Tyson Fury vs Oleksandr Usyk: Ukraine’s ‘elite fighter’ ready for showdown

Ukrainian champion goes into the unifying title bout against Briton Fury motivated to fight for his war-torn country.

Boxing - Tyson Fury v Oleksandr Usyk - Grand Arrivals - BLVD City - Music World, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia - May 14, 2024 Oleksandr Usyk during the grand arrivals Action Images via Reuters/Andrew Couldridge
Oleksandr Usyk will face Tyson Fury in a unifying fight in Riyadh [Andrew Couldridge/Action Images via Reuters]

Oleksandr Usyk may be the reigning WBA, WBO, IBF and IBO heavyweight world champion but to many the Ukrainian is the underdog going into his long-awaited unifying title fight with Tyson Fury in Riyadh on Saturday.

[Follow Al Jazeera’s live build-up and coverage of the fight here.]

Size matters, it seems, with southpaw Usyk conceding 15 centimetres (6 inches) in height to the 2.06-metre (6 foot 9 inch) Fury, 18cm in reach, and close to 22kg (49lbs) in weight.

And yet, he is not perturbed.

“To win this, I don’t need to be heavy, I need to be fast, and quick,” he told The Ring magazine in February just before the Fury fight was postponed after the Briton picked up a cut in training.

“You never see a fat wolf in the forest.”

It is easy to see Usyk as the lean wolf, cunning, quick and ruthlessly effective.

His perfect record of 21 wins and no defeats as a pro, 14 of those inside the distance, speaks for itself.

And apart from those three heavyweight belts, he can also look back on a career that brought him Olympic gold in London in 2012 and the undisputed cruiserweight championship of the world.

Beyond the undoubted pedigree in the ring, he also has the fire within that a boxer desperately needs when he has reached the comfort of the mountain top.

‘Usyk is not fighting for himself’

The war in Ukraine, which followed Russia’s invasion in February 2022, has ensured that.

It gave Usyk an extra dimension when he faced Anthony Joshua in Jeddah in August that year, almost a year after he had taken the Briton’s titles in London.

“In the ninth round I realised that if I fall now, the spirit of the fighters who defend our country will also fall,” he told AFP news agency.

“I didn’t box for myself, I boxed for all those who defend the country.”

Eighteen months on from that fight and the Russians continue to wage war on Ukraine, adding fuel to the Usyk fire.

In some ways, it marks a shift in perception of the 37-year-old who also beat Daniel Dubois in Poland last August.

Born in the Crimean town of Simferopol, he was accused by many Ukrainians of sitting on the fence over Russia’s annexation of the peninsular in 2014 and castigated for saying that Russians and Ukrainians were the same people.

Since Russia’s 2022 invasion, however, the tune has changed with promoter Alexander Krassyuk saying that Usyk “is the real inspiration for Ukraine, for the guys on the front line”.

“When he speaks, these words inspire the Ukrainian people and the soldiers to fight the enemy and to have courage,” Krassyuk told ProBox TV in August last year.

“Usyk is not fighting for himself any more.”

Usyk has felt the war close up. Immediately after the invasion he returned to Kyiv and spent time on patrol.

Then his former teammate Oleksiy Dzhunkivskyi was shot dead by the Russians.

He was persuaded, however, to return to the ring, to fight the war in a more public arena.

“The guys from the armed forces convinced me that I need to prepare and fight to help my country on the international stage, talk about it and bring opportunities to Ukraine to restore my country,” he told AFP.

Beyond that, though, Usyk is aware of history calling in the ring.

FILE - Ukraine's Oleksandr Usyk celebrates after beating Britain's Anthony Joshua to retain his world heavyweight title at King Abdullah Sports City in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Sunday, Aug. 21, 2022. Heavyweight champion Oleksandr Usyk is set to defend his WBA, WBO and IBF belts against Daniel Dubois this August in Poland, where the Ukrainian fighter will have plenty of home support. Usyk announced Thursday, July 6, 2023, that he’ll face Dubois, a Briton who is the WBA mandatory challenger, on Aug. 26 at Tarczynski Arena. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar, File)
Ukraine’s Oleksandr Usyk celebrates after beating Britain’s Anthony Joshua to retain his world heavyweight title at King Abdullah Sports City in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on August 21, 2022 [File: Hassan Ammar/AP]

‘I fight for legacy, not money’

Victory over Fury, who has held the WBC title since 2020, would make him the first undisputed heavyweight champion of the world since Lennox Lewis defeated Evander Holyfield in 1999.

“I fight for legacy, not money,” Usyk told The Ring in January.

“Heavyweight boxing has not had this kind of fight since 1999. I know the history.”

He has had his public spats with Fury along the way but Usyk believes that he has the upper hand now in the psychological battle.

“I sit in his head like a little tractor driver,” he said in an interview last year.

The last word on Usyk should lie with the man who will be trying to strip him of his three belts.

“I respect Usyk as a man,” said Fury.

“I respect his career as well. I’m fighting the real deal. He’s got good footwork, good boxing ability, technically sound.

“He’s proved he can mix it with the big heavyweights because he’s beat Anthony Joshua and Daniel Dubois. I’m messing with an elite fighter.”

Boxing - Tyson Fury v Oleksandr Usyk - Grand Arrivals - BLVD City - Music World, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia - May 14, 2024 Oleksandr Usyk during the grand arrivals Action Images via Reuters/Andrew Couldridge
Oleksandr Usyk believes he has the upper hand over his opponent Tyson Fury  [Andrew Couldridge/Action Images via Reuters]
Source: AFP