The Clinch: Usyk vs. Joshua 2, Jedda, 2022, “The Rage on the Red Sea” (My first live fight.)

I was greeted by mischievous giggles at the door. It was a hot day, even just for the walk from the subway, and Ivan’s three and a half year old, V., ran away almost immediately and hid from me, but looked out curiously from under the dining room table at my sweating hairy bulk. It was the first time I had met her. Ivan and I have hung out sparsely in the last three years. He attended my wedding, but stag, as his wife, Erica, stayed home with the newly born V. I had meant to drop in and get to know the kid, but then there were all my trips to Mexico, and all Ivan and Erica’s to Italy. That’s okay. Things tend to pick up where we left them between Ivan and me. When I’d seen him a year earlier, he’d finally managed to convince me to get into Boxing. Now I had shown up at his apartment to watch my first live fight.

I come to Boxing with almost no experience as a sports fan. As a young child, I would watch my father watching football or baseball, and I’d ask him, “What color are the uniforms of the team we’re rooting for?” That question persisted embarrassingly long after other boys had not only identified whose uniforms were whose, but what team they supported and followed, what players they admired, who they longed to be. I never identified with athletes. Their physical experience of the world always seemed not just alien to me, but dull. Kick, swing, throw, run. Run, kick, throw, swing. Run. Run. So much running. Can’t we slow down? I can’t figure out which little man on the tv is which. I’m still hazy on the rules in most sports. What’s an offsides? What’s a down? What’s a foul line?

Boxing has rules, but they’re blessedly simple, as simple as a punch to the face. They are aphorisms. Above the belt. Good clean fight. Knock out wins. Perhaps more significantly, there are no multitudes of little men that I have to keep my weary eyes on. Just the two, weaving in and out of each other’s reach. Just the two, snapping punches back and forth. Just the two men, holding each other, in the clinch.

When I agreed to watch the fight with him, Ivan sent me the card and recommended I do some research not just on the two heavyweight fighters in the ring, but the shadow over them both: Tyson Fury, the thirty four year old Irish traveler fighter launching his comeback who will surely need to fight the winner of the fight in Jeddah. Fury is a rabelaisian figure I suspect I’ll get to write more about some other time. But for the moment, I’ll stick with my thoughts on Oleksandr “The Cat” Usyk and Anthony “AJ” Joshua. (Disappointingly, though Usyk’s nickname is transparently cooler and weirder, it seems like “AJ” is used far more frequently for Joshua than “The Cat” is for Usyk.)

I’ve never trained to box, and I’ve never been in the ring. I approach this as pure spectator, part of a roaring crowd out for the smell of blood on the canvas. More than I want blood, I want narrative. In that sense, this was a bad fight to start with. Meager bones. The Nigerian-British Anthony Joshua spins a slightly tired and repetitive “rags to riches” story of boxing saving him from his wild and criminal youth. But he also cites an aristocratic background in his Yoruban ancestry, and Ivan’s assessment was that like a prince, Joshua gives off an air of having picked up Boxing the way aristocracy does, alongside horse riding and etiquette. I agreed, and wikipedia’s citation of Joshua’s “goal” to be a multimillionaire off endorsements, his inheritance of the title “Most Marketable Athlete,” sealed the deal for me: I went into the fight ready to dismiss Anthony Joshua as a pretty boy who, if he was in any other sport, would fiercely protect his million dollar face.

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s Oleksandr Usyk had the humble media presence of the citizen of a country where it’s always a risk to make it into the papers. Here are the two things you can learn about Oleksandr Usyk outside of the ring: He’s Ukrainian from Crimea, part of the Russian-speaking majority, fiercely proud of his country and disdainful of Russia’s annexation and invasion of his home. And he’s a devote Orthodox Christian. He’ll use Christianity to avoid talking about politics, having declared frequently, that, “Crimea belongs to God.” He’s gotten more patriotic of late, joining the Ukrainian defense against the invasion, and the fight was in Jeddah because the Saudis agreed to broadcast it free in Ukraine. But keep an eye on the cross, it became relevant at the end of the fight.

Ivan and I watched Joshua go the distance with Usyk, 12 complete rounds, and ate dinner, and paused the live broadcast to play Rapunzel with V., and put her to bed, and posed questions to each other. “How much do you think one solid heavy weight punch from Anthony Joshua counts for against the flurries of the smaller Usyk?” “Was that a jab or a hook?” “How much is Joshua working his kidneys like that gonna slow Usyk down?” 12 rounds, 12 close rounds. In the end, it was a split decision, with the American judge giving it to Joshua, but the UK and Ukrainian judges agreed with Ivan and me. Usyk outboxed Joshua, a nearly constant display of athleticism and ownership of the ring.

After Joshua’s bizarre speech, which one commentator described as him cutting a promo, pro-wrestling style, Usyk was interviewed while Ivan pointed out the back half of the fight had all the interesting rounds and made to close the computer. But I wanted to watch Usyk’s breakdown of what he had just done, and I wasn’t disappointed. When asked about the fight, Usyk said something along the lines of, “The fight is now history. When people study it, they will study it for the moment I almost lost. That is the moment my God, Jesus Christ, came in and saved me.”

Had we truly just seen a miracle? Usyk thought so. Ivan and I talked about what a higher power can mean to a champion. Then we cleaned up dinner, caught up on each other’s lives, and I headed back out into the night.

I’m going to be writing about boxing more here. I know I’ve been away for a while, and I know this is a strange way to come back. There have been other developments. If you like my writing, but haven’t seen my publications, please go to the link “Published Work” above. But in the meantime, I’ll see you ringside, yeah? Yeah.

Published by Mordecai Martin

A luftmensch, a Jew, a way with words, all in one.

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