Usyk did have to endure tremendous pressure from an implacable Joshua, who delivered a vastly-improved performance from their first fight in September.
Last year, after just two pro fights in the heavyweight division, Usyk outpointed Joshua in London in an outstanding performance. Formerly an undisputed champion down at cruiserweight, Usyk proved himself one of the best fighters pound-for-pound in the world today.
Joshua triggered an immediate rematch, determined to restore his place as a top-tier heavyweight. To that end he brought in a new trainer, Robert Garcia to join Angel Fernandez in his corner and devoted himself to rectifying the mistakes he made in the first fight.
Joshua had lost before meeting Usyk, but avenged his defeat against Andy Ruiz on his first visit to Saudi Arabia in 2019. He was fighting to become a three-time heavyweight champion and knew his legacy depended on victory tonight.
Both fighters were under acute pressure going into this championship clash. Neither could contemplate defeat.
It made for a tense beginning. Usyk let his southpaw jab flicker out, sometimes feinting, occasionally landing. He let a quick cross fly through and blocked Joshua’s right well. Joshua though got on the front foot, sending his right hook to the body and leaning on when the Ukrainian stepped in close.
He continued those attentions to the body, driving his right into the body when he could and seeing an opening to let it shoot to the head.
But Usyk remained elusive, bobbing his head round further jabs and chipping away at the bigger challenger.
Joshua threw his shots with weight behind him, they were heavy even when Usyk took them on his gloves or the elbows.
Usyk throws his southpaw jab. (Photo: Mark Robinson/Matchroom Boxing.)
He grew in confidence, letting his own punches flow more in the fourth round. He looked for Usyk as he threatened uppercuts. The Ukrainian, though, finished that round with an excellent left cross.
The pace quickened in the fifth round, only for a brief pause when Joshua swung an uppercut in below the belt. Joshua continued that attack to the trunk and hit the body with a hard right. Usyk looked to dissuade him, landing a countering left as Joshua came in.
The challenger now, Joshua continued to press Usyk, much more willing to engage than in their first fight. His right missed but he clipped Usyk with a good left hook. Joshua dug to the body as Usyk had to stay on the back foot.
Usyk had though marked up him round his right eye.
The fight was closely contested through the first six rounds. Usyk’s hand speed told at times, his left a sniping shot that caught Joshua through openings.
Oleksandr Usyk, Anthony Joshua
In the eighth round, Joshua slammed a heartening left hook into the body. Usyk came back at him, probing at Joshua with a combination of punches. As Usyk peppered him to the head, Joshua swatted a right down to club Usyk away.
Joshua started to break through in the ninth round. He finally drove Usyk into the ropes and Joshua kept up the pressure, hammering at the Ukrainian with heavy hooks. He dug in a wicked body shot and smile spread across Joshua’s face. He was about to seize momentum his way.
Yet Usyk changed the fight again. He raised the tempo in astonishing fashion in the next round. He stunned Joshua with an accurate right hook. He unloaded with stern lefts and drove Joshua back step after step. A heavy right barrelled into Usyk’s chin but he took it and pressed on with his assault, whipping shots into Joshua as the 10th round ended.
Usyk was handling the pressure and Joshua knew he need to find something special in the last round. He tried valiantly, hitting hard punches into the head once again. But Usyk kept his feet beneath him and kept on moving, working well even off the ropes. He closed the fight like a champion, not letting up in the 12th round.
It was Usyk who finished strongly, clipping Joshua with heavy counter-punches to close out the final seconds of the bout.
The decision was closer than expected but Usyk was a deserving winner.
Joshua, however, could not contain his emotions after the bout. “If you knew my story you would understand the passion. I ain’t no amateur boxer from five-years-old that was an elite prospect from youth. I was going to jail, I got bail and I started training my arse off, I wanted to be able to fight,” he roared.
It was Usyk’s moment, yet Joshua was alone with the microphone and kept on talking.
“This guy to beat me tonight, maybe I could have done better, but it shows the level of hard work I put in so please give him a round of applause as our heavyweight champion of the world,” Joshua said.
When the defending champion Usyk got his opportunity to speak, he said, “I did this victory for my country, for all people, militaries who are defending the country. Thank you very, very much.
“This is already historic. Many generations are going to watch this fight, especially the round when someone tried to beat me hard, but I withstood it and turned it in a different way.”