Ukraine’s Oleksandr Usyk has beaten Britain’s Anthony Joshua in a surprise split points decision and retained his WBA, WBO, IBF and IBO world heavyweight boxing belts.
The fight in Saudi Arabia’s Jedda on Sunday was a rematch of one in London in September, which Usyk won on a unanimous decision to take the belts from Joshua, but fought with much more intensity and emotion.
The pressure was on both more than ever, with Usyk this time representing a country fighting for its existence after Russia’s invasion in February, while Joshua was battling for his boxing future.
Usyk appeared comfortably ahead as the final bell rang at the King Abdullah Sports City Arena. But the American 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 still”, an emotional Usyk raised his left arm and pulled the Ukrainian flag over his face.
“I devote this victory to my country, to my family, to my team, to all the military defending this country,” the 35-year-old said through a translator. “Thank you very, very much.”
Saturday’s victory took Usyk’s professional record to 20 fights undefeated while Joshua, 32, suffered the third defeat of his career.
Joshua, who had held the Ukrainian flag aloft with Usyk as they waited for the decision in what seemed an acceptance of defeat, then had an uncharacteristic meltdown after a fight billed as “Rage on the Red Sea”.
He took two of the belts, dropping them as he left the ring and headed for the dressing room before turning around and stepping back between the ropes to take the microphone and address the crowd.
“Usyk is one hell of a fighter. That’s just emotion,” he declared.
“For this guy to beat me tonight, maybe I could have done better but it shows the levels of hard work he must have put in, so please give him a round of applause as our heavyweight champion of the world.
“I was studying Ukraine and all the champions from your amazing country. I’ve never been there. What’s happening there, I don’t know but it’s not nice … under those circumstances he’s managed to become champion.”
After a gruelling five-month training camp, Usyk entered the arena in a blue-and-yellow top carrying the words “Colours of Freedom” and supported by words of encouragement from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in his nightly video address to the nation.
“We stick together,” the president said. “We help each other. We restore what was destroyed. We fight for all our people. And we cheer for those who represent Ukraine, today — definitely for Usyk, our guy!”
The opening round was tentative, with Joshua’s corner calling for him to adjust his rhythm, and the bout continued with Usyk constantly moving and using his jab and body shots to good effect.
Round nine raised the tempo dramatically, with Joshua enjoying his best round before Usyk came back hard in the 10th.
Needing a knockout and running out of time, the taller and heavier Joshua was unable to land the telling blows against an agile and elusive opponent who hit back hard.
At the final bell, the two embraced, with the Ukrainian sinking to his knees.
Usyk said the fight was historic.
“Many generations are going to watch this fight, especially the round when someone tried to beat me hard. But I stood up to it and turned it in a different way,” he said.
Usyk also claimed the Ring Magazine belt with the win.
There is just one heavyweight title that Usyk does not own — the WBC one that is about to be vacated by Tyson Fury, who says he is retired.
When asked about Fury, Usyk said: “I am sure Tyson Fury is not retired yet. I am sure Tyson Fury wants to fight me. If I’m not fighting Tyson Fury, I’m not fighting at all.”