The new champion walked in first, just after one in the morning, with his face bearing the brutal realities of heavyweight boxing. Despite his dominant defeat of Anthony Joshua on Saturday night at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, Oleksandr Usyk wore the marks of battle. A jagged cut ran above his right brow while his bruised skin had turned a shade of burst violet below that same eye. The swollen mouse beneath his left eye was even more prominent and a reminder that Usyk had fought 12 rounds against a world champion who weighed 19 pounds more than him.
Usyk is not a small man but he also gave away four inches in reach and three inches in height. Yet in the final moments of the last round the usually imposing figure of Joshua, who is 6ft 6in, had sagged against the ropes as Usyk came close to winning by stoppage.
A singular character, who is as intelligent as he is amusing, Usyk was nonchalant as he sat down to address his stunning rise in boxing’s premier division to become the new IBF, WBA and WBO world champion in only his third fight as a heavyweight. When someone asked him to break down his fight strategy, for this had been a dazzling display, he spoke in Ukrainian. His countrymen and women laughed before the translator tried to inject some of that comedy into English.
“The plan was just to walk in, to see, to start. So we went in, we saw, we started and then in the 12th round they said speed up and so I did and then they said: ‘….and the new [heavyweight champion of the world].’ So that was the plan.”
Usyk continued in more serious vein. “I tried a few times [for the stoppage]. I put my speed into it. I punched him a couple of times, but then I was losing rhythm. I went back to my corner and my trainer said: ‘Hey, you’re trying to knock him down. You have to do your work. You have to throw your jab because if you concentrate on knocking him out, you’re going to lose your rhythm.”
Had this been his biggest and hardest fight? “Yes at this point it was the biggest fight in my career,” Usyk said before digging another little blow into Joshua’s dented ego. “But it wasn’t the hardest.”
I liked Usyk most of all when he was asked about his boxing legacy and how best he might move ahead as the new heavyweight king. He leant forward and, speaking with soft urgency, touched upon the demands of this unforgiving business and his desire to live normally again – at least until the next time he steps back into boxing’s dark world.
“I wanted to live,” Usyk said as he spoke poignantly about all he had sacrificed. “I wanted to take all four belts. But I wanted to take my kids to school. I wanted to plant trees. I wanted to water the apple trees. I wanted to see my wife more often. I spent three months in camp. I want to live.”
He seemed just an ordinary man then, tired and emotional after a draining night, and the applause from the media as he left was unusually warm. It also served as recognition of his mighty achievement.
I was even more moved by Joshua’s arrival. Two hours earlier, not long after his titles had been ripped from him, there had been rumours at ringside he had suffered a broken orbital bone. We were told he would be taken to hospital. But then he walked in – as ready to talk after a crushing defeat as he usually is while anticipating another multi-million-pound-spinning victory.
It would have been entirely understandable if Joshua had slunk home instead to nurse his wounds both inside and out. His face was less marked up than Usyk’s, despite the outcome, but the swelling above and under his right eye showed some of the damage he had endured.
“I couldn’t see in the ninth round, couldn’t see anything really because my eye was shut.” Joshua said. “It’s the first time that’s happened in a fight.” He still insisted, in his upbeat way, that: “It was a good experience because in adversity you learn to control yourself.”
An hour earlier, at 12.20am, Joshua had posted a message to his 3.3m followers on Twitter: “Keep positive even if the world’s crumbling in front of you! London I love you & thank you each and every time!”
It felt more like a time for low-key reflection than exclamation marks but Joshua’s positivity can be admired. Defeat against Usyk, the second loss of his career, has ruined his hopes of a unification contest with Tyson Fury, the WBC champion, which had been spoken of as a £200m showdown. Such staggering amounts of money, and his tendency to sometimes resort to corporate platitudes, have sparked resentment among Joshua’s more strident critics.
But he is a generous and decent man. Joshua is also, at his core, a fighter. He will be hurting terribly on the inside and this perhaps explains his otherwise surprising desire for an immediate rematch – despite Usyk being the markedly superior boxer on Saturday night.
“When I was walking through the tunnel back to the dressing room I said to myself: ‘I’m ready to get back to the gym. I’m ready to put the work in. I want to get back on the grind and improve, so when I fight these good guys and see that they are hurt I can capitalise on the opportunity.”
Joshua landed some heavy blows, as Usyk’s face confirmed, and he argued that the new champion “gets hit a lot and in the rematch we’ll just learn how to hit him more and be more concussive with our punch selection. I know we can look at it from a negative point of view but, for me, I’ve got to take it as a great lesson. I never tend to look at the opponent. I just look at myself and realise where I went wrong. So it’s not so much what he did. I’m going to look at myself and correct my wrongs.”
All his calls for self-correction are sincere but it’s easy to wonder if Joshua would be best advised to take a break from boxing. He could also be reassured that it’s not a weakness to feel sad after such a setback. “I’m a different kind of animal,” he said.
“I’m not a sulker. This is a blessed opportunity, to be able to fight for the heavyweight title of the world, fight good fighters time and time again and for people to come out. I’m not going home to cry about it, because this is war. It’s a long process. This isn’t just one fight and then I’m done. I’m going back to look at how I can improve. I’ve already been watching the fight and thinking: ‘I could’ve done that better’”
Joshua has not tried to blame anyone else or to make excuses. And so it felt appropriate, after the final question had been asked, to walk over to where Joshua sat. He was alone, briefly, and I thanked him for coming to talk to us. “No problem,” he said with a little smile as his hand curled in an invitation to bump fists gently at 1.45am.
He will almost certainly return to the gym in the next week as he strives to work out the myriad problems posed by Usyk. Joshua will work relentlessly in an effort to win back his titles while his successor might find some apple trees to water. Usyk looks ready to cherish time with his family and away from the heavyweight kingdom he now rules.