JEDDAH: Oleksandr Usyk was in an emotional mood after retaining his WBA, WBO, IBF, and IBO world heavyweight boxing belts on a night that saw him beat Britain’s Anthony Joshua in a split decision in Jeddah.
Almost 10,000 people went to “Rage on the Red Sea” held at the King Abdullah Sports City Arena, with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud also in attendance.
Sports Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al-Faisal congratulated the Ukrainian champion and praised his British opponent on his performance.
The prince also thanked both fighters for putting on an unforgettable bout for the Jeddah crowd and the millions around the world watching.
Usyk showcased why he is widely considered the pound-for-pound best fighter in the world, delivering yet another boxing masterclass by utilizing his speed, skill, movement, and punch precision – leading to an eventual win.
While one ringside judge surprisingly scored the bout 115-113 in favor of Joshua, the two others sided with Usyk 115-113 and 116-112, extending the defending champion’s undefeated record to 20-0, with 13 knockouts.
Usyk said this fight was different from the first clash with Joshua as he felt he was fighting for the “whole of Ukraine.”
“The victory was extremely important for me, my teams, and my country,” he said at the press conference. “It was definitely a different fight in spite of my ability to control my emotions. I was worrying a bit since, in round eight, I believe I saw in Joshua’s eyes that he was feeling victorious and in round nine he surprised me. I just kept telling myself, ‘You cannot stop, you cannot stop.’ Some big things were at stake tonight and, in the end, the belts are coming back to Ukraine.”
Commenting on Joshua’s expletive-laden speech inside the ring, Usyk said: “He just showed his frustrations which is a common human emotion. I feel nothing but respect for him, and I expect myself to stay humble no matter what circumstances I am in.”
Alex Krassyuk of K2 Promotions told Arab News: “This was Usyk’s biggest and toughest fight. He will need some time for his emotions to set back and realize that he defended his title so well. He’s now aiming to fight Tyson Fury, if he has not retired yet, and claim that one (remaining) heavyweight title – the WBC.”
Joshua delivered a much-improved performance from his first fight with Usyk, making a bright start and enjoying particular success in round nine, where he piled on the pressure with heavy hooks that caused the champion problems. However, he could not maintain that energy and was unable to claim the heavyweight title for a third time.
At the press conference, Joshua expressed his frustration at losing but acknowledged that Usyk deserved every credit for the victory.
“It takes a lot to step up in weight, challenge yourself in a new division, and become champion. I adapted tonight to give him a more competitive fight and made changes. Both nights we’ve met in the ring, he has done well, so congratulations to him. He’s a great fighter,” said the Briton.
When asked about his post-fight speech, he replied: “I just spoke from my heart. It has been so tough, I knew I was mad but it takes real strength and tonight there’s a little crack in the armor.”
Eddie Hearn, Joshua’s promoter, said: “This time, he fought incredibly well and he is definitely a good performer. What everyone saw after the fight was just the reaction from a man who wanted to win so badly, with so much pressure on his shoulders. I think he just exploded because he lost and he was devastated.
“However, he will remain in the top five in the world heavyweight championship, and such fights will just improve his experience. The plans for the future have already been formulated and he wants to fight in December. He is more hungry than ever to bounce back and be a part of a huge fight yet again.”
Elsewhere, the undercard also provided plenty of action throughout the night.
Earlier, Somali-born Briton Ramla Ali knocked out the Dominican Republic’s Crystal Garcia Nova in round one of the first women’s professional boxing match to be held in Saudi Arabia.
“I feel really good to have won in this manner, to show that women are entertaining as boxers and deserve to be on these big stages,” Ali said. “It feels great to make history. Coming to this fight, I didn’t know what response I was going to receive, whether I will be welcome or not. But to get that sort of reception just shows that we belong here and that the country welcomes us with a whole big heart.”
Sharing a message with her female fans in the Kingdom and globally, she said: “If you have a dream don’t let anyone stop you from achieving it. Be fearless in achieving it.”
More history was made when Saudi-Egyptian fighter Ziyad “Zizo” Al-Maayouf matched Ali’s first-round knockout in his professional debut against Hector Alatorre of Mexico.
“I am in a dream that I haven’t woken up from yet,” the local fighter told Arab News. “The support from the people, my fans, and Saudi Arabia has been great. I want to keep powering up that (Vision) 2030 passion and make the royal family as well as the minister of sports happy.
“I have been working for months and months in that training camp. But on fight night, you leave everything to God, whether it’s winning the fight or losing. I respect my opponent for a good fight. In the future, I will keep fighting and making my country proud. I want to fight all over the world but I want to build slowly. This was my pro debut and I don’t want to let the hype get to me, which might one day make me fight when I am not ready yet.”
Al-Maayouf is now looking to fight sometime in December.
Other fights saw Badou Jack beating Richard Rivera in a split-decision thriller, while Callum Smith provided one of the most impressive performances of the night with a fourth-round knockout against Mathieu Bauderlique.
The bout between Filip Hrgovic and Zhilei Zhang provided the ideal 12-round warm-up to the world championship thriller, with the Croatian claiming a unanimous decision win over the Chinese boxer in an epic IBF heavyweight eliminator.