Usyk vs. Joshua 2: The Difference Between Good & Great
Like every sport, there are levels to boxing—Clubfighter, contender, champion. Champions are further divided into subgroups: solid, good, and great. The difference between the latter two can be subtle and can come down to rounds, if not minutes.
During round nine of Saturday’s heavyweight championship, Anthony Joshua finally found success after 21 rounds of frustration vs. Oleksandr Usyk. He hurt the fleet titlist from Ukraine with thudding body shots. Joshua snarled as Usyk grimaced. When the round ended, it was apparent that Joshua’s opportunity to capitalize had arrived.
But, in round 10, it was Usyk who seized the moment, adjusting and firing a series of left hooks that backed Joshua off. Ultimately, it was the crazy-eyed Ukrainian who found the extra gear – that rare reservoir of truth that special fighters have – and by the end of the round, he had reestablished control.
And that was that. The difference between good and great is demonstrated in a matter of three minutes. From there, Usyk swept the championship rounds to earn a split decision and retain the WBA, IBF, and WBO heavyweight titles.
Certainly, those three minutes should not be an indictment of Joshua, one of the most successful and dominant heavyweights of the past ten years. He fought hard, fought smart, and performed better than in the first fight. He made changes and gritted his teeth. Simply, Usyk outfought him at the most crucial moment.
Afterward, though, Joshua was wrestling with the reality of what could be a defining loss. He reacted harshly – strangely. He grabbed the microphone and went on a bizarre rant that cited everything from personal struggles to Rocky Marciano. He was captured tossing the championship belts out of the ring and verbally attacking a fan on the walk to the dressing room. It may have seemed strange to the common man watching from his couch.
But there’s nothing about boxing that is common
Joshua had a lot to process in a short amount of time. Consider, it was a little more than three years ago that Joshua was undefeated and one of boxing’s burgeoning superstars. He was coming off a knockout of Alexander Povetkin and headed toward New York for a much-publicized Madison Square Garden defense against Jarrell “Big Baby” Miller.
But Miller was caught doping and in stepped Andy Ruiz Jr. The rest, as you know, is history. Ruiz pulled one of the great heavyweight stunners ever via a devastating 7th-round knockout, and Joshua’s stock took a hit. One minute, he was considered unbeatable – a mountain of a heavyweight champion primed for greatness. The next, he picked himself up off the canvas as fans questioned his ability, chin, and heart.
He beat an undisciplined Ruiz in the rematch six months later and gained a measure of redemption. But the doubts remained, not more so than in his own mind. He never again exhibited the type of vicious killer instinct that had demolished Povetkin, produced a thunderous knockdown of Ruiz, and mowed down many others, including Dominic Breazeale and Wladimir Klitschko.
It was a downward spiral that included the first loss to Usyk last year and culminated with Saturday’s defeat in the rematch. But the moments immediately following a loss aren’t the best times to analyze its impact. Time will eventually show that Joshua was anything but a disappointment. He became one of Britain’s greatest-ever heavyweights. He reigned as a champion in boxing’s most important division for over six years and amassed a huge fortune in the process. Though greatness is still in his grasp – you never know how history will play out – right now, it remains as elusive as Usyk. Most great fighters would likely trade their legacies for Joshua’s fortune in a heartbeat.
As for Usyk, greatness has been attained. Regarded as arguably the greatest cruiserweight in boxing history – though Evander Holyfield would have something to say about that – Usyk has now won and defended three heavyweight belts. He continues to prove that – like Holyfield, Julio Cesar Chavez, Sugar Ray Leonard, and Floyd Mayweather – he can access that extra gear when he needs it. The ultimate challenge will be WBC champ Tyson Fury, who would be a heavy favorite. But Usyk’s own greatness will see to it that it’ll take a supreme effort from Fury to beat him.
Matthew Aguilar may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org