Inside Oleksandr Usyk’s life in Russian-occupied Crimea as he infuriated Putin by declaring loyalty to Ukraine
THIS year, Oleksandr Usyk prepared for the biggest fight of his life… but it wasn’t in the ring.
Despite a scheduled money-spinning Anthony Joshua rematch, which finally takes place on August 20 in Saudi Arabia, the Ukrainian put his career on hold for a battle closer to home.
The fighter was born in in the Crimean city of Simferopol but is now based in Kyiv with his family.
And Usyk put on his army fatigues and joined the Ukrainian Territorial Defence Forces in Kyiv back in February.
In doing so, he was defending his country and seeking revenge for the Russians annexing his hometown of Simferopol in 2014.
He wears the Ukrainian flags’ colours with pride in the ring.
Wearing his heart on his gloves
When Usyk outclassed Joshua at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium last year, written on his gloves ‘Simferopol’ and ‘Ukraine’.
As he celebrated a famous victory on points, he gleefully wore the yellow and blue flag on his shoulders.
“The belts are going home,” Usyk said in an Instagram video shortly after the fight.
While Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky took to Facebook to write: “Ukraine has reclaimed what belongs to it!”
Usyk returned to Kyiv a hero, and declared his intentions to bring the belts home to Crimea to show them off to his coach.
But this drew some criticism – with some Ukrainians questioning a belief he has shared that Russians and Ukrainians are “one people”.
He also travelled to the front lines in eastern Ukraine to teach Ukrainian army soldiers how to box.
It was, perhaps, a mystery where his loyalties lay – until just a few months ago.
Ready for battle
Clutching a machine gun, Usyk posed alongside his comrades, including Andrii Nebytov, the head of the Kyiv Police and revealed he had joined the army.
The married father-of-three then took to social media to stand up to Putin.
“Good morning to everybody. My name is Oleksandr Usyk. I’d like to speak to the people of Russia.
“If we consider ourselves as brothers, Orthodox ones, do not send your children to our country, do not fight with us.
“Also I’m addressing this to the President, Vladimir Putin. You can stop this war.
“Please just sit down and negotiate it with us without claims.
“Our kids, wives, grannies are hiding in the basements. We are here in our own country, we cannot do it any other way.
“We are defending. Stop this war, stop it. No War.”
He was joined by boxing heroes the Klitschko brothers and Vasiliy Lomachenko in the battle.
Reportedly, an infuriated Putin put a bounty on their heads.
That meant the planned rematch with Joshua was delayed. But AJ supported Usyk’s decision, and championed the boxers sticking up for their country.
“I have learned that sport and politics go hand-in-hand,” Joshua said.
“They have powerful voices and it is good that they are speaking up.
“They are not pushing for war, they are calling for peace. Good luck to them.”
But that didn’t sit well with Chairman of the Crimean Parliament Vladimir Konstantinov, who stripped him of his honours with Crimea.
As reported by RIA, he said: “These are [people] who arranged and welcomed the water and energy blockade of Crimea, who question the fairness and legitimacy of our return to Russia, who stained themselves with Russophobia.
“Such people are not worthy of a good memory.”
Not only did returning home come at a price with his Crimea roots – it also affected his appearance.
Usyk’s wife Yekaterina shared: “Oleksandr lost 10 kilograms in a week of the war. He was so horrified, in such shock, he was so torn apart…
“He saw what I was doing. I said, ‘Sasha, please, people are asking, we must speak, somehow support.’
“But it’s very difficult for him. But he still goes on the air, he says something. His position is clear. He has always been for Ukraine, he has always glorified it and will glorify it, as long as his health and strength last.”
Back to training
In March, Usyk was given permission to leave Kyiv and start training again for his rematch with Joshua.
The pair will go head-to-head in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia with the WBA, WBO and IBF championship belts on the line.
But, despite everything he’s seen and knows, he won’t use the war in Ukraine as motivation for the blockbuster bout.
“My friends and people close to me, they have died in the war. When so many people are suffering I don’t have any idea how it can influence anything positively,” Usyk said in a press conference last month.
“I was there for one month and I saw with my own eyes what happened there… the rockets flying and fighter jets flying. It’s horrible.”
He also chillingly spoke about death.
“Every day I was there, I was praying and asking: ‘Please, God, don’t let anybody try to kill me.
“Please don’t let anybody shoot me. And please don’t make me shoot any other person.”
As he’s been away, Russian soldiers have ransacked his Vorzel home after using it as their living quarters.
Whatever happens in the ring in the Middle East, nothing will compare to the atrocities of the war.
And you can bet when that match is over, he will return to his homeland ready for a whole new battle. Defending his country.
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