NOT for the first time during his unique reign as the world heavyweight champion, Oleksandr Usyk is talking not about boxing but the war that continues to tear his homeland apart.
While mainstream news cycles across the world might have moved well beyond the conflict in Ukraine, for the undefeated 36-year-old fighter, it is still all too real.
He could, of course, shelter himself away from it. He has enough money to take himself and his family to the other side of the world to not only protect them but to concentrate on his day job too. But after 170 fights in the ring, running is not in Usyk’s nature.
“After my fights with Anthony Joshua I went to the frontline,” Usyk says rubbing wooden rosary beads between his thumb and forefinger.
“I lived with the soldiers; I was with them. Of course, that gave me motivation. I also got a lot of text messages from my fans and friends on the frontline.
“I sometimes speak to my friends on the phone, and I can hear missiles exploding in their background. I can hear the sounds of bombing. The people I speak to say ‘brother, I will call you back, if I am still alive’”.
“Thankfully, most of the time, they stay alive.”
Usyk had been the unified heavyweight champion for around six months when Russia launched their invasion of Ukraine in the February of 2022. He had to leave that active war zone in order to complete his training camp in Poland for the Joshua rematch the following August. While he was gone, Russian soldiers ransacked his home.
“I pray every day for the lord to give me more understanding of what is going on in Ukraine,” he adds. “I don’t want to be angry at people, I want to love this world as it is.
“For the last 18 months my family has been separated, my kids cannot live in Ukraine, they live somewhere else. But all of this makes me stronger.
“Of course, it has changed my mind and now I understand why God takes something away from us, why he takes us onto a hard road. Before God gives you something big, he is going to take something small away from you. But you cannot give up, you have to fight until the end.
“I have watched and seen people change, people and family I know have changed in a different way, not always the best way. War is a big experimental thing. The strong and honest will survive and the people who can understand it a little bit.”
At times it feels almost inappropriate to mention that Usyk has a boxing match to prepare for when his life has U-turned so dramatically in the 18 months since the war began. Indeed, he has an intensely different perspective of Saturday’s challenge of Daniel Dubois in Wroclaw, Poland given the things he has seen back home.
“Through binoculars, from 900m, I saw my enemies running, exploding tanks and broken houses,” he says. “I saw people with no legs and arms.
“I saw people walking but looking like they were dead. When I was going in the car around the city, I realised it is a dead city. I saw children’s toys and playgrounds, but everything looks dead, there is no energy in the city. I realised that one day that place, on that ground, kids were playing. But now it is dead.
“Some of the guys I was with on the frontline, they did not understand why I was there, they asked ‘why are you here, what are you doing here?’ Some of the generals are not even coming to this place’. I told them ‘I am not a general, just a regular Ukrainian guy’.”
It is for that reason that Usyk and his team selected Wroclaw as the destination for this fight when it might have made more sense to take it to the UK or even America. Wroclaw in the west of Poland is more than 300 miles from the border but has a large Ukrainian population. In fact, it has been estimated that since the start of Russia’s invasion, the city’s population has increased by nearly 30 per cent given the number of refugees from Ukraine.
Usyk has always vehemently refused to use a conflict that has caused so much bloodshed as ‘motivation’ but he knows that choosing to box on while the war rages in the background can provide his compatriots with momentary respite.
“If I can bring them just a little bit of enjoyment, I would fight every day,” he adds.
“Because of where they are, they don’t have anything else to do, or look at, other than fighting for freedom. But we are going to get that freedom.
“I spent a lot of time with these people, and they are not professional soldiers, they are not ready to be in a war, one was a banker, one guy had a bakery business and a third was a businessman.
“There are some real soldiers but most of them on the frontline are not, they are only on the frontline because they are fighting for freedom.
“Wroclaw has a large Ukrainian community, and it has a boxing history. Vitali Klitschko boxed Tomasz Adamek there and there are a lot of boxing fans there. There are also a lot of MMA fighters from there.”
Conversation eventually turns to Tyson Fury, who he nearly agreed to fight at Wembley Stadium earlier this year, only for a disagreement on the purse split for the contracted rematch to bring an abrupt halt to discussions. And, while Usyk will face Dubois on Saturday, Fury has decided to take on MMA fighter Francis Ngannou in Saudi Arabia later this year.
But despite the sour end to conversations regarding a clash between Usyk, holder of three alphabet belts, and Fury, who has the other one, the Ukrainian is still hopeful of resurrecting a deal for a fight in 2024.
“Fury is beautiful and funny,” he says flashing a grin. “I really don’t think about him at all, I just need to meet him in the ring.
“I need him, the WBC belt is just additional motivation but me and him just need to fight. Fans and people will talk about our fight for 20, 30, 40 years. We need to fight.”
Before that, he must take care of Dubois, the 25-year-old mandatory challenger for his WBA title. The Londonder is a huge outsider with bookmakers who give him little chance of causing an upset in Poland.
But, when he is asked to compare Dubois and his fellow countryman Joshua, who he has already beaten soundly twice, Usyk grins again.
“I don’t want to think like that,” he says.
“Dubois is a good, young fighter, respectful. Joshua was Olympic and two-time world champion; I don’t think about comparing him and Dubois.
“I don’t want to think about who is an easier fight, who is stronger, or anything like that. I am preparing for a fight. I have to be ready.
“So don’t put me in warm water.”
Usyk, of course, has grown accustomed to the heat.