Talks are reportedly taking place for Oleksandr Usyk’s unified heavyweight title defence against Anthony Joshua to take place in Saudi Arabia. It has been a complicated road to this rematch with a number of factors, both avoidable and unavoidable, at play. Usyk defeated Joshua in September to win the WBA, WBO and IBF heavyweight titles, and since then there has been boxing politics, international diplomacy and human rights issues at stake. Here is how we have arrived at this fight, and with such a controversial venue.
The contract for Joshua and Usyk’s first fight contained a rematch clause, and it was initially expected that a swift return bout would be inevitable. ‘AJ’ had been in this situation before, when he lost his belts to Andy Ruiz Jr in 2019. Joshua and his team triggered the clause within four days of the defeat, and the rematch took place six months later. The turnaround was not as swift this time though.
The first stumbling block for this fight was the issue of a “step aside” offer made to Joshua, intended to clear the way for Usyk to fight WBC heavyweight champion Tyson Fury in an undisputed title fight. The compensation on offer differed depending on who you spoke to, with anything between £15 million and £40 million mentioned. But the reports were consistent in the assertion that Joshua would get a shot at the newly-crowned undisputed champion. The amount was immaterial in the end, as the talks fell apart and Fury moved on to fight mandatory challenger Dillian Whyte.
So far, so boxing. But nobody could have envisaged the worldwide event that would put the fight into its next bout of disarray. Russia invaded Ukraine, an act of war that shocked and disgusted the world. This act of aggression against his homeland led to Ukrainian Usyk joining a territorial defence force. After defending his nation, he has now received the blessing of high-ranking officials, including former world champion and current Mayor of Kyiv Vitali Klitschko, to fight ‘AJ’.
The fight looks likely to be made official imminently, but the next sticking point could arrive given the choice of venue. Usyk’s promoter Alexander Krassyuk told BBC Sport, “Saudi is the place we are in discussions with at the moment. Late June is the date we are looking at. Nothing has been confirmed on paper. We are working on it.” The involvement of the Gulf state will cause plenty of unease, and with good reason.
The issue of sportswashing has been a constant topic when it comes to the increased efforts of Saudi Arabia to host high-profile sport and entertainment events. The aforementioned Joshua-Ruiz rematch took place in the country, and was widely criticised at the time. The takeover of Newcastle United by the Saudi Public Investment Fund has caused controversy in the Premier League since the moment it was announced. This past weekend it was Formula One’s turn, as they staged the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix despite a missile attack taking place just miles away from the track during a practice session. The spectre of violence, homophobic attacks and human rights abuses hangs low over any event that is hosted in the country, but the vast riches on offer mean far too few organisations are deterred. Boxing is more susceptible than most, having long looked away from injustice if there’s a few quid in it for them.
It has been a troubled and troubling road to this fight. While nothing is yet confirmed, it will almost be a relief to see these two warriors take to the ring, despite where that ring is likely to be erected. For Anthony Joshua, a shot at redemption awaits as he takes the audacious step of rematching a man who comprehensively beat him, rather than taking a warm-up fight. Meanwhile Usyk fights for something far deeper and more important than the three title belts he holds. ‘The Cat’ will be fighting for a nation of over 40 million people during the most precarious and distressing time in their recent history. This fight has taken a long time to arrive, but its meaning is profound for both men.
*18+ | BeGambleAware | Odds Subject To Change