Having shared the same birthday as Muhammad Ali, Oleksandr Usyk was perhaps always destined for boxing greatness.
‘The Cat’, as the fleet-footed southpaw is known, has just 15 defeats on his staggering record of 368 bouts, all of which came as an amateur, where the Ukrainian waltzed to European, World and Olympic glory.
But even after blitzing through the cruiserweight division, in which he made history by becoming the first boxer to hold all four belts simultaneously – doing so in just his 15th professional outing – the 34-year-old is still somewhat of an unknown quantity in the heavyweight division as he prepares for his toughest test yet.
Oleksandr Usyk has arrived in London ahead of his fight against Anthony Joshua on Saturday
The former cruiserweight king is looking to win Joshua’s IBF, WBA and WBO straps
On Saturday, Usyk will come up against Anthony Joshua in the first-ever fight at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, as the Ukrainian looks to prize away the heavyweight’s IBF, WBA and WBO straps – and ultimately prevent what would be an historic moment in British sport.
Joshua was seemingly on the precipice of an all-British undisputed showdown against Tyson Fury, with both camps finally singing from the same hymn sheet as a summer date was edging closer.
However, with Fury forced into a trilogy bout against long-term rival Deontay Wilder, it was WBO mandatory challenger Usyk who took his place in a match-up that has boxing purists purring and Joshua fans perhaps slightly perturbed.
Even without Joshua’s bout with Fury falling through, he and Usyk have have been on a collision course for the last 10 years – dating all the way back to Azerbaijan in 2011 when the Ukrainian was in attendance as his future opponent fell to an unfortunate defeat.
Usyk was born in 1987 in Ukraine, coincidentally sharing the same birthday as Mohammad Ali
He started boxing at the age of 15, having played academy-level football beforehand
But before we delve into the distinct parallels that can be drawn throughout their careers, let’s jump back briefly to January 17, 1987, when Usyk was born in Simferpol, Ukraine.
Usyk was born into a family struggling financially. He had a number of jobs while growing up to support his parents, including working on a farm and selling fruits and ice cream on the streets.
In fact, it was this that led to Usyk finding boxing at the age of 15. Before he’d ever tried on a pair of gloves, it was football at the forefront of his mind, having played for the academy of then-Ukrainian Premier League side SC Tavriya Simferopol.
But the financial burden was too much for his family and he was unable to continue.
‘(I) played for Tavria from Simferopol, and I did pretty well,’ Usyk said. ‘I was never a benchwarmer, I was always a starter.
‘Soccer demanded some very serious expenses. And two or three hundred hryvnias was a substantial amount for my parents.
‘Boxing was simpler, more sociable. The coach gave me his gloves, his wife sewed them into the right form.
‘The only thing that my mum spent money on was a travel ticket.’
With the lightening-quick success that has followed for Usyk, the transition to boxing is one that clearly paid off.
Usyk reached reached the semi-finals of the European Championships in Plovdiv, Bulgaria just four years after taking up the sport, before winning gold in the same competition – this time in Liverpool – two years later in 2008.
Usyk, who married his childhood sweetheart Yekaterina in 2009, then locked eyes on Joshua for the first time in 2011. Competing in the World Championships for the second time, having claimed a bronze medal two years prior, Usyk truly made his mark in the amateur game.
Beating Artur Beterbiev, now the unified light-heavyweight champion, en route to the final, Usyk then took gold in emphatic style by beating Teymur Mammadov.
Meanwhile, a 21-year-old Joshua, competing in the weight class above, was not expected to medal after being knocked out just three months prior. But he exceeded all expectations as he reached the final, where he fell short against Mahammadrasul Majidovin with Usyk watching on from the stands.
Joshua won Olympic gold at London 2012, just a year after Usyk watched his future opponent fall to a defeat in the World Championship final in Azerbaijan
But even in defeat, Usyk knew he was witnessing the birth of a star, telling his team that Joshua was a future Olympic champion, as revealed in a recent interview with Sky Sports.
‘It was a good final, you know. I watched it live,’ he said. ‘I said to my team: “This guy is the future Olympic champion”.
‘Next year, in 2012, Anthony was the Olympic champion. Why did I think this? I watched his fight. I watched Anthony. I saw him progress, progress, progress.’
As Usyk said, his prediction was one that came true, with Joshua taking super-heavyweight gold at the London Olympic Games in 2012 as his remarkably quick development continued.
But Joshua wasn’t alone in winning gold, with Usyk putting the finishing touches on his incredible amateur career by winning an Olympic title of his own, beating Clemente Russo in the heavyweight final with a gutsy and impressive display.
Usyk was crowned Olympic champion in 2012 as he beat Italian Clemente Russo in the final
It was a sensational end to his phenomenal amateur career as a new chapter started
Both Usyk and Joshua made their professional debuts a month apart in 2013, with the former racing through the cruiserweight division and the latter the heavyweight division.
In just his 10th professional outing, Usyk captured the WBO cruiserweight title with an impressive unanimous points victory over Krzysztof Glowacki, who most recently suffered a stoppage defeat to Lawrence Okolie.
And just five fights later, Usyk became the undisputed cruiserweight champion, claiming all the belts by comprehensively beating Murat Gassiev in the World Boxing Super Series final.
It was only in his 16th fight that Joshua became the heavyweight world champion as he dismantled Charles Martin in two clinical rounds.
After Usyk showed his class again in his final outing at cruiserweight with a destructive performance against Tony Bellew, who subsequently announced his retirement, he and Joshua were finally in reach. The Ukrainian made the move to heavyweight.
Usyk’s final outing in the cruiserweight division came against Tony Bellew (left), who was full of confidence after beating David Haye twice
Bellew put up a good fight but he was floored and stopped emphatically in the eighth round
The jump from cruiserweight to heavyweight is drastic, but not impossible to conquer. Just look at David Haye and Evander Holyfield, who are the only cruiserweight champions in history to then win heavyweight titles.
And according to Johnny Nelson, Usyk was sparring – and beating up – heavyweight great Wladimir Klitschko all the way back in 2015 during the build-up to his fellow Ukrainian’s bout against Tyson Fury, which he lost.
‘I rate Usyk,’ Nelson told Behind the Gloves in 2018. ‘When I saw him sparring with Wladimir when Wladimir was preparing for Tyson Fury, I said “Who is that guy? Who is he?”
‘I had no idea, but I know there was something special about him. He did one round with Wladimir, and Wladimir slung him out and said, “get out, not while the press is here.”
‘He was making it hard for Wladimir. He was like bossing Wladimir. “Get him out. Get somebody else in”.’
Usyk defeated American Chazz Witherspoon in his first outing in the heavyweight division
Usyk’s sparring success perhaps spells danger for Joshua, who is similar both in stature and style to Klitschko.
However, Usyk hasn’t quite grabbed the headlines since becoming a heavyweight. He’s had two fights to date, the first being against Chazz Witherspoon, who took the fight on just four days’ notice.
Usyk got the win with Witherspoon retiring in the seventh round, but it wasn’t a show-stopping performance. Neither was his display in his first – and only – legitimate heavyweight outing against Derek Chisora, where he boxed well and was deservedly awarded a unanimous points victory but failed again to catch the eye of the masses.
In Joshua, Usyk faces an entirely different prospect altogether. Now trained by the father of Vasyl Lomachenko, the Ukrainian will need to put in a career-best performance if he’s to overcome the younger, taller, stronger man. Simply put, his performances as a heavyweight to date would not suffice – not even close.
He then defeated Derek Chisora on points in what was his first meaningful heavyweight fight
But in the limelight is where Usyk shines. And interestingly, while he has been bulking up in a bid to establish himself as a true heavyweight, Joshua has continued to shed his unnecessary bulk and looks supremely lean.
Usyk’s team believes in doing so, Joshua is only diminishing his physical advantages and leveling the playing field. Of course, that remains to be seen, but the Brit is clearly well aware it could be a long night, having spoken in detail about his opponent’s masterful movement.
Joshua, looking lean and mean, is treating Usyk with the upmost of respect. And if Usyk does get this right, and does hand the 31-year-old the second defeat of his career, the current pound-for-pound contender would surely cement his place in history as an all-time great.