For Anthony Joshua it was ultimately all too much. Having been defeated by the outstanding Oleksandr Usyk for a second time and consequently failing in his bid to regain his status as a heavyweight champion, he threw two of the victors’ three belts out of the ring before storming out of it himself on what was a hot night in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia’s city by the Red Sea, in more ways than one. Joshua soon returned but, quite clearly, the 32-year-old’s emotions were still getting the better of him. Having appeared to exchange angry words with Usyk he then took to the microphone and, in front of a crowd of about 10,000 gathered at this venue, delivered a curious monologue.
“If you knew my story you would understand the passion,” he declared. “I ain’t no amateur boxer from five years old that was an elite prospect from youth. I was going to jail, I got bail and I started training my arse off, I wanted to be able to fight.”
Cue confused silence among those in attendance. And there was more to come their way. “I’m not a 12-round fighter, look at me, I’m a new breed of heavyweights,” Joshua continued. “Mike Tyson, Sonny Liston, Jack Dempsey, ‘you don’t throw combinations like Rocky Marciano’, I’m 18 stone, I’m heavy, it’s hard work.”
Joshua’s speech came with a few swear words but also congratulations for the man who had just defeated him. “This guy here is a phenomenal talent,” he said having wrapped his arm around Usyk. “We’re going to cheer for him three times.” And the crowd did, still, however, quite clearly confused by what was happening.
And perhaps Joshua didn’t know what he was doing, or saying, either. It certainly felt like heat-of-the-moment stuff, provoked by a very real sense of hurt and disappointment.
This was meant to be Joshua’s night of redemption, when he regained the WBA, WBO and IBF titles Usyk had taken from him when the pair met in Tottenham 11 months ago. The Ukrainian had been supreme that night but, equally, Joshua had let himself down having made the curious decision to abandon his instincts and instead try to out-box his opponent. It was never going to work and he paid the price.
This time around there was to be no repeat mistake. Armed with a new coach in the highly regarded Mexican-American Robert Garcia, Joshua vowed to be more aggressive and he lived up to his word, charging forward in the first round, securing the centre of the ring in the second and consistently stinging his opponent with thudding shots, no more so than in the ninth round when the challenger had the champion scrambling around the ring having unleashed hell.
But it was at that very moment Usyk showed his class, smashing Joshua back in the 10th with a big left hook and continuing to unload from there. He also dominated the final two rounds and, having largely impressed throughout the contest, it came as no shock when he was declared the winner, the only surprise being that it was via a split decision, with two of the judges delivering scores of 115-113 and 116-112 in his favour while the other deemed Joshua to be the winner via a score of 115-113. Cue the raising of many eyebrows.
A dubious call but also one that spoke to the gutsy display Joshua delivered here and ultimately it would be a shame if that was overshadowed by his flashes of petulance after the fight. Defeat, a third in 27 fights as a professional, clearly stung. Joshua had the chance to join Muhammad Ali, Lennox Lewis, Vitali Klitschko and Evander Holyfield in becoming a three-time heavyweight champion; instead he remains rudderless in his division and with few paths back to the top. Those pre-fight suggestions that this would be the right time for him to call it a day will only grow.
For Usyk, meanwhile, a 20th straight win across two divisions cements his status as one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the world and puts him in prime position for a mouthwatering unification battle with Tyson Fury should the 34-year-old Mancunian step out of his latest period of retirement, something he suggested he would do on social media shortly after the fight. It’s a contest Usyk certainly wants. “I want to fight him and if I’m not fighting Tyson Fury, I’m not fighting at all,” he declared here, having paid tribute to the Ukrainian military, something of great importance to the 35-year-old. He spent time before this fight serving in his country’s armed forces as part of their defence against Russia’s invasion. Usyk came here determined to provide his war-torn homeland with a reason to feel pride and joy and well and truly delivered.
This was the second time Joshua had fought in Saudi Arabia, following his victory over Andy Ruiz Jr in Diriyah three years ago. As was the case then, both fighters were asked in the buildup about how they could justify taking part in an event that, quite clearly, was part of the kingdom’s sportswashing strategy. Neither gave especially satisfactory responses, with Joshua making clear he was “here for boxing”. No doubt the minimum £33m purse he and Usyk reportedly received for squaring up in the Middle East played a part in both of their decisions.
And so, ultimately, attention turned to the Abdullah Sports City Arena, an impressive venue but unfitting for a contest of this magnitude given it only has capacity for 10,000 spectators. To put that into context, a crowd of 68,000 gathered to see these two fight in north London last year. The rematch clearly deserved a bigger stage, and the knock-on effect of not having one was an atmosphere that rarely rose above polite.
In fairness to those in attendance here, which included boxing legends Roberto Duran and Naseem Hamed, the volume was lively enough by the time Joshua and Usyk emerged to do battle shortly after 1am local time and continued to rise during an epic encounter.
Usyk was initially able to keep Joshua at bay with his southpaw jab but soon the challenger was landing with a succession of right hands. Usyk responded with a couple of clubbing lefts in the fourth that forced Joshua back while also bewitching him with his characteristically slick and clever movement.
But Joshua kept on coming and connected with two crushing shots to the body in the sixth, forcing Usyk on to the ropes. Yet again, however, the champion displayed his class by smoothly getting out trouble and peppering Joshua with punches from various angles.
The seventh and eight round were largely even and then came the ninth as Joshua exploded into life, fully using his superior size and power to rock the man in front of him. It looked like a shock win was on the cards but then Usyk did what he does best – taking command of a fight through a combination of sublime technique and relentless ferocity. In the end his victory was beyond question, something Joshua, in the most unique of fashion, also had to accept.