Bashir, Usyk asserted that his partnership with Anber, a trainer who has worked with a long list of fighters including David Lemieux, Vasyl Lomachenko and Deontay Wilder, has been productive. “Right now we’re just working,” Usyk says. “He wants what I want. Everything is going smooth and normal.”
The next few years for the 30-year-old Usyk will be critical as he seeks to fully capitalize on his athletic prime. His pedigree, which includes winning Olympic gold at heavyweight in 2012, combined with his fight-ending power and visual charisma, ensure that HBO and his handlers will continue to move him aggressively and attempt to sell him as a star. And in order to actualize his full potential, Usyk has a one-track mind when it comes to boxing, which necessitates a certain amount of isolation for his training camps.
“So far it’s going very good,” Usyk says when asked about being away from his family, who are back in Ukraine. “Everything, the entire schedule, is going to plan. Training without my family, of course, is hard. But, first of all, everything in terms of the fight has to be on schedule and very disciplined. Maybe having family around wouldn’t help. My kids understand what their father is doing; my wife understands what her husband is doing. They’re all waiting. And of course after the fight, I’m going straight back home to spend as much time as I can with my family.”
As for his upcoming fight against 2012 U.S. Olympian Michael Hunter (12-0), an elite amateur and son of mercurial former heavyweight contender Mike “The Bounty” Hunter, Usyk has virtually nothing to say. By stating that he’s “not thinking about him [Hunter] right now,” he again defies the conventions of what we’ve come to expect from boxers. Statistics, ratings, and hypothetical projects are all debunked and dismissed by his stoicism.
Usyk doesn’t contemplate the state of the cruiserweight division, nor does he spend time theorizing about why his weight class hasn’t really connected with North American fight fans. He claims that breaking the great Evander Holyfield‘s record to become the fastest ever cruiserweight champion is something he never thought about. All that matters, at this stage, is that he’s the WBO champion and he will soon defend his title.
But while he’s a man of few words, Aleksandr Usyk certainly knows how to perform with pizzazz. Unforgettable evidence of this came after he outpointed Italian Clemente Russo to claim gold at the London Olympics. In a moment of unbridled emotion, Usyk broke out some traditional Ukrainian dance moves to cheers and applause, and in fact that’s the kind of special energy he exhibits every time he fights. After all, as Usyk says, “My heart was dancing.” — Zachary Alapi
Note: Egis Klimas interpreted on behalf of Aleksandr Usyk. Quotes have been edited for clarity.