Anthony Joshua’s defeat to Oleksandr Usyk last night in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, was his third loss in his last five fights after a 22–0 start. If Joshua can’t see the end of the road by now, he might be asking for directions soon. And if this was it, and after the bout Joshua sure acted like a guy who wanted out, he will go down as the most disappointing three-loss fighter in the history of heavyweight boxing.
Nobody ever looked more like a boxer entering the ring than Joshua, who stands 6-foot-6 with an 82-inch reach and an Adonis-like physique. He won a gold medal for England in the super heavyweight division in front of the home fans at the 2012 Olympics in London. He got his first world belt as a professional in 2016 and kept enthralling fight fans in his homeland while beating relative nobodies fighting exclusively in his native UK. His career peak to date came when he survived a knockdown and KO’d 41-year-old former heavyweight champion, Wladimir Klitschko, at Wembley Stadium in April 2017. But while A.J. was a rock star at home, the rest of the boxing world began begging him not to duck American Deontay Wilder, who reportedly even agreed to meet Joshua in the ring at Wembley if that would make the title unification match happen.
But Joshua, now 32 years old, never took the fight. Then in June 2019, in his first appearance outside the UK and with the ducking accusations crescendoing, Joshua lost his belt and all career momentum by getting KO’d by unheralded 25–1 underdog Andy Ruiz at Madison Square Garden. Joshua regained the title against a cartoonishly bloated Ruiz months later, but the momentum has yet to return.
He took on Usyk, a 35-year-old southpaw who had won gold in the heavyweight division at the London Olympics, for the first time at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in England last September. In that bout, Usyk took Joshua’s title away through a lopsided unanimous decision.
For the rematch in Saudi Arabia, Joshua dumped longtime coach Robert McCracken for veteran trainer Robert Garcia (known for training a stable of champs including Mikey Garcia and Marcos Maidana). Oddsmakers installed Usyk as a heavy favorite even though he has taken breaks from training to fight for his native Ukraine in the real war going on back home. (Sky Sports announcers made several references during the broadcast to how much the fight meant to Ukrainians back home, including one commentator’s pledge that wartime President “Volodymyr Zelenskyy will be watching.” Usyk’s fellow fighter and countryman, legendary former champ Vasiliy Lomachenko, was shown in the Saudi arena crowd several times. Lomachenko, who has also broken training to fight Russian troops, is scheduled to fight Jamaine Ortiz in New York in October.)
Usyk showed no ill effects from the war-related pause in workouts. For the first half of the fight he looked much sharper than Joshua, whose jabs and looping rights seemed mistimed and poorly aimed.
But Joshua, who as usual appeared to be in perfect physical condition, hurt Usyk with a huge left to the liver during a massive body attack midway through Round 8, and again in Round 10 when Usyk walked into a big right hand and stumbled backwards woozily. Alas, Joshua stopped pursuing the wounded Usyk as each of those rounds wound down, even though from early in the fight it seemed obvious Joshua’s only chance at victory over the smaller, faster, sharper champ was via knockout.
There were some surprises after the final bell. The first came when one judge somehow scored it 115–113 for the challenger, though order was restored when ring announcer Michael Buffer disclosed that the other judges had it 115–113 and 116–112 for Usyk.
The next surprise came when Joshua, upon learning from Buffer he’d lost again, grabbed two of Usyk’s championship belts and threw them into the crowd and stormed out of the ring angry. It looked like the historically genteel Joshua was about to brawl with spectators. But rather than continuing on to the locker room, it was as if Joshua realized this might be the last time he’d ever have a crowd this big that cared about him, and panicked. He doubled back to the ring, got in Usyk’s face and yelled unsweet nothings, then grabbed Buffer’s microphone, cut a NSFW pro wrestling–style promo that had something to do with how much boxing meant to him all these years and and how hard boxing is for a big man like him—”I ain’t fucking 14 stone! I’m 18 stone!” he said. Sky Sports didn’t know how to deal with Joshua’s heel turn, and felt obliged to apologize to viewers for the loser’s sad antics.
Joshua eventually gave up the microphone and let the standard post-fight interview with the winner commence. Asked about his plans, Usyk, whose career record is now 20–0, said Tyson Fury is the only fight he’d take.
“If i’m not fighting Tyson Fury, I’m not fighting at all,” he said through an interpreter.
The commentator then asked the champ about his countrymen back home, sort of: “You think they are having a big party tonight?”
Usyk, a guy who knew he’d won a fight but hadn’t yet won a war, declined to answer the question.