Sport

Oleksandr Usyk lighter than expected before rematch with Anthony Joshua

Adept at defying expectations inside the ring, Oleksandr Usyk has now taken to doing so outside it as well after coming in at 221.5lb at the weigh-in ahead of his rematch with Anthony Joshua here on Saturday night.

The Ukrainian was expected to be considerably heavier than when the pair met in Tottenham 11 months ago but the difference was ultimately only half a pound.

“Your expectation is not every time met,” said Usyk having taken to the scales at the King Abdullah Sports City Arena, where he will defend the WBA, IBF and WBO titles he took from Joshua last September via a unanimous points decision. That was undeniably the case for the majority in attendance given the footage that had been released by Usyk’s team from his pre-fight training camp in Dubai showing him to be noticeably bulkier than at any other point in his nine-year career. That, quite clearly, was another case of the two-weight champion throwing those in front of him off guard.

Joshua, meanwhile, came in at 244.5lb, four-and-a-half pounds heavier than he was last year, not a huge difference but nevertheless a sign that, unlike Usyk, he intends to stick to his mooted pre-fight plan of leaning into his superior size and weight, as well as generally being more aggressive, as he seeks to become heavyweight world champion for a third time, joining a group of fighters that includes Muhammad Ali and Lennox Lewis.

“I’m looking forward to the fight,” said Joshua at Friday’s weigh-in. “And I’m ready for 12 rounds.” Joshua’s strategy is clear – charge forward from the first bell and look to push his hulking, towering frame over his smaller opponent. He will hope that will provide him with the foundations to dictate proceedings and land the shots – or one big shot – that results in a 25th victory as a professional.

That will be easier said than done against such a skilled and resilient opponent as Usyk, however. Quite simply the 35-year-old knows how to adapt to any situation and he will be confident he can stand up to Joshua’s storm despite the increased disparity in their weights and, again, flummox him with his sublime movement and technical traits. He will also trust that Joshua’s renowned lack of stamina will deny him the ability to go the distance, despite what the 32-year-old insisted on Friday.

Usyk is also not lacking in motivation having begun his preparations for this fight on the back of serving in Ukraine’s army as part of the country’s defence against Russia’s invasion. It was a harrowing experience and Usyk’s overriding desire this weekend is to secure a victory that will provide his country with much-needed joy. To that end, he has also ensured the fight will be broadcast free-to-air in Ukraine.

That is a heartwarming turn of events but for many does not detract from this fight’s staging in Jeddah being part of a sportswashing campaign orchestrated by Saudi Arabia in order to shift attention from the kingdom’s human rights record. “It’s clear that Riyadh’s calculation is sport is going to gradually relax people talking about executions, jailing, murdering of journalists and bombing in Yemen,” said Felix Jakens, head of priority campaigns at Amnesty international.

Amnesty has called on Joshua and Usyk to condemn Saudi Arabia, and while the former has insisted to the Guardian that he does not “condone human rights abuses”, he has also said he is principally “here for boxing” to reclaim his heavyweight titles on his return to Saudi Arabia three years after stopping Andy Ruiz Jr in Diriyah.

He and Usyk are also here for the payday and that, in truth, is why this fight is taking place in the Middle East, with each fighter expected to receive a minimum purse of £33m, far more than they would have got had they met elsewhere. As ever in boxing, money talks.

Regardless, there is no denying the intrigue attached to the fight ahead. For Joshua, in particular, it could prove career-defining, either propelling him into the history books as well as back to the very top of his division, or, as has been suggested, with nowhere to go except retirement. The stakes could not be much higher.