It’s been billed as the “Rage on the Red Sea,” but both fighters outwardly seem relatively calm about the prospect of stepping into the ring against one another once again.
Oleksandr Usyk and Anthony Joshua will face off for the second time in just under a year on Saturday night as they fight in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
Usyk outclassed Joshua in September last year in their first bout, beating the British boxer via a unanimous decision and claiming Joshua’s WBA (Super), IBF, WBO, and IBO heavyweight titles.
Joshua’s camp soon after activated the contracted rematch clause, meaning the pair will once again take center stage in heavyweight boxing’s latest showpiece event.
Despite being arguably the biggest name in boxing, Joshua’s career has been interspersed with shocks results.
Saturday’s rematch fight will be the 32-year-old’s 12th consecutive world heavyweight title fight. He’s beaten numerous top-level boxers along the way – Wladimir Klitschko, Joseph Parker and Alexander Povetkin to name a few.
But, amongst those big-name – often breathtaking – victories are some surprise defeats. Firstly, he was stunned by Andy Ruiz Jr. in New York in 2019 after being knocked down multiple times before the referee waved the fight off, ending his spell as unified heavyweight champion – he did beat Ruiz months later in Saudi Arabia to reclaim that title.
And in his first fight with Usyk in the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, the 2012 Olympic gold medalist was thoroughly outboxed by the Ukrainian from start to finish, as Usyk left the English capital the unified heavyweight champion and with his reputation as one of the best boxers around cemented.
However, Joshua said ahead of Saturday’s rematch that even if he does lose, it won’t be the end of his time in the ring.
“It’s up to me at the end of the day, it’s not up to anyone else what I do with my career,” said Joshua. “I don’t have to do this. Why do I do it? It’s because it’s all I know.
“This is also my 12th consecutive world title fight. I’ve been in world title fights back-to-back 12 times. It happens – if you’re fighting people at world level, you’re meeting people of world-level quality. I’m not fighting people who are below par.”
And Joshua says he’s learned a great deal from the two’s previous encounter. “I feel like one of my main strengths is that I’m a quick learner, I’m a sponge,” he said at the final press conference.
“But ultimately, apart from all of the learning stuff, it’s a fight. That’s it. Whoever throws the most punches and lands the most punches wins.”
When Usyk steps into the ring on Saturday, he will have more than just title belts and money as inspiration.
After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, the 35-year-old traveled back to his homeland, taking up arms and joining a territorial defense battalion in Kyiv, spending weeks helping out in the war efforts.
In March though, Usyk was granted permission to return to training to prepare for the Joshua fight, although he expressed his reluctance.
“I really didn’t want to leave our country, I didn’t want to leave our city,” Usyk said. “I went to the hospital where soldiers were wounded and getting rehabilitation from the war.
“They were asking me to go, to fight, to fight for the country, fight for your pride and if you’re going to go there, you’re even going to help more for our country.
“I know a lot of my close people, friends, close friends, are right now in the front line and fighting. What I’m doing right now, I’m just supporting them, and with this fight, I wanted to bring them some kind of joy in between what they do.”
And now, months on, a bulked up Usyk looks in excellent shape and in excellent spirits – breaking out into a Ukrainian song of independence after a pre-fight press conference dressed in tradition Cossack clothing.
On the eve of the fight, Usyk said competing at the highest level is what drives him, as well as providing hope and inspiration back home.
“We were born to compete; for life, for belts, for anything,” Usyk said through translator and chairman of K2 Promotions, Alexander Krassyuk, at Wednesday’s press conference. “The one who does not compete, does not live. All our lives are competitions; for anything, for something, for somebody. That’s why we’re competing.”
Saturday’s fight card has been praised as it will host Saudi Arabia’s first-ever professional women’s boxing match when Crystal Garcia Nova takes on Ramla Ali.
In a country where women’s rights are severely restricted, it has been seen as a landmark moment for women’s sport there.
However, it is in stark contrast to incidents of poor treatment of women in Saudi Arabia, including the recent imprisonment of Leeds University PhD student Salma al-Shehab, who was recently sentenced to 34 years behind bars for writing critical posts of the regime on social media. Amnesty International has called for al-Shehab’s sentence to be quashed.
As a whole, the event has been criticized for being a part of Saudi Arabia’s ongoing process of sportswashing – a term used to describe corrupt or authoritarian regimes using sport and sports events to whitewash their image internationally.
Saudi Arabia has been accused of using sportswashing in recent years to divert attention from the country’s dismal human rights record.
Mohammed bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, was named in a US intelligence report as being responsible for approving the operation that led to the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, though he has denied involvement. Human rights groups have also criticized the country for conducting mass executions and for its treatment of gay people.
When asked whether the rematch against Usyk in Saudi Arabia was the latest in the country’s attempts at sportswashing, Joshua said: “I don’t know what that is.”
He added: “The world’s in a bad place, I can’t just point one place out. If you want to point Saudi out, let’s point everyone out. We’ve all got to do better, and that’s where my heart is. The whole world has got to do better if it wants to change.”