‘It’s bad behaviour’: Usyk to use Fury incident as motivation for title clash

Oleksandr Usyk, we were warned, was exhausted and angry. He was in no mood to talk for he had spent all Monday afternoon being shunted from one room to the next and made to suffer the tedium of countless television and YouTube interviews as he was asked the same old questions again and again about his world heavyweight unification title fight against Tyson Fury this Saturday night in Riyadh.

It was agreed that we would leave the IBF, WBA and WBO champion in peace for his only break from the monotony had been when Stanislav Stepchuk, one of the younger members of his entourage, was head-butted in the face by John Fury, the 59-year-old father of the WBC champion. It had been a bloody moment which looked so tawdry compared to the mighty challenge awaiting Usyk against Fury – and especially when set against the reality of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a war which is never far from the champion’s mind.

Most of us in a small group of boxing writers have known Usyk for years. We like him and we respect him and so stepping away from our scheduled round-table chat felt reasonable. There seemed little point in making him stay on the conveyor belt any longer.

Tale of the tape

But then, in a blur of colour and a din of noise, Usyk and a dozen Ukrainian men strode towards us. He looked cheerful and friendly and, before gesturing to his comrades to fall silent, he smiled and shook everyone’s hand. Usyk then chided a member of his team who was about to take my seat and he settled down next to me. The conversation flowed and he seemed amused and energised by the earlier fracas.

“For me it doesn’t matter, it’s just bad behaviour from Tyson’s team,” Usyk said in English. “We are professional athletes, not street fighters and this is a big event for our people in the UK and Ukraine. If they want to destabilise my team, it’s not possible because I don’t just have professional coaches and trainers, I have professional soldiers.”

Usyk grinned, like a proud father looking at his brood. “My team is very good at wanting to fight – not boxing but street fighting. But I said: ‘Hey, guys, get back.’ We had to behave properly. Of course it’s disappointing that it happened at an event like this, because it is about discipline.

“I am not disappointed by my team, they are disappointed because I pulled them back and stopped them from fighting.

“They were looking over at me, waiting for the signal to go. They were waiting for the thumbs up but I gave them the thumbs down. “Back, back please,” I said. And they were not happy. The situation doesn’t matter to me, it’s just more motivation for my team.”

I said to Usyk it was hard to miss the irony that Fury Sr ended up with blood pouring from his head while the stoical Stepchuk hardly winced. “My friend did not bleed because he is a powerful guy,” Usyk replied with a chuckle. “He is a street guy. Did you see the video? He was like a pit bull, ruff!”

Did Stepchuk serve in the Ukrainian army? “He’s only my friend, it’s a secret who the soldiers are in my team.”

Oleksandr Usyk (centre) speaks to the media in Riyadh. Photograph: Nick Potts/PA

He nodded when it was pointed out that Fury had picked on one of the smallest members of his contingent. “It’s bad, a stupid situation. I don’t want to call John bad because I don’t know him or his mind. But he hit my friend and it’s just another reason for me to win [on Saturday night].”

Usyk sounded full of serene conviction when he stressed his belief in the outcome of his fight against Fury: “I will definitely win and I will take the belts back home. I have four belts coming for four children, two for my sons and two for my daughters, one each.”

In the gym of his training camp he had hung a banner proclaiming the unstoppable power of Newton’s cradle. He leaned forward and said: “Newton’s cradle has already started. You can’t stop it.”

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Usyk emulated the motion and force of the first and final ball, in a motionless chain, cascading back and forth and he made another analogy. “Pain is just weakness leaving your body. And so Newton’s cradle cannot be stopped, like the small Ukrainian guy cannot be stopped.”

He waved his hand in the air and, drifting from physics to show business, slipped into the voice of an American ring announcer and cried out: “Oleksandr ‘Undisputed world heavyweight champion, The Cat’ Usyk!”

The boxer has always been an unconventional man, who once hoped to be an actor while playing the role of a joker and a prankster. But Usyk sounded deadly serious when suggesting that becoming the undisputed world champion could never match the Olympic title he had won at London 2012: “My gold medal will always be better than undisputed. Everyone who does sport – boxing, judo, karate – they all dream of the Olympic Games. I know men with three world championships medals but no Olympic gold – only bronze. I did two Olympics and only got one medal. It takes four years of work. In 2012 my opponent in the final, [Clemente] Russo, had done four Olympics and still no gold medal, after 16 years.”

Professional boxing, Usyk argued, “is just a business for lots of people. It’s money, belts, fame. But for me, first, it is a sport.”

It also means something even more profound in a time of war. The Russian assault on Ukraine had intensified in recent weeks and Usyk paused when I asked if the gravity of the war would spur him on to even greater heights in the most important fight of his professional career. “I really appreciate the support from my Ukrainian fans and soldiers, it’s a big motivation.”

Usyk fell briefly silent, as if acknowledging the meaning and symbolism he also carries in Ukraine. “Maybe I motivate my people,” he said quietly. “Maybe.”

He had ignored the signals from various media people that his time with us was up but, in respect for him and all that he will soon face in the ring, it felt enough just to thank him for our little chat. “Of course,” Usyk said, rising to shake everyone’s hand again, “always.”

And in that moment, away from the clamour and the madness, it was easy to remember that the best fighters bring light and meaning to boxing.

The Guardian

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