With tears in his eyes as he raised his arms in the center of the ring after the decision, former undisputed cruiserweight champion Oleksandr Usyk just shook up the heavyweight division.
Usyk (19-0, 13 KOs) set a hellacious pace from the jump to land the cleaner and heavier shots to outbox Anthony Joshua (24-2, 22 KOs) and relieve him of his WBO, WBA and IBF heavyweight titles. Despite no knockdowns, the fight was a thriller in front of nearly 68,000 fans at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium outside of London.
“This means much for me, a lot,” Usyk said. “The fight went exactly the way I expected it to go. There were a couple of moments when Anthony pushed me hard but nothing special.”
The 34-year-old Usyk threw a major wrench in the division’s plans to crown the first undisputed champion of the four-belt era. Joshua, 31, was supposed to face WBC and lineal champion Tyson Fury this summer but plans were canceled after Deontay Wilder won a court injunction to invoke a trilogy bout against Fury for Oct. 9.
Instead of setting up plans for an all-England summit for the undisputed title, the next development besides Wilder-Fury III will be whether Joshua accepts his own contractually obligated rematch against Usyk.
“I have been working so hard since January in preparation for this fight,” Usyk said. “It took me some half a year and I didn’t see my family for so long. I miss my children and I miss watching them play. I want to go home and be happy and I’m not thinking about the rematch at this second.”
Joshua, who had a swollen right eye that was threatening to close late in the fight, did not speak in the aftermath as he sought medical care. But promoter Eddie Hearn of Matchroom Sport ultimately believes his fighter will seek a second bout.
“The rematch is going to be tough but there is nowhere to hide,” Hearn said. “AJ is at the stage of his career where he wants his world championship and he’s already talking about it now. The doctors are talking to him. To me, it looks like a damaged eye socket. He says he’s fine but he told me he couldn’t see from about the ninth round on.”
Usyk, who had both swelling below his right eye and a cut above it, was able to set a tone in the early rounds with hard and accurate left crosses that Joshua could be in trouble if he stood in front of him. Joshua was repeatedly backed up by left hands and his legs buckled a bit late in Round 3.
Yet Usyk stayed true to his game plan and never went for the finish.
“I had no objective to knock him out because my trainers pushed me not to do that,” Usyk said. “In the beginning, I hit him hard but my corner said to just stop and do my job.”
In just his third heavyweight fight and first since closely outpointing Dereck Chisora last fall, Usyk raised his game to a completely higher level against Joshua. He did so with constant feinting to disarm his opponent and turn him into a counterpuncher.
Yet Usyk operated at close distance the whole time and relied on his defense and head movement to slide away from big shots.
The only question as the first half rolled on became whether Usyk could keep up the pace. To Joshua’s credit, he rallied nicely in the middle rounds as Usyk slightly began to fade. Joshua took the sting off of his shots and merely touched Usyk with the jab. It opened up opportunities for Joshua to land big shots to the body to slow down Usyk’s movement.
Yet on the night of his 12th wedding anniversary, the greatest trick Usyk pulled was never allowing Joshua to build upon any momentum by coming out the next round and simply being busier. With the fight possibly up for grabs entering the final round, Usyk backed Joshua up from the start and battered him against the ropes late to remove any doubt.
“You didn’t see the best Usyk, I can be much better,” Usyk said.
Usyk joined Wladimir and Vitali Klitschko as the only Ukrainian-born heavyweight champions. Joshua, meanwhile, suffered just his second pro defeat following an upset TKO loss to Andy Ruiz Jr. In 2019 that he avenged later in the year.
“We talked about overthinking it and getting too technical,” Hearn said. “He tried to do that with arguably one of the pound-for-pound top fighters in the world. Tonight, Usyk was fantastic. I don’t think this was a great performance from AJ when he looks back but was that the brilliance of Oleksandr Usyk? Joshua looked tired as the fight went on and he looked tired a little bit. Was that the mental fatigue of Usyk’s work?
“Usyk was busier than I expected him to be. I thought he had the perfect game plan and tonight he makes history as the unified heavyweight world champion. You have to take your hat off to him. This is sport and the better man won.”
Usyk outlanded Joshua by a margin of 148 to 123, according to CompuBox.
Elsewhere on the undercard, Lawrence Okolie continued his dominant run at cruiserweight with a third-round TKO of Dilan Prasovic. The WBO champion, who is just 28 years old, made quick work of Prasovic, who was in his first real step-up bout to date as a previously unbeaten fighter. Plus, former WBA super middleweight champion Callum Smith made a thunderous debut at light heavyweight with an electric knockout of Lenin Castillo. Smith finished off Castillo in the second round with a devastating punch that left Castillo seizing on the ground. He was stretchered out of the ring in a scary scene.