The eyes of the sporting world will focus on Saudi Arabia on Saturday night as Jeddah hosts the big heavyweight rematch between Anthony Joshua and Oleksandr Usyk.
Looking to win back the WBA, IBF and WBO belts he lost to Usyk last September, Joshua 24-2 (22) has naturally been saying all the right things during what has been a protracted and chaotic build up. Indeed, since the first fight he has axed his long-time trainer and confidante Rob McCracken, while the fight has also been put back due to war in the Ukraine.
‘Team Joshua’ have spent over a month in Jeddah finalising preparations for ‘Rage on the Red Sea’, acclimatising in a city where the temperatures are regularly sizzling into the late thirties.
AJ is a “new school” fighter of course, a sportsman happy to embrace Instagram, racking up millions of followers on social media and as a consequence amassing eye-water sums from sponsorships and endorsements into the bargain. Considering he came to boxing fairly late, his career has been a huge success. However, he is under huge pressure this weekend as he attempts to reclaim his position as unified heavyweight champion. A win and he joins Muhammad Ali, Evander Holyfield and others as a three-time heavyweight champion of the world. A defeat, and more specifically a third defeat in five fights, would be catastrophic and potentially end his career as an elite level fighter. At 32 with the wealth he has accumulated, would he have the necessary desire to rebuild?
When asked this week if the rematch was the biggest fight of his career, Joshua said: “Yes, most definitely. I’ve felt that pressure in my camp, 100 per cent. It has pushed me on.”
The betting for this return has been interesting. When the fight was first announced, Usyk was a rock solid 4/9 shot across the board after his imperious performance in their first fight.
However, belief has been growing among the betting community, particularly in the UK, that Joshua can gain revenge and steady money for him means that Usyk is now 4/7 in places, with AJ chopped from 2/1 to 6/4 with several firms.
Saturday signifies the first time that Joshua will walk to the ring as a betting underdog since he turned pro in 2013. However, when betting an underdog, you have to have confidence that ‘dog has the stuff to rise to the occasion. Weighing everything up I’m not sure Joshua is technically good enough to beat Usyk, despite the pre-fight hyperbole of the Watford man.
The two superstars met at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium last September, and despite home advantage Usyk ran out a convincing 117–112, 116–112 and 115–113 winner on the cards. AJ looked genuinely shocked when his opponent had his hand raised, but whatever the final scores, the truth is Usyk dominated AJ pretty much from bell to bell. With no tune up fight and a new coach in his corner in Robert Garcia, will Joshua be able to make the necessary adjustments against a master boxer?
Garcia likes his fighters to box aggressively on the front foot, so there is hope. First time around he tried to outbox a very good boxer and came unstuck. All the indications are that Joshua will opt for a much more aggressive approach this weekend and look to use his considerable physical advantages to try to blast his opponent out of there. However, as Mike Tyson once famously said “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
The bottom line is Usyk’s boxing skills are simply incredible, and the bad news for AJ fans is he looks in phenomenal shape ahead of this rematch.
His promoter Alex Krassyuk claims he has never seen the heavyweight champion as motivated as he is for this fight and claims his charge has been training “like a cyborg” for the rematch. In boxing talk is cheap of course, but the images of Usyk in recent weeks are consistent of a fighter who has left no stone unturned in camp.
The 19-0 (13) Usyk has few peers when it comes to ring generalship. He moves on opponents like a panic attack and has such a high boxing IQ. The fact he is coming in heavier suggests he likes his chances of winning via KO/TKO. It is worth remembering that he had AJ reeling in the final round last time out and if Garcia instructs AJ to bully and attack Usyk he could pay the price against a peerless counter-puncher. It should be a fascinating battle but the smart play this weekend could be on Usyk to win inside the distance and then start banging the drum for his own ‘undisputed’ clash with Tyson Fury.
Tip: Usyk by KO, TKO or Disqualification at 2/1 (Betfair/Betway/Paddy Power)