Friday, June 14, 2024

Usyk and the crucial moment that sparked comeback to beat Fury and seal destiny

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For the boxing monarchists craving one clear ruler in the sport’s glamour division, the last 24 years crept by with a languid cruelty. And a long quarter-century, an epoch of waiting, led to a long night in Riyadh – a city in the sand, on a small stretch of society in the desert. At least this night brought catharsis. At least, and at last, it brought boxing a new undisputed heavyweight champion.

Twenty-five years after Lennox Lewis earned a permanent place in history – on another strip of desert, no less – Oleksandr Usyk was crowned king.

He stood beside Tyson Fury, his opponent and now perennial partner, both held up by breathless anticipation, their sweat unsure whether to cling to torn faces or slip down dented bodies. Yet the decision that really mattered had already been made by the judges, and it had gone in Usyk’s favour – barely, but correctly: 115-112, 113-114, 114-113.

The Ukrainian had won, as he has every time he has entered the ring as a professional. Fury had been beaten for the first time in his career, and had lost across 12 rounds – 36 minutes – in this hollow hall, as history scribbled his name in the column he would have been so desperate to avoid.

After a clear first round for Usyk, who held the centre of the ring and effectively targeted Fury’s body with jabs and southpaw crosses, Fury went on a prolonged run. The Briton, 35, was investing in the body himself, with brutal right hooks and uppercuts that eventually opened the opportunity to land the same shot to Usyk’s head. Fury was comfortable, taunting the southpaw repeatedly.

Meanwhile, Usyk was struggling to get past the jab of the longer fighter, with Fury occasionally switching stances to make matters harder. At the start of round five, the Olympic champion whispered a prayer while walking out of his corner, but it would not reach his deity – not yet.

In fact, round six looked like the beginning of the end for Usyk, who was wincing after everybody shot from Fury, who then made those clever switches to attack the head with the right uppercut.

At one point, Usyk was staggering perhaps as badly as he ever has. But then the 37-year-old, as he tends to, began to motor as the bout entered its second half, building momentum and narrowing the deficit.

And then came the fateful moment. In the ninth frame, Usyk – backing Fury up to the ropes and squaring his feet to open up the southpaw left hook – pummelled the Briton. The towering Fury was now teetering, stumbling and swaying across the ring, devoid of his senses. He was arguably saved by a strange standing count from the referee, before the bell sounded. It was a stunning visual and a moment that could have proven controversial.

But Usyk did what was crucial: He kept pressuring Fury, forcing the Briton to focus on defence. With that, Usyk arguably took the final few rounds to complete a remarkable comeback.

The scorecards threatened to deny him his destiny, as so many numbers have done to so many deserving boxers over the decades. But mercifully the judges, between them, got the decision right – just.

Oleksandr Usyk in action against Tyson Fury (Action Images via Reuters)

And so Usyk joins a tiny group of two-weight undisputed champions, following his historic triumph at cruiserweight. Meanwhile, Fury, the “Gypsy King”, will not leave Riyadh as the undisputed king.

Later this year, the two rivals will surely go again. The result might just be different next time. But on this night, all that mattered was that the result was right – and it was.

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