Anthony Joshua defends his WBA, IBF and WBO world heavyweight titles next Saturday night, in a compelling unification bout against Ukrainian challenger Oleksandr Usyk.
Installed as mandatory by the WBO, following the contractual farrago and the highest-profile British Will They, Won’t They? since Tim and Dawn circled each other during The Office Christmas party, Usyk presents a distinguished challenge, and one more than a mere aperitif to the undisputed prospect of Joshua finally meeting his compatriot, Tyson Fury.
As former undisputed cruiserweight world champion, Usyk has demonstrable pedigree, a southpaw style, and an amateur (gold medal Olympian and world champion) and professional record (18-0, with wins over Murat Gassiev, Mairis Briedis, Michael Hunter and Derek Chisora included) which arguably positions him as Joshua’s toughest opponent to date. Yes, there was a motivated and conditioned Klitschko, but he was 41 years old at the time of their meeting; there was Ruiz II, but the challenge and pressure posed there proved abstract, only extending to the build-up and to the proposed meaning and possible recontextualised fallout of what could have been a legacy-defining – or better yet ‘corrupting’ – second professional loss.
Joshua deserves endless credit for taking this fight, especially when one compares his record to that of the other preeminent heavyweights in the division. He seems admirably and legitimately conscious of legacy, and his concern, and indeed risk inclination, is to the reward and enjoyment of those in attendance at The Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, as well as the many more watching globally.
The snippets one overhears in socially distanced bars have Joshua winning via a conclusive stoppage, via a cautious points victory – wherein he uses his size advantage and measured jab to evade the obvious threats of the smaller challenger – as well as those asserting Usyk to be too skilful and too inured to fighting bigger opponents to be in anyway foiled by Joshua’s defence, and who have him either winning conclusively via points himself, or eventually landing on the suspect chin of the champion for a seismic and status-quo-puncturing KO.
The ambiguity of predicted outcome provides the intrigue, as does the clash of cultures, nations, the blurred lines between the teacup tastes of the casual and the purist. Either way, come the morning of the 26th of September all ambient noise shall be quietened. Either Joshua will be marching onward towards a showdown with Fury, or a new man will have arisen in his place. Tune in to find out.
As is customary for larger fights such as this, esteemed members of the ESBR team have been moved to share their predictions of the outcome, and these are thus:
Doey (@xDoey): I've gone back and forth on this one so many times in my head and I'm torn. I could make a case for both and convince myself either way. Usyk is truly elite and the undefeated southpaw will almost certainly have spells of success where he breaks through the obvious size difference and catches Joshua. Thankfully for Joshua, I think that his obviously physical advantages, authoritative jab, and his generally cautious demeanour (likely developed through knowing he can be hurt) will be enough to negate Usyk's attacks for any sustained period. At this moment, I'm backing Joshua to win on points or a late stoppage, but I have no doubt that will flip one way and the other before fight night. Joshua KO 9-12 or points
Eliot (@EliotStott1): Joshua to do it for me but it’s going to be incredibly tough, Usyk’s the best boxer he’s ever faced in my opinion. I expect Usyk to win some of the early rounds and to outsmart Joshua to an extent however I question whether he can keep it up for 12 rounds against a world class heavyweight in AJ. Joshua UD
Elliott (@elliottgrigg): I have laboured over the outcome of this fight, as much as one considers anything, which, to me, proves just how exiting an encounter it is. In a subculture often starved of legitimate entertainment, this is up there as a ‘must see’. Either fighter emerging as victorious would not surprise me; however, I am favouring Joshua via points (depending on the quality of the judging this could be anywhere from a wide unanimous decision to either a close split or a majority decision). I think he’ll (wisely) fight cautiously, and he’ll look to continue in the vein of Ruiz II. Given the vociferous nature of Matchroom FC, both inside and outside the paid boxing ranks (just look at how the known mouthpieces deludedly clacked during the one-sided Usyk vs Chisora contest.), as well as the tantalising future spoils of the Joshua-Fury superfight (though Usyk vs Fury is no less ‘super’ in my opinion), I think Usyk will have to stop Joshua to win. And I think that Joshua will be able to avoid that as an outcome. Joshua points.
Liam (@LGilsenan1): I see Usyk causing AJ a lot of problems. But does Usyk carry the pop at heavyweight to hurt AJ and keep the champ off of him? I see Joshua weathering the early storm to come through and break Usyk down in the middle rounds. Possibly Joshua could force the stoppage but I see the champ retaining his belts via majority decision. Joshua MD
Paul (@paulkelly98): I think it’s a great fight. For me, it’s AJ’s second toughest test on paper, behind Klitschko. Usyk has all the tools to potentially beat Joshua; the footwork, the speed, the elusiveness and a general high boxing IQ, but I still don’t think it will be enough. For me, it will be a cagey first few rounds with not a lot in them, but I see Joshua establishing his jab, which is a world class, underrated jab in my opinion, and gradually making the size and stature tell. I think Joshua will get to Usyk at some stage, maybe knocking him down a couple of times en route to a unanimous decision victory. I could also see a late Joshua stoppage, but I think AJ to win on points is likely. Joshua UD
Neil (@neiljohnstone16): I change my mind every day on this one. I can see Usyk getting a points win if he fights a punch perfect fight and dictates the distance. I don't think Joshua has been the same since his defeat to Ruiz and he appeared very non committal in their rematch.
That being said, I admired his patience and strategy in the Pulev fight and he showed he can work to a game plan, fight sensibly in the opening rounds and get the KO down the stretch, I think Usyk has a good chance because I don't think Joshua will want to take too many risks (with the Fury match being on the line), making the full 12 rounds more likely and as Usyk has the faster hands, he can potentially get the points win. However, to regurgitate the old cliche, in the heavyweight division it only takes one punch, so for me the question is, can Usyk avoid that one punch?
...and one from Zhilei Zhang:
Date: September 25th, 2021
Time: Ring walk approx. 22.00
Venue: Tottenham Hotspur Stadium
Channel: Sky Sports Box Office/DAZN
Full and detailed breakdown of the undercard: