Saturday's rematch between Oleksandr Usyk and Anthony Joshua is as intriguing a return bout as we have seen in some time. Usyk pulled off what amounted to a massive upset over Joshua in September of last year. Heading into that fight, Joshua was a 3-1 favorite to defeat the former undisputed cruiserweight champion. At the time the perception was that Joshua would be too big and strong for the Ukrainian who had not looked particularly impressive in his two matches (Chazz Witherspoon, Dereck Chisora) since moving up to heavyweight in 2019.
Over the course of twelve rounds on Sept. 25, 2021 in Tottenham, England the southpaw Usyk controlled the action with an accurate right jab and sharp counterpunching sprinkled with just enough combination punching behind consistent footwork.
When it was all said and done Oleksandr Usyk would have his hand raised in victory via unanimous decision (117-112, 116-112, 115-113) and lift the heavyweight titles (sans WBC) from Anthony Joshua, who would have to go back to the drawing board.
Although the first meeting was a convincing victory for Usyk, Joshua did have his moments, particularly in getting Usyk's attention with some well placed body shots when he was not using his jab and reach with success. The problem for Joshua was that for every moment he would have, Oleksandr Usyk would have two, or three, constantly stealing the play and momentum from the champion.
Ultimately it was those moments when Oleksandr Usyk would rally back and discourage the champion that would tell the story of the fight. Usyk proved that he was the more polished of the two, physically and mentally, in their first encounter.
The Ukrainian has pedigree, pedigree similar to that of Andre Ward in that aside from never losing a professional boxing match while capturing multiple world titles he was also an Olympic gold medalist in the amateurs. Simply put, the man is a winner.
Oleksandr Usyk, age 35, knows exactly what he needs to do and when to do it in order to routinely be in control of the situation. A wealth of over 350 amateur fights at the highest level helped mold that mindset and boxing IQ. These are the intangibles that can't be taught, intangibles that Usyk brought into the first fight. But the consensus at the time was that size matters, power matters, especially at heavyweight. Combine that with a couple of lackluster showings since the move to the new weight class, he didn’t overwhelm Witherspoon or Chisora, and it's easy to see how most people thought a Joshua victory was a foregone conclusion.
Had Joshua defeated Oleksandr Usyk, a long-awaited mega fight with Tyson Fury awaited. That fight now is most likely the furthest thought from the 32 year old Joshua's mind as he is at a real crossroads in his career and that's exactly what makes this fight so interesting as well as important. Heading into fight number one with Usyk, Joshua had been defeated just once in his career, a knockout loss to Andy Ruiz on June 1, 2019. Like the Usyk defeat, the loss to Ruiz was a big upset. Joshua redeemed himself in the rematch with Ruiz in winning a 12 round decision to right the only blemish on his resume. Similar as well to the six-months-later rematch with Ruiz is that a win over Usyk will help fade away the defeat and put him right back on the mountain top. Ruiz did Joshua a favor in the sequel, showing up over confident, and over weight, weighing 283 after scaling in at 268 for the first bout. Usyk will not be extending such courtesy. Joshua will really have to earn this one.
Usyk mostly boxed to victory the first go round, until late in the fight where he began to apply pressure on Joshua and backed the champion up.
During some of these moments, particularly a storm of power shots in the 12th and final round, it looked like Usyk might get rid of Joshua and not have to worry about the scorecards. Ultimately, Joshua heard the final bell and made it the distance. However, I expect the cerebral Usyk in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia to look to start where he left off, back Joshua up and make him uncomfortable.
For his part, Joshua has to fight a different fight this time around. He has shown many a night that he is a very capable heavyweight, capable of more than he showed in the first fight with the 19-0 (13 KOs) ring general. The counter punching from Usyk made Joshua (24-2, 22 KOs) tentative while constantly second guessing against a fighter who is very reliant on instincts and creativity. This played right into Usyk's hands all night. If Joshua wants to win this fight he has to set a faster pace or look to hurt the betting favorite early, which will give Usyk something to think about besides his own attacks. Joshua will have to be more aggressive and take more risks than he did in the first fight. In short, he has to want it.
Oleksandr Usyk for his part will look to have Joshua experiencing flashbacks to the last time they met, have Joshua examining and questioning himself.
Will Joshua look to use his superior size and assumed strength advantage over the champion and come out aggressive guns blazing?
Will Usyk, already knowing the success he had late in the first fight on a depleted and tiring Joshua, look to be more aggressive himself early on?
Either of these scenarios could lead to early success or disaster as over aggression and carelessness from either guy could have one ending up on the canvas after leaving themselves open to a big shot they would usually be more aware to avoid.
This is a fight that can play out a multitude of ways but I feel a lot of how things will unfold comes down to what version of Joshua shows up. A focused ‘kill or be killed’ Anthony Joshua might be the best strategy here but it's a strategy he has to be willing to own, to stick to once he gets tagged a couple of times.
Another plot twist could see Joshua boxing, using his natural dimensions of height and reach behind a committed jab and some combination punching on his smaller adversary. If he was able to sustain this style and do so effectively over the duration of a few rounds it would force Usyk to play the role of puncher and try and stalk his bigger opponent while losing rounds on the scorecards. In order for Joshua to implement this style he has to do so from a place of complete mental relaxation and control as he is usually not a fighter comfortable being backed up.
Yet another strategy for Joshua might be to try and fight the champion in the trenches on the inside, not allowing Usyk to set the table with combination punching and counters. Whatever the game plan from Joshua might be it has to be something completely different than the first fight. Oleksandr Usyk is more capable of making adjustments so Joshua has to have a solid plan A and B and implement with conviction.
Usyk's legacy is secure. Along with Evander Holyfield the Ukrainian is arguably the greatest cruiserweight in boxing history. The upset victory over Joshua and world titles at heavyweight that accompanied it only solidified his heritage in the sport.
Joshua on the other hand is at a frontage of his career. A revenge victory over Oleksandr Usyk who is not only an undefeated multi-division world champion but one whose name has been on the pound for pound top ten list for years would now be Joshua's crowning achievement. On top of that, it would make him a three time heavyweight champion and he’d share the distinction with Lennox Lewis of having defeated every man he has ever been in the ring with. A win here for Joshua also sets up his future with options of the super fight with Fury finally coming to fruition and/or a trilogy fight for all the marbles with Usyk. The importance of a Joshua victory and the upside credibility it would bring make this the most important fight of Joshua's career. The flip side? Another loss to Usyk will have Joshua's legacy far more Frank Bruno than Lennox Lewis.