Thursday, September 30, 2021

Usyk Pulls Off The Upset, Should Joshua Invoke Rematch Clause?

All the ingredients that often make up a special night in the sport of Boxing were present in London, England on September 25th at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium for the World Heavyweight championship bout between two-time unified IBF/WBA/WBO/IBO Heavyweight world champion Anthony Joshua and undefeated former Undisputed World Cruiserweight champion Oleksandr Usyk before an enthusiastic crowd of over 70,000 spectators. The latter, a welcome sign of normalcy during the ongoing circumstances of the global COVID-19 epidemic. While there are times where “The Big Fight Atmosphere” exists in terms of the build up and anticipation before two fighters enter the ring to do battle where the actual fight does not match such an atmosphere, there was something unique about this particular night.

Perhaps it was because of the circumstances in which we are all living in that the mere sight of a major Boxing event like a battle for a unified World Heavyweight champion before a crowd of that size makes one appreciate it more than prior to the ongoing circumstances, but for this observer, there was something else. All too often in Boxing fans and those of us in the media that cover the sport are accustomed to seeing elements in the prelude to a fight that more often than not, for better or worse, is aimed at hyping an event up with scenes that include, but are not limited to verbal sparring between two fighters, their respective teams, and unfortunately at times even physical altercations. While some dismiss this as merely tactics of “Hype,” more often than not, it does not paint the sport in a favorable light.

This was a rare instance however, where the circumstances of the fight itself did not need any “Hype” as a way to draw interest, nor was there a need to try and sell “Bad Blood” between the combatants.  An encounter between two highly skilled boxers, each at the top of their respective game, with respect for each other meeting to see who was the better fighter was all that was needed. In this case, the challenger Oleksandr Usyk was attempting something that only two previous world champions in the Cruiserweight division had done, to successfully challenge for a portion of the Heavyweight world championship.

Only Evander Holyfield and David Haye could hold claim to accomplishing such a goal, but like Holyfield, Usyk had tested the waters at Heavyweight before challenging for a Heavyweight world championship. Even though his fight against Dereck Chisora proved to be more difficult than some had anticipated for him, Usyk’s campaign at Heavyweight though brief, had been successful going into this encounter. In previewing this bout, this observer stated that it was crucial in my view that Usyk get the champion’s respect early. While almost all challengers who fight for a world championship against a defending champion have a similar task, Usyk was the theoretical smaller fighter who was challenging a theoretically bigger man for his title. Although yours truly does not necessarily like to use the distinction of big versus small or vice versa, this is precisely what we had here. 

Particularly because Anthony Joshua has long been established as a fighter with fight ending punching power in either hand that could bring a fight to a sudden conclusion if he connects cleanly, I felt Usyk needed to establish not only the tempo of the combat from the outset, but also needed to show the champion that he was not going to be able to simply walk through his opposition, despite the physics of being the naturally bigger fighter being in his favor.  The way Oleksandr Usyk approached this task was in a word “Brilliant.”

Using a tactical strategy that had an emphasis on using faints and attacking at angles in spurts, Usyk established a home for his left hand from the outset of the fight. What stood out to me about the challenger’s approach was not only his use of faints and frankly immaculate foot work/movement, but how he used those attributes to disrupt Joshua from finding anything that would resemble a consistent rhythm. Despite being the taller and longer fighter in terms of reach, an aspect of Joshua’s offense that was largely absent was his jab. Although the champion would use the jab sporadically throughout, he was never really able to use the jab in such a way as to limit Usyk’s movement, or ability to get his punches off.

As I watched the first few rounds of this fight play itself out, I had thoughts that a fighter who knew how to combat an opponent that used faints as frequently as Usyk was doing here in this fight and do so with the use of a jab as both an offensive weapon as well as a defensive one in using it in such a way as to stop an opponent’s punches in motion, one fighter came to mind immediately. Larry Holmes. 

Although Anthony Joshua is three inches taller than Holmes and has one inch in terms of reach compared to Holmes’ 81” reach, Holmes was the type of fighter especially in his prime years that would have tried to faint with Usyk as a way to disrupt the rhythm he was trying to establish. Even if this would not result necessarily in increased offense, Holmes had a way of nullifying fighter’s offense in such a way that it made what offense he was able to execute stand out. As this fight progressed, I continued to think of how Holmes would combat a fighter such as one with Usyk’s skillset. Sometimes it is not necessarily the most offensive fighter that wins fights, but the fighter who is able to make the most out of what offense they put forth. 

For a significant portion of this fight in addition to the sporadic use of his jab, Joshua also did not control the distance between himself and Usyk. This allowed the challenger to not only fight at a distance where he could get his punches off regularly, but also gave Usyk the ability to lead the tempo of the combat. Simply put, when Usyk threw his left hand, more often than not he connected with it. As the fight progressed, Usyk began to change the levels of his attack mixing between the head and body of the champion. While this can be described as simply avoiding falling into a pattern that would be easier for an opponent to predict, it prevented Joshua from being able to make necessary adjustments to his plan.

An aspect that can at times be overlooked by some is the difference when a southpaw fights an orthodox fighter. It is not simply a change in stances between the two fighters as well as a difference in which hand a fighter leads with, but also the tactical approach. If you are an orthodox boxer an obvious key component to your offense will be your jab with your left hand, but when going against a southpaw opponent, it is key that you also find a way to land your right hand frequently.  While obviously tactics will depend on both the fighter as well as their trainer in terms of drawing up a fight plan, one thing became increasingly clear even as Joshua gradually found sporadic success as the fight progressed. He did not have the ability to time Usyk, which can be attributed to the challenger’s fight plan and tactical movement, but also Joshua was inconsistent in his approach.

It seemed as though he did not know or at least did not have a solid plan in terms of a method in which to attack Usyk with consistency. Whether this was because Joshua felt he had the punching power that once he was able to land cleaning on Usyk with flush power shots that he would not need to approach his attack as strategically is only a question he could answer, but was simply not consistent that that worked against him in this fight.

How could Joshua have turned this fight around?  One thing I noticed was when he was able to land offense to Usyk’s body those punches did have an effect, but the champion did not or could not form a consistent body attack throughout and instead seemed to land punches sporadically rather than focus on one specific area to land offense.  This in addition to perhaps failing to lead with his right hand from time to time played into Usyk’s hands. What would a consistent body attack have done? The general rule is that when a fighter uses a lot of lateral movement in the form of faints and/or head movement as Usyk did in this fight, the opposing fighter should focus on the portion of their opponent’s body that does not move, the body. The theory, which at times is easier said than done is that if a fighter focuses on an opponent’s body there is always a possibility that a punch could land that will stop a fighter in their tracks and bring a sudden end to the fight, but more conventionally, a consistent body attack over time if executed successfully limits a fighter’s ability to both move laterally as well as get out of striking distance with their legs. In general terms if you hit a tree at its base enough times, eventually the head will fall. As far as Boxing is concerned, a consistent body attack will at minimum over time slow a fighter’s movement and present some opportunities to land to the head that may not have otherwise been available when that fighter was able to move frequently. At most, it may also present an opportunity to end a fight.

As this fight progressed, one thing that the challenger also was able to accomplish was that whenever Joshua landed a hard punch, Usyk almost immediately returned offense and over time, he also showed that he could stun Joshua more than occasionally with his left hand. Usyk’s consistency throughout as well as his ability to land the more telling blows including giving the appearance as though he had Joshua in trouble at certain stages in the latter rounds, left the impression on me that he had done more than enough to win the fight, having done so in my eyes in convincing fashion. 

At the conclusion of the twelve round world championship bout, unofficially, I had Oleksandr Usyk winning this fight eight rounds to four or 116-112 in points, but I had a sense both due to the location in which this bout took place as well as the sporadic success that Joshua was able to have throughout that perhaps the official scoring would be closer, despite the view of this observer that Usyk had won the fight clearly and with little question as to who was the more effective fighter. In short, no matter how much experience one might have in covering the sport, which this observer has plenty, no matter how many fights on every possible level of the sport, amateur or professional that one sees, you never know what three individuals might be seeing or thinking in their task of being the only three people whose opinions matter. This observer is referring to the three official judges.

Ultimately, my unofficial scoring was reflected in one of the official scorecards in that of Judge Steve Weisfeld, a judge who has officiated over 2,100 professional bouts in his career who saw the bout the same as yours truly, 116-112. What ended up happening as judges Howard Foster, who scored the fight 115-113, (Seven rounds to five) and Viktor Fesechko, who scored it 117-112 (Eight rounds to three, with one round, the eighth round scored even 10-10) was what amounts to a full spectrum of scoring in what was a unanimous decision. A decision in favor of Oleksandr Usyk making him only the third Cruiserweight world champion to have successfully moved up to capture a Heavyweight world championship. In the process, Usyk has turned what for a period of time appeared to be a relatively simple path towards full unification of the World Heavyweight championship into the unknown.

First there is the issue of the WBC world championship. As some may recall, the year 2021 began with an agreement in principle for Joshua to meet Tyson Fury, the undefeated two-time Heavyweight world champion, who currently holds the WBC crown. Despite the agreement qnd ramblings of the bout being staged in the Saudi Arabia, all plans for what would have been an undisputed world championship bout were put to a halt when former WBC champion Deontay Wilder, who lost his crown in February 2020 in his second bout with Fury, was granted via court order a contractually obligated third bout with Fury. 

This third encounter was originally supposed to take place in July, but was pushed back to October 9th due to Fury testing positive for the COVID-19 virus. If this all sounds confusing for the reader and if you as the reader of this column might be confused, you are not alone. Furthermore, it would be understandable if you have doubts not only as to whether or not the scheduled Fury-Wilder III bout will indeed take place on October 9th and how this will all play into the equation that now has a new twist with Usyk defeating Joshua for his unified portion of the World Heavyweight championship.

One of the things that yours truly takes pride in beyond providing unbiased, objective coverage of the sport of Boxing, the sport that I have always had a lifelong love and passion for and have spent most of my life covering, is that the reader can always be assured that I will call it as I see it. As such, it would be dishonest of me to say that I do not have doubts. Doubts regarding both whether the third Fury-Wilder bout, which is still scheduled for October 9th as of this writing, will in fact take place and if in fact it does, whether the result will lead to an undisputed world championship fight.

The fact is I do have doubts. Not only because of the constant element of uncertainty that we have all been dealing with for nearly two years since the COVID-19 crisis began, which if nothing else should have taught us the lesson that even the best plans can change in an instant as you simply cannot predict what might happen due to the ongoing situation regarding the virus. In addition to the ongoing and unpredictability of the ongoing circumstances, perhaps what is triggering that doubtful impulse in this observer has to do with the business/political elements that for better or worse surround the sport that for one reason or another not only seems to halt the progress that can be made like a concept of full unification of a division, but more importantly, tends to give the impression that Boxing and to be more specific the people involved in running the sport will not get out of their own way even if doing so is in the best interest of the sport. While the subject of the political/business elements that surround Boxing is one that I have covered extensively when appropriate and by it’s nature is a broad subject that covers a lot of ground.

For the purposes of this column and out of respect for the reader all I can say in regard to the Fury-Wilder saga is we will have to wait and see if chapter three of the story between the two fighters does indeed occur and who knows if there might be another chapter after that. At least in terms of the immediate future, the more likely scenario at least as far as Usyk and Joshua are concerned is to see a rematch, which coincidentally much like Fury-Wilder is contractually stipulated, but unlikely to be ordered in a court of law.

This is because both fighters appear keen on the idea of a rematch and unlike Fury and Wilder, there is no bad blood or animosity between the two. In fact, the former two-time world champion Joshua showed “Class” in defeat in congratulating the new champion including a cordial exchange in the locker room after the fight as well as being extremely humble in his remarks during the post-fight press conference where he more or less said that despite his standing in the sport, he is still learning, which should be an example of not only how to handle a setback for any fighter or athlete in general, but also shows that even the best of the best fighters and athletes are like the rest of us, all human.

As for whether or not it will be wise for Joshua to seek an immediate rematch as he did when he was stopped by Andy Ruiz in June 2019, that is a subject to debate. Unlike when he was coming back from the first time he lost his world championship, Joshua is not attempting to rebound from a knockout loss, but rather a convincing decision loss in which he was out box3d by a master boxer. Can Joshua make any adjustments in a rematch? That remains to be seen, but in this observer's view, he will need to change his approach because as the old adage goes, you cannot box with a master boxer. Whether that means Joshua will have to force Usyk into a fight for twelve rounds and use his physical advantages the second time around is something that he and his team will have to decide as they prepare for the rematch. Without a significant change in strategy and how Joshua approaches that strategy, the rematch whenever it takes place could have a similar outcome.

“And That’s The Boxing Truth.”

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