There was a mischievous moment this week when Oleksandr Usyk’s entourage found Anthony Joshua’s car and, while laughing, they inscribed in dust the challenger’s name onto the door. An unpleasant surprise for when the champion returned.
It was a reminder that beyond the prestige and mutual admiration of this magnificent world heavyweight championship fight there is also a healthy dose of disrespect.
The most difficult fight of Joshua’s career is against Usyk tonight, from the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in London in front of 70,000 passionate fans, live on Sky Sports Box Office.
Joshua has been in compelling fights before but none quite like this – the Wladimir Klitschko fight may always define him and the Andy Ruiz Jr rematch genuinely divided predictions, but Usyk represents a unique and complex challenge.
Undefeated and undisputed as a cruiserweight, there is a sprinkling of stardust over the enigmatic Usyk. He is a southpaw (Joshua has boxed just one-and-a-half rounds against a left-hander in his pro career) and he is vying to become only the third boxer ever to become world champion at cruiser and heavyweight.
The Ukrainian with the menacing smile arrived with a shaven head and a handlebar moustache – it is a throwback to his warrior ancestry, to the 17th Century Cossack people, who fought with swords on horseback. His change of look is a sign of intent.
He has worn colourful socks with aliens on them, then dressed as Batman’s rival The Joker, but none of Usyk’s idiosyncrasies are a laughing matter for Joshua.
The IBF, WBA and WBO champion has called this a fight “for the brain” but there is clearly an intriguing physical element – after weeks of rumours suggesting Joshua would come in light to match Usyk’s nimbleness, he weighed in as his usual rock-solid self.
His pre-fight work-out routine was a calculated attempt not to allow the juggling and entertaining Usyk to steal the limelight. Previously when he fought Kubrat Pulev, Joshua’s public work-out consisted of merely wrapping his hands before he asked cameras to leave but, this time, he performed too.
This is surely a fight to be settled in the nerve-shredding final few rounds, perhaps even with an excruciating wait for the scorecards after Joshua and Usyk have duked out their best punches.
“I think, at first, it will be chess,” Usyk said.
Joshua must not be lured into Usyk’s realm and has warned: “I can out-box him, of course I can. And I can out-strength him.
“Obviously we have our go-to – our strength. I will use my strengths.”
Usyk’s strengths are his movement and his IQ, factors which mean he has not lost since he was an amateur a decade ago.
He has a stunning habit of upstaging the local favourite – in Russia, Latvia, the US, Poland and the UK he has won at least seven fights in his opponent’s back yard. He will know that the council estate Joshua grew up in is just a few miles away and will relish spoiling the party.
Usyk has long been an elite fighter but he is now at his absolute peak and that is what makes him the toughest rival of Joshua’s career.
But he will meet Joshua 3.0 inside the ring tonight – not the talented and physical up-and-comer, not the fighter who survived a rollercoaster ride, but a reigning champion in his physical and mental pomp.
“I’m not an easy fight for anyone,” Joshua has said and he’s absolutely right.
For while Usyk may be a unique test for Joshua, Joshua is certainly the most perilous examination of Usyk’s skills.
Tonight’s fight represents the conclusion to a 10-year mission for Usyk, who first watched a 21-year-old Joshua lose an amateur fight but still predicted that he would become Olympic champion. A year later they both won gold at London 2012 and Usyk has kept an eye on Joshua ever since.
What secrets Klitschko has whispered are also a mystery – Joshua’s team said he “denounced any involvement” but Usyk said “I keep talking to him”.
The biggest compliment that can be paid to this enthralling fight is that mentions of Tyson Fury have been kept to a bare minimum. The dream undisputed title fight will never become a reality unless Joshua can dispatch Usyk tonight, in the most difficult task of his career.