Joshua needs to treat Usyk with proper respect

Anthony Joshua is going to look like Hafthor Julius Bjornsson, the 6-9, 350-pound strongman, compared to Oleksandr Usyk when he comes to the center of the ring in Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in London on Saturday for their heavyweight title fight.

Usyk is 6-foot-3 and weighs around 215 pounds, small by today’s heavyweight standards but the exact size of Muhammad Ali in his glory years between 1964 and 1967.

But Usyk lost in the amateurs to Shawn Porter, the guy who in two months will be challenging Terence Crawford in Las Vegas for a welterweight title.

The welterweight division, if you’ve forgotten, has a 147-pound weight limit.

The 6-foot-6 Joshua has weighed 247 pounds or more in seven of his 25 professional fights. For the mathematically challenged, that’s 100 more pounds than the upper limit of the division where Porter will fight on Nov. 20.

Now, that’s not to suggest that this fight is going to be a mismatch.

Quite the contrary.

Joshua is a -275 favorite at BetMGM, while Usyk is +225. Usyk is arguably the finest pure boxer among anyone in the world these days 200 pounds or over.

And so, even though Joshua will tower over Usyk, if he enters the ring thinking it’s going to be an easy fight, he’ll be in for a shock. Usyk has the ability to make an unprepared Joshua look silly. Usyk looked ordinary, or worse, in his heavyweight debut against long-over-the-hill Chazz Witherspoon on Oct. 12, 2019, though to be fair, he still managed to win by seventh-round TKO.

Joshua seems to get it, even though facing Usyk is admittedly a letdown rather than meeting fellow Brit Tyson Fury for the undisputed title as had been originally planned. An arbitrator ruled in favor of Deontay Wilder in a case against Fury and ordered a third fight between them, which pretty much only Wilder and some of his more delusional fans who are soaking up all the conspiracy theories flying around about his first two fights want to see.

LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 12: Anthony Joshua reacts to victory over Kubrat Pulev during the IBF, WBA, WBO and IBO World Heayweight Title fight between Anthony Joshua and Kubrat Pulev at The SSE Arena, Wembley on December 12, 2020 in London, England. A limited number of fans (1000) are welcomed back to sporting venues to watch elite sport across England. This was following easing of restrictions on spectators in tiers one and two areas only. (Photo by Andrew Couldridge - Pool/Getty Images)
Anthony Joshua reacts to victory over Kubrat Pulev during their heayweight title fight on Dec. 12, 2020 at The SSE Arena, Wembley in London, England. (Photo by Andrew Couldridge – Pool/Getty Images)

Fury and Wilder will fight for the third time on Oct. 9 in Las Vegas, giving Joshua a very difficult out in Usyk as an unwanted consolation prize.

But Joshua seems to know the pitfalls he faces against Usyk, who may well be the third-best heavyweight in the world at this point.

“When we look at Oleksandr Usyk, we have to look at his ability boxing-wise, which all of us have at the top level,” Joshua said.

It’s the last part of that comment that is a little disconcerting from Joshua’s standpoint.

There is no way — none — that Joshua will win a pure boxing match with Usyk. Usyk is elusive, sees punches coming from a long way away and as a left-hander, presents a riddle that will be tough for veterans, let alone a relatively inexperienced champion like Joshua.

He’s in a weird spot. He can’t afford to simply go in throwing bombs looking for the kill, because Usyk will box his ears off and make him look silly. Neither, though, can he afford to just turn it into a point-scoring battle. That will heavily favor Usyk.

Joshua is a bright guy and understands his advantage.

“As you know at heavyweight, not only do you have to be good, you have to be a killer in that ring,” he said. “You have to knock your opponent. We can take punishment more than these smaller guys, we’re used to big punches. Every day, I’m getting hit by guys that are [250 pounds]. I build up a certain resilience in my body. … Will a cruiserweight be able to damage me? I’ve been used to big guys hitting me for so long.”

If things go as oddsmakers expect, he’ll be standing opposite Fury in a ring sometime early next year. Fury is a -280 favorite over Wilder (+230) at BetMGM to win their third bout on Oct. 9.

It will be the richest fight in heavyweight history and will make the sports world stop and pay attention, one of the few matches in the sport that has the ability to do that.

Usyk is the exact wrong guy to face in such a situation because he has the talent, the will and the ring savvy to scuttle the best laid plans. He is a borderline pound-for-pound guy — his disappointing outing against Witherspoon cost him his spot in the Yahoo Sports Top 10 — and if he were two inches taller and 20 pounds heavier, he would likely be favored.

There is no Joshua-Fury fight, though, if Joshua treats Usyk as another sad-sack opponent just there to keep him busy until the big bout is finalized.

Usyk is a thoroughbred with the ability to win this fight. Period. End of story.

And he’s not going in as a no-hoper.

“I haven’t really thought about whether I’m an underdog or not,” Usyk said. “I’ve put my mind to the maximum. I’ve done thorough training, I’ve been through the camp. I’m not really thinking about [being an underdog]. I’ve never really thought about it, I’m just going to box, the thing I love doing. That’s it. I’m not thinking about people underestimating me at all. I’m not concerned.”

People will underestimate him because, despite being the undisputed cruiserweight champion and a 2012 Olympic gold medalist, he’s not nearly as well known as Joshua.

That doesn’t matter, though.

The only thing that matters is whether Joshua will underestimate him. If he does, there may never be a Joshua-Fury fight to get excited about.