Ukrainian Oleksandr Usyk beat Britain’s Anthony Joshua in a surprise split-point decision and retained his WBA, WBO, IBF and IBO world heavyweight boxing belts.
The fight in Jedda in Saudi Arabia on Sunday was a rematch of one in London in September, which Usyk won by unanimous decision to take the belts from Joshua, but fought with much more intensity and emotion. .
The pressure was on the two more than ever, with Usyk this time representing a country struggling for its existence after Russia invaded in February, while Joshua fought for his future in boxing.
Usyk appeared comfortably up front when the final bell rang at the King Abdullah Sports City Arena. But the US judge awarded the fight 115-113 to Joshua, with the British and Ukrainian judges deciding 115-113 and 116-112 to Usyk.
When he heard the winning words, “and again”, an emotional Usyk raised his left arm and pulled the Ukrainian flag in his face.
“I dedicate this victory to my country, to my family, to my team, to all the soldiers who defend this country,” the 35-year-old said through an interpreter. “Thanks a lot.”
Saturday’s victory took Usyk’s professional record to 20 fights unbeaten while Joshua, 32, suffered the third defeat of his career.
Joshua, who had been waving the Ukrainian flag with Usyk as they awaited the decision in what appeared to be an acceptance of defeat, then had an unusual meltdown after a fight dubbed ‘Rage on the Red Sea’.
He took two of the belts, dropped them as he left the ring and headed for the locker room before turning and stepping back between the ropes to pick up the microphone and address the crowd.
“Usyk is one hell of a fighter. It’s just emotion,” he said.
“For this guy to beat me tonight maybe I could have done better but it shows the level of hard work he had to put in so please applaud him as a champion of the game. heavyweight world.
“I was studying Ukraine and all the champions of your amazing country. I’ve never been there. What’s going on there, I don’t know but it’s not nice… in these circumstances, he managed to become champion.
After a grueling five-month training camp, Usyk entered the arena in a blue and yellow top emblazoned with the words “Colours of Freedom” and backed by words of encouragement from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in his nightly video address to the nation.
“We stand together,” the president said. “We help each other. We restore what has been destroyed. We fight for all our people. And we encourage those who represent Ukraine today – certainly for Usyk, our guy!
Round one was tentative, with Joshua’s corner calling for him to adjust his pace, and the fight continued with Usyk constantly moving and using his jab and body shots to good effect.
Round nine picked up the tempo considerably, with Joshua enjoying his best run before Usyk came back strong in the 10th.
Needing a knockout and running out of time, the taller and heaviest Joshua couldn’t land the decisive blows against a nimble and elusive opponent who fought back hard.
At the final bell, the two embraced, with the Ukrainian falling to his knees.
Usyk said the fight was historic.
“Many generations will watch this fight, especially the round where someone tried to beat me hard. But I resisted and shot it in a different way,” he said.
Usyk also took home the Ring Magazine belt with the win.
There’s only one heavyweight title Usyk doesn’t own – the WBC one that’s about to be vacated by Tyson Fury, who says he’s retired.
Asked about Fury, Usyk said: “I’m sure Tyson Fury isn’t retired yet. I’m sure Tyson Fury wants to fight me. If I don’t fight Tyson Fury, I don’t fight at all.