Ukraine’s Oleksandr Usyk defeated Britain’s Anthony Joshua in a surprise split points decision to retain his WBA, WBO, IBF and IBO world heavyweight boxing belts.
Sunday’s fight in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, was a rematch of a bout in London in September where Usyk won a unanimous decision to take the belts from Joshua, but fought with more intensity and emotion.
While Joshua was fighting for his boxing future, the pressure was greater than ever as this time Usyk represented a country fighting for its existence after the invasion of Russia in February.
Usic 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, while the British and Ukrainian judges scored it 115-113 and 116-112 for Usyk.
Upon hearing the triumphant words, “Yet,” an emotional Usyk raised his left arm and pulled the Ukrainian flag over his face.
“I dedicate this victory to my country, to my family, to my team, to all the soldiers who protect this country,” the 35-year-old said through a translator. “Thank you very much.”
Saturday’s victory took Usyk’s professional streak to 20 fights without defeat, and Joshua, 32, suffered the third loss of his career.
Joshua, who held up the Ukrainian flag with Usyk in what appeared to be an acceptance of defeat, had an extraordinary meltdown after the fight, later dubbed “Rage at the Red Sea”.
He picked up two belts, dropping them as he left the ring and went to the dressing room, then went back between the ropes to grab the microphone and address the crowd.
“Uzick is a hell of a fighter. It’s just emotion,” he declared.
“For this guy to beat me tonight, maybe I could have done better, but it shows the amount of hard work he’s put in, so please give him a round of applause as the heavyweight champion of the world.
“I was reading about Ukraine and all the champions from your wonderful country. I’ve never been there. I don’t know what’s going on there, but it’s not good … in that situation he ended up as champion.
After a grueling five-month training camp, Usyk entered the arena wearing blue and yellow with the words “colors of freedom” and was backed by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s words of encouragement to the nation in a late-night video address.
“We’re in this together,” the president said. “We help each other. We restore what was destroyed. We fight for all people. We are happy for those who represent Ukraine today – and of course for Uzy, our boy!”
The opening round was tentative, with Joshua’s corner inviting him to adjust his rhythm, and Usyk kept moving, using his jab and body shots to good effect.
Round nine upped 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 tall and heavy Joshua couldn’t land the telling blows against an agile and elusive opponent.
In the final hour, the two embraced as the Ukrainian sank to his knees.
Usyk said the fight was historic.
“Many generations are going to watch this fight, especially the round when someone tried to hit me hard. But I stood up and turned it around,” he said.
The win also earned Usyk the Ring Magazine belt.
There’s only one heavyweight title that Usyk doesn’t own – the WBC is about to be vacated by Tyson Fury, who says he’s retired.
When asked about Fury, Usyk said: “I’m sure Tyson Fury isn’t retired yet. I’m sure Tyson Fury wants to fight me. If I don’t fight Tyson Fury, I don’t fight at all.
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