Something more than a sport
In Poland, if you ask someone about Ukrainian boxing, you will probably hear three words: the Klitschko brothers. Vitali Klitschko is no longer fighting, he has entered the politics, and he has been the Mayor of Kiev for several years. The younger Vladimir called it a day in 2017 and also stopped boxing. Nowadays Ukraine has got another boxing hero. His name is Oleksandr Usyk. Moreover, he is a number one not only there. On July 21 he became the first Ukrainian undisputed cruiserweight champion and the first boxer in history to hold all four major world championships at cruiserweight. However, his last fight in Ukraine triggered numerous reactions, which were not connected to a sport as such.
The fight for the title of the undisputed cruiserweight champion of the world took place in Moscow. Usyk’s opponent was Russian boxer from Ossetia Murat Gassiev.
Oleksandr Usyk went out to the ring accompanied by the sounds of the song titled “Brothers”, which was specially written for him. This is the last fights’ tradition. The lyrics became even more symbolic and important this time, in Olympic Stadium in Moscow: “We are brothers, like falcons, we have grown up in the free country, we won’t give up our country to anyone, we will die better while fighting, but it is too early for us to die, we have so much to do…”
Regardless of the fact that the audience supported Gassiev in majority, Usyk showed his advantage from the beginning of the fight. The result was never in question as Usyk was declared winner by a unanimous decision. The 31-year-old boxer holds four championship belts in the cruiserweight category (up to 90.07 kg): WBC, IBF, WBA and WBO. He was also given the Muhammad Ali award and a check for 10 million dollars.
Between the winning and the betrayal
Usyk brought a victory to Kiev from Moscow. Commentators in the West claimed a great win for the Ukrainian. However, it was bit more ambiguous in Ukraine.
On the one hand, the Prime Minister of Ukraine Volodymyr Groysman declared that he was going to ask the President Petro Poroshenko to give the boxer the title of the Hero of Ukraine. On the other, there were many comments blaming Usyk for going to the capital of Russia – a country that annexed Crimea and supports fighters in the war in the east of Ukraine.
Usyk was trapped between a rock and a hard place. Originally, the fight was to take place on 11 May in Jeddah in Saudi Arabia, but the Russians bought the rights to organize the fight. Initially, Usyk, who suffered an injury during training, said he would not have gone to Moscow, but he eventually changed his mind. From the point of view of an athlete and a professional, he did not have much choice – the consequence of quitting the fight would mean not only the loss of the chance to collect all the titles in his category, but also some punitive sanctions. Nevertheless, in the opinion of local patriots Usyk almost committed a treason.
Nothing really helped, even his words after the victory: “Ukraine, the most loved, my homeland, thank you for your support! I’m going home” and the Ukrainian anthem, which was played in Moscow thanks to Usyk’s victory.
“Ukraine is playing a game ruled by others: it is Russian hybrid aggression, when the most important aim is not only to get something or buy someone, but also to legitimate public space”, wrote Aider Muzdabajev, a journalist and a deputy director of the Crimean Tatar TV channel ATR. And no matter how peculiar it sounds, his comment was about the Usyk’s fight in Moscow. According to the journalist, Ukrainians should not go to Russia to take part in sporting events, because it proves that everything is fine between Russia and Ukraine and the “Ukrainians are welcomed like brothers” in Russia. That is how the Kremlin uses the propaganda and convinces the West that the Russian Federation is a normal country where an Ukrainian can fight a Russian under the Ukrainian flag.
Some of the comments were even harsher. “Usyk is a coward. One thing is to be able to professionally use your fists, and the second is to say in the capital of your enemy: “Glory to Ukraine! Freedom to Ukrainians – the prisoners of the Kremlin!” Could Usyk say that loud enough to make the whole world hear it? Yes, he could. Did he do it? No, he didn’t. Why? Because he is a coward, he is too weak. Only a strong man could say that. A true Ukrainian. Usyk is neither one nor the other”- said the writer Larisa Nicoj on Obrozovatel television after Usyk;s victory.
One could found similar opinions in social networks. However, there were also voices calling for caution in assessment. “I do not consider legitimate the criticism of Usyk, that he did not go out with the portraits or pictures of political prisoners and he did not shout: “Glory to Ukraine!” The idea of fighting in Moscow raises doubts, that’s true, but who knows if Usyk had a choice?” – wrote on Facebook former diplomat and the Head of the Maidan of Foreign Affairs Board Bohdan Jaremenko .
The Mayor of Kiev and a former boxer Vitali Klitschko also backed Usyk. “He went to Moscow, he won, he sung a Ukrainian anthem in the city center and raised the flag of Ukraine. Nothing but facts, the rest is speculation …” – said Klitschko on Radio NW.
Usyk was born and lived in Crimea, which is not helpful either. Many people wanted him to become a symbol of opposition to the Russian annexation of the peninsula. They really liked when Usyk went out to the ring with a chupryna on his head (referring to the tradition Cossacks) and with the Ukrainian flag. In 2014, at a conference in Kiev, he said that Crimea is Ukrainian, and he has no intention of leaving Simferopol or accepting Russian citizenship. However, later he avoided answering the question about Crimea or whether he claimed that the Russians and the Ukrainians are one Slavic nation. And that was not so warmly welcomed by many Ukrainians.
Meanwhile, Usyk wants to do what he does best – some boxing. In the opinion of many foreign sports commentators, he is really good at it. His next step would be to move to the heavyweight. An introduction to the future career has just been announced. It will be the fight against a British boxer Tony Bellew.
Photo: The fight between Oleksandr Usyk and Murat Gassiev by Olga Ivashchenko.