Sometimes you can believe the hype. Especially if there isn’t one.
Anthony Joshua and Oleksandr Usyk glowed under a large screen promoting The Rage on the Red Sea, which took place on Saturday. It’s not really a slogan, not a Rumble in the Jungle or Thrilla in Manila, but the marketing department works with the instructions it is given.
Given the location, what should a copywriter do? The nerve shredder in Jeddah? The wrecker not far from Mecca?
Anthony Joshua’s rematch with Oleksandr Usyk on Saturday requires no nonsense
Either way, this is a fight that defies empty bombast. Why? Because it’s a fight. It’s a good fight that the public wants to see, and a match that needs to be made. It’s not an empty match, it’s not part of a trilogy, as the champion sidesteps a better or more worthy opponent, it’s certainly not easy to call it either.
So, for once, no one needed to hear trash talk or see a fake confrontation after some heavy eyeballs to be interesting. There was no empty cry of fatality, no profanity or made-up hatred. The protagonists could have been knitting at the top table. Indeed, Usyk wore a traditional Cossack costume which suggested he might have.
If this were at Wembley, tickets would be like gold dust, even with room for 90,000. It only takes place in an 8,000-strong venue — with about 5,000 paying customers — because the biggest money for boxing promotions these days comes from the East.
Yet the struggle does not require false inflation. What rides on it for both men is immense. Eddie Hearn, reduced to acting as master of ceremonies as the bulk of the promotional investment is entirely Saudi Arabian, asked Usyk about the biggest fight of his career, but that’s certainly a question better addressed to Joshua.
Joshua focused on getting revenge after losing the first fight against Usyk last September
He’s the one who clings to the hope of an inheritance, he’s the one who might consider retiring if this ends in a second defeat.
Usyk’s motivation is the same, but very different. According to his promoter Alexander Krassyuk, he wants to inspire a besieged country to ensure that the Ukrainian national anthem is heard around the world.
Each of these incentives would be a sale, a marketable backstory in a world obsessed with them. But the fact that the fighters are evenly matched, the fact that this promises to be a technical and tactical battle, as well as an old-fashioned schism, adds to its appeal.
So often we believe we know what will happen in the ring; so often we don’t get the dish we want. This is different. So when the fighters came face to face yesterday, neither of them had been primed with slander or insults, no one was pressured to act as a salesman. They spoke respectfully of their intentions in the ring and then, called to confront, continued to stare until it grew dull.
Joshua looked like an athlete from the west, sleek and well-built under his tailored blue shirt. Usyk looked like a character from a Disney movie, and not necessarily the right guy either. It’s an intimidating scum, the Cossack uniform, unmistakably from the east, the shaved head with the single long lock of hair coming out of the center, the hanging mustache. He is from Crimea, the part of Ukraine that Russia has annexed, and his clothes seemed to channel the Zaporozhian Cossacks from the east of the Dnieper River.
Usyk looked terrifying in his Cossack uniform at Wednesday’s pre-fight press conference
They were a fearsome breed, famous for raids on Russia and the Ottoman Empire. Usyk’s obvious intent was an echo of that lineage. With a modern twist of course. Usyk can no longer ride a Tartar’s head on a pike, as depicted in a famous 18th-century painting by Tymofiy Kalynskyi, but there are other feats of bravery and strength better suited to 21st-century combat for entertainment.
“I’ve never seen anyone cycle 100km in 45-degree heat,” says Egis Klimas, Usyk’s manager. “I’ve never seen anyone swim for five hours. I’ve never seen anyone hold their breath underwater for four minutes and 40 seconds, nearly dying and then shaking themselves. I hope this all helps on Saturday.’
Joshua could have gotten lippy. Not unless we’re fighting in a pool, mate. But he didn’t. This is too serious to crack wise. Instead, as the men stared at each other, it was his entourage barking encouragement, as periphery figures often do around boxing.
Krassyuk had a small chip back, but the fighters remained unmoved. When Joshua broke free, Usyk broke a wide grin and began leading his home contingent in a rendition of the Ukrainian national song.
Usyk’s promoter, Alexander Krassyuk (L), tried his best at the press conference, but Usyk failed to respond to any arousal tactics from Joshua’s entourage
Oi u luzi chervona kalyna translates as Oh, the Red Viburnum in the Meadow. It was written in 1875 when the country was striving for independence, but has understandably found new life in recent months. The words were unintelligible to most ears—though not the guys with the colors of the Ukrainian flag made into a shirt, with COLORS OF FREEDOM written on the chest—but the meaning wasn’t.
Usyk the Cossack smiled from ear to ear and clapped along as Joshua’s cheerleaders headed for the exits. Tyson Fury sings Sweet Caroline or American Pie because he’s a showman, but there was something deeper going on here. This was not patriotism as the villain’s last resort. This was a country and a people fighting for the right to exist; albeit many miles from the real battlefield. As Madonna said about Rita Hayworth, Usyk also gives a good face.
Yet we are here, in Saudi Arabia, because they have a lot of money. Aside from Usyk’s acapella, the hosts’ national anthem was played twice. Once before the undercard introduction, then again after Joshua and Usyk took the stage.
Eddie Hearn was in charge of the press conference, while Joshua and Usyk remained respectful
Everyone was expected to stand and he dutifully did before Hearn started a story about the boxing revolution now happening across the country. Juniors starting the game, women on the undercard, everyone who spoke thanked their most gracious hosts. It was the only part of the event that was troweled to the ground.
Saudi Arabia’s love for and contribution to the sweet science must be sold, because then it distracts from other, considerably more difficult questions about what the struggle is doing here and the motivations of all parties.
However, when the bell rings, it is forgotten, because what is expected is an all-time battle. The rage on the Red Sea. While it’s the complete absence of noise and anger telling you, this time it’s real.