KING ABDULLAH SPORTS CITY, Saudi Arabia (AP) — Oleksandr Usyk kissed the blue-and-yellow flag of Ukraine and looked to the Saudi Arabian sky as he waited to discover if he had honored his war-torn country by retaining his world heavyweight titles.
When he heard the winning words “and still,” an emotional Usyk raised his left arm and pulled the flag over his face.
Six months ago, he was patrolling the streets of Kyiv with an automatic rifle and defending Ukraine from the invading Russians.
Here, inside the ring at King Abdullah Sport City arena, the still-undefeated Usyk had lived up to his billing as the sporting pride of Ukraine by beating Anthony Joshua in a closely fought rematch on Saturday to keep his WBA, WBO and IBF belts.
“I devote this victory to my country, to my family, to my team, to all the military defending this country,” the 35-year-old Usyk said through a translator. “Thank you very, very much.”
After a grueling five-month training camp, Usyk entered the arena in a blue-and-yellow top carrying the words “Colors of Freedom” and supported by words of encouragement from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in his nightly video address to the nation.
“We stick together,” the president said. “We help each other. We restore what was destroyed. We fight for all our people. And we cheer for those who represent Ukraine, today — definitely for Usyk, our guy!”
And Usyk started as the favorite after outclassing Joshua in the first fight in London in September last year.
However, the British challenger, a former two-time champion, came into the rematch with a new game plan from his new trainer Robert Garcia: Attack Usyk’s body and keep the pressure on.
And it nearly worked, with Usyk taken to the limit in the ninth round as he was chased around the ring by Joshua, who landed combinations and targeted Usyk’s ribs.
Usyk took a deep breath at the bell, then came out hard in the 10th round, hurting Joshua with an early right hook and forcing him onto the ropes for the first time in the fight.
The battering of Joshua was sustained in the 11th while the 12th was evenly fought, the fight ending with both fighters — clearly exhausted — falling to their knees in front of each other on the canvas.
They embraced and Joshua appeared to offer his help to the plight of Ukraine.
Then, in an expletive-laden speech inside the ring after grabbing the microphone, Joshua — who moments earlier was seen picking up two of Usyk’s belts and throwing them to the canvas — hit back at his critics before praising Usyk for fighting so well in the circumstances.
“I was studying Ukraine and all the champions from your amazing country,” Joshua said. “I’ve never been there. What’s happening there, I don’t know but it’s not nice. For Usyk to be champion, under those circumstances, please raise your hands.”
Usyk was complimentary about Joshua, too.
“This is already history,” he said. “Many generations are going to watch this fight, especially the round when someone tried to beat me hard. But I stood up to it and turned it in a different way.”
Usyk also claimed the Ring Magazine belt with the win. There’s only one heavyweight title that Usyk doesn’t own — the WBC one that is about to be vacated by Tyson Fury, who says he is retired.
When asked about Fury, Usyk said: “I am sure Tyson Fury is not retired yet. I am sure Tyson Fury wants to fight me. If I’m not fighting Tyson Fury, I’m not fighting at all.”
Two judges gave it to Usyk, one 115-113 and the other 116-112. The other gave the fight to Joshua, 115-113.
Joshua, a two-time heavyweight champion, fell to his third loss in 27 fights and his career is at a crossroads.
Where Usyk goes from now appears to depend on Fury.
Saudi state television published photographs showing Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attending the fight. The 36-year-old son of King Salman, the crown prince has pushed for sporting events to come to the kingdom even as U.S. intelligence agencies believe he ordered the beheading and dismemberment of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.