In just a short time in Wroclaw it’s been possible to tell how special and important occasion this weekend’s fight, between Oleksandr Usyk and Daniel Dubois, is to the people of Ukraine.
On Thursday Sergey Lapin wished everyone a happy Independence Day, and I could see how touched Oleksandr was by the heartfelt round of applause that was greeted by him doing so. This weekend is as close to a homecoming fight as he’s realistically going to get.
Oleksandr’s emotional about the war, his country, and his heritage – and this fight is giving his people, who have been through so much since even before Russia launched their invasion, something to finally cheer and feel good about. There’s nothing casual about their patriotism – these people have been fighting for their history and their lives.
Most Saturday nights during his training camp we’d hang out and talk, and I could see that emotion. He’d speak about his experiences and what he’d seen on the frontline; about his conversations with the soldiers there. It’s made the build-up to Saturday’s fight rather special.
Earlier this week I got to see for myself, in a different context, what Oleksandr means to his fellow Ukrainians. I was by myself when I ordered food at a restaurant, and after I did so the waiter returned holding the phone of someone else who was there. “Is this you?” It was a picture on her phone of me with Oleksandr after the fight with Tony Bellew. When I asked how she had it she stood up and said, “I’m Ukrainian”; her pride sent a chill down my spine.
It also made me think of the aftermath of the fight with Marco Huck in Germany in 2017. Me and Oleksandr went to a kebab shop a few hundred metres away from our hotel, bought food, returned to the hotel lobby, and ate it there without him once being recognised. That wouldn’t happen today.
I’d go as far as to suggest he’s transcended his sport in the effect he has on people, which goes beyond being the IBF, WBA and WBO heavyweight champion. He has an aura that makes him larger than life and that makes people flock to him – and which also means that he, in turn, connects with them. Muhammad Ali had something similarly special – if you didn’t meet him you’d struggle to explain it, but anyone who did will tell you that that was exactly what they felt.
I’ve been asked this week about James Ali Bashir’s presence with Dubois but I don’t believe it is bothering Oleksandr one bit. If it did, it might in a personal context, but it certainly wouldn’t in a professional one. They stopped working together seven years ago so I don’t believe he considers their time together to be particularly relevant in 2023 and the great fighter he has since become.
It was 44 years ago that I started working in boxing, so by the time I became involved with Oleksandr and Vasily Lomachenko I thought I’d pretty much seen it all.But their preparation – their warm-ups are on a par with most fighters’ main workouts – physically, and mentally, and the extent to which they test themselves mentally, surpassed anything I’d ever seen.
Ultimately, I believe that great fighters who don’t have great trainers will perform and succeed regardless. The very best are destined for greatness; they train hard and prepare properly, and they succeed. For me, it’s not what a trainer does with a great fighter that counts, it’s what they do with an average one. If there are two equally great fighters involved in a fight, a good trainer might make the five per cent difference that sways the fight to become 115-113 one way instead of the other. The mark of a great trainer might also be taking a fighter the whole way from day one as an amateur or professional, or taking a mediocre professional who has been discarded and reviving his career.
I’ve also been asked about the fact that Saturday’s fight is the first together for Don Charles and Dubois – who, by the way, is a bonafide and dangerous heavyweight contender who poses a real threat. On the surface, Charles shouldn’t have been able to have that much of an influence on Dubois in so short a period, but without knowing whether they already had a relationship before working together – and therefore whether they trust each other and potentially have something special between them – their alliance is difficult for me to try to judge.
What I’m far more certain about is that the relationship and trust between a fighter and trainer is the most important thing. The years I’ve spent around Liam “Beefy” Smith mean that me and him only need to look at each other and we’ll know whether one or the other is happy. Sometimes I can use a single word and he’ll know exactly what I mean. We understand and trust each other, and have that confidence in each other – if Charles and Dubois have that it won’t matter that it’s their first fight.
Russ Anber is the founder/CEO of Rival Boxing, as well as a highly respected trainer (of both pros and amateurs), a gym owner, a cut-man, an entrepreneur, a broadcaster and one of the best hand wrappers in the boxing business. Vasiliy Lomachenko, Oleksandr Usyk, Artur Beterbiev and Callum Smith are among the many top boxers Russ works with.