Oleksandr Usyk has retained his IBF, WBA and WBO heavyweight titles after beating Anthony Joshua by split decision in their rematch in Jeddah.
This looked a new Joshua, but the history played out in Tottenham in September repeated itself – outboxed, tired out, defeated and humbled by Usyk once again.
With the two-time champion displaying arguably more hunger in the first three rounds than he was able to conjure in the entirety of the first defeat, it seemed a traditionally slow start from Usyk. For all the Ukrainian’s mobility, even as Joshua struggled to land his shots, he was able to deliver a flurry of combos and a right hand that momentarily shook the unified champion.
In turn, Usyk waited until the end of the fourth before landing his first big left hand. However, in the fifth, Joshua’s attempted body shot looked dangerously close to a low-blow and Usyk was visibly discomfited.
There were big questions over the canvas, which had been a persistent issue in the preceding fight, Filip Hrgovic’s victory over Zhilei Zhang – in which the Chinese heavyweight briefly fell to the canvas. Usyk slipped too, with the bout stopped briefly in the eighth round to mop up the centre of the ring.
Usyk, though, had found a sudden boost in a swelling around AJ’s eye. Yet instead of targeting the obvious, he upped the body work and despite a brief backing into the ropes – Joshua was far better equipped to deal with his southpaw stance this time around – he was able to withstand an enormous amount of pressure.
- 115-113 Joshua
- 115-113 Usyk
- 116-112 Usyk
Judges: Glenn Feldman (USA), Steve Gray (GBR) and Viktor Fesechko (UKR) – Feldman was the only judge to score in Joshua’s favour
Once the 35-year-old had found his rhythm, he set the pace. No matter how improved Joshua looks under new trainer Robert Garcia, it is not enough against a moving target like Usyk, who once again would not allow him to use his power.
That was until a re-emergent Joshua came within a breadth of knocking him down and Usyk had no choice but to hold. The British fighter’s biggest punch was still to come and just as well – whatever the message from his corner, who with relentless positivity were insistent he was winning the rounds, he knew he would need a knockout. It wasn’t to come.
The quality of genius, and the heart of Usyk saw him defend his titles on a momentous night for Ukraine.
Before the main event, there were a number of significant fights on the undercard in Saudi Arabia.
Hrgovic is next in line to challenge for the IBF belt after beating Zhang by unanimous decision in their final eliminator, the scorecards reading 115-112 115-112 114-113. Hrgovic was cut and knocked down early by the Chinese southpaw but rallied in the second half of the fight. Zhang’s only brush with the canvas came in the 11th round, due to a wet canvas which hampered the quality of the later rounds, and he will feel hard-done-by in what both Frazer Clarke and Lawrence Okolie described as a “strange encounter”.
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Earlier, Britain’s Callum Smith had taken another step on the road to becoming a two-weight world champion after knocking out Mathieu Bauderlique in an eliminator for Artur Beterbiev’s WBC title, nearly sending the Frenchman through the ropes with his second knockdown inside the fourth round. Bauderlique had impressed in the early rounds, but Smith was able to slow him down with his body shots – and it’s telling of his power that he ultimately dispatched him with relative ease. Beterbiev is now in his sights, though the reigning light-heavyweight king will not be fighting again until 2023.
“”I want a world title I’m still in this game to become a two-weight world champion,” Smith said. “Tonight’s put me one step closer.”
There was controversy as Badou Jack was awarded a 10-round split decision win over Richard Rivera, who forced the veteran onto the back foot and put in one of the performances of his career. Jack came close to stopping him in a controversially long round that stretched to almost four minutes, but Rivera held tight and resurged in the later stages. Expect to hear more about this one – hugely contentious.
“I felt like I definitely did enough, I’m hurt because I really believed in the boxing judging system,” Rivera said. “I would love a rematch but I doubt somebody like him would take him, especially on my turf…I know he doesn’t feel good about this victory.”
Peter Fury was among those outraged by the decision, writing on Twitter: “Get your money on AJ if goes to points after that decision.”
“Luckily, a fight is not three rounds,” was Jack’s retort.
Ramla Ali and Crystal Garcia Nova made history by becoming the first professional female boxers to fight professionally in Saudi Arabia, but it was a bout Garcia Nova will want to forget after losing by knockout inside 25 seconds. It was a brutal right hand from undefeated Ali that sent her opponent’s gum-shield flying and she is now targeting more ring-time after admitting she didn’t get a chance to “get out of first gear”.
Elsewhere, Team GB silver medallist Ben Whittaker won his second professional fight against Petar Nosic. This wasn’t the swaggering, shuffling Whittaker of his debut last month – it was considerably more passive – but he was in control and was awarded the victory by unanimous decision.
Usyk’s compatriot Daniel Lapin kicked off the night with a first win for Ukrainian fighters on the card against Jozef Jurko, also by unanimous decision.
There was a split decision in favour of Traycho Georgiev, who beat social media sensation Rashed Belhasa – also known as Money Kicks – on the latter’s professional debut. That came after James Wilson had retired after the fifth round against Andrew Tabiti. Wilson failed to cope with Tabiti’s jabs and looked hurt by the time he quit on his stool.
New York-born Ziyad Almaayouf, trained by Buddy McGirt, knocked down Jose Alatorre twice on his way to a comprehensive first-round victory.
Fuad Tarverdi was stopped in the fourth round not long after being sent to the canvas by a series of big shots from Bader Al Samreen. Tarverdi protested a slightly premature stoppage but it was a deserved victory for the undefeated Al Samreen.