There is nothing that rattles Oleksandr Usyk, The Ring, IBF/WBA/WBO world heavyweight champion. The agile Ukrainian southpaw carries a nonchalance that glides over a broiling tension underneath. It is that basement furnace that feeds Usyk when he hears that he is not big enough to beat WBC heavyweight titlist Tyson Fury when they meet for the undisputed world heavyweight championship on February 17 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
Usyk (21-0, 14 knockouts) and Fury (34-0-1, 24 KOs) will be fighting on the rarified platform that few have tread, as two undefeated heavyweights fighting for the undisputed world championship, joining boxing icons like Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali (March 8, 1971), and Evander Holyfield and Riddick Bowe (November 13, 1992).
In an exclusive with The Ring a few weeks ago, the usually stoic Usyk opened up about taking great pride in defending The Ring world championship, reflecting on his career, his beloved Ukraine and revealing his real drive to success.
“I really like the Ring belt, it looks good and it means something to me, because it is not easy to get that belt and that ranking,” he said. “And there are no sanctioning fees (laughs). I fight for legacy. Not money. Heavyweight boxing has not had this kind of fight since 1999 (when Evander Holyfield fought Lennox Lewis) and defending the championship is very important to me. I know the history. Winning that belt has been the biggest point of my whole career.
“But I really don’t think about Tyson Fury. I don’t look at the way he acts and what he does. Most of his opponents fell for it. I don’t. For me, I focus on how I am, and how I prepare for when I go into the ring. Me and my trainer have watched his fights. We are preparing for everything. We have to watch what he is doing. I don’t care about what Fury thinks about me. He can underestimate. He can overestimate me. I don’t care. I have my plans for him. I have advantages over him that he does not know about.”
Officiating may play an important role in this fight. Against Deontay Wilder in their rematch, Fury deployed the “Kronk lean,” pressing his 273 pounds down on the back of Wilder during clinches, and in the process, wearing down the smaller fighter and eventually stopping Wilder in the seventh.
Against Francis Ngannou in October 2023, Fury tasted the canvas in the third round against an MMA fighter making his boxing debut, before coming away with a controversial split-decision victory. It may have stirred questions about Fury’s motivation. Can he get up for big fights anymore? Is he willing to train hard as he did coming up? Has success softened him? He weighed a career-tying high of 277 for the Ngannou fight.
Usyk confronted controversy himself his last time out, when he was knocked to the canvas by Daniel Dubois in the fifth round in August 2023, in Wrocław, Poland. Referee Luis Pabon called it a low blow and gave Usyk his allotted five minutes to recover. Usyk, however, left no doubt about the ending when he stopped Dubois in the ninth. Usyk came into the fight weighing 220. He beat Anthony Joshua in their second fight at 221½ pounds, while Joshua weighed 244½.
The referee for Usyk-Fury has not been named yet.
“We are going to be the ones leaning on Fury,” said Usyk with a bellowing laugh.
Other than amazing hand speed, nimble feet and quick reflexes, Usyk has a few secret weapons that Fury better be aware of.
For one, Usyk is fighting for Ukraine.
“Every morning when I get up at five to run, the first thing I think about is my country and my people,” Usyk said. “I think about our people that are fighting on the front lines and the sacrifices they are making for me and my family. I am going right back to Ukraine after the fight. I love my people. I want to give them joy in winning. I am fighting for an entire nation. Tyson Fury fights for himself.”
Egis Klimas, Usyk’s manager and three-time BWAA Manager of the Year, sees Usyk in a heightened state of preparation. Klimas, a veteran of the game, put a tremendous effort into making this fight. He also sees Fury in a diminished state.
“Usyk is always prepared mentally, he takes every fight seriously,” Klimas said. “We went through a lot to get this fight made. Usyk will beat Fury. I am sure it will not be easy. I would not even be surprised if he stops Fury. The reason I say that is Usyk will wear down Fury and stop him. Fury has made a lot of money. He is not hungry anymore. Like Oscar De La Hoya used to say. ‘If you have $80 million in your bank account and you are sleeping in silk sheets, it is not easy to get up at 5 in the morning to run.’ Usyk is fighting for legacy. Money will come. He is fighting for his country.”
Usyk is also fighting for something else, or more so, someone else. The jovial side of Usyk turns firm when the topic of his late father is broached.
It raises a fury Usyk will use against Fury.
It hurts Usyk knowing his father is not here to witness the success he has had as a pro. His father died suddenly in 2012, days after Usyk won the Olympic heavyweight gold medal at the 2012 London Olympics.
“My father got to see me win that, and that is very important to me that he did,” he said. “Every day, I pray for my father. He is the one who put me into this life, and he is the one who told me growing up, ‘Son, you can.’ It gives me a lot of motivation. Understand, my father is always with me. It is very true. I carry my father’s strength with me. I carry his photo with me everywhere. I have wanted this fight. Boxing wanted this fight. It gives me more motivation knowing the boxing world wants me to win. To win this, I don’t need to be heavy, I need to be fast, and quick. You never see a fat wolf in the forest.”
Joseph Santoliquito is hall of fame, award-winning sportswriter who has been working for Ring Magazine/RingTV.com since October 1997 and is the president of the Boxing Writers Association of America.
Follow @JSantoliquito [twitter.com]
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