Oleksandr Usyk is preparing for Saturday’s fight with Daniel Dubois with the memory of what his compatriots are enduring on the frontline in Ukraine.
The 36 year old makes the second defence of his IBF, WBA and WBO heavyweight titles at Stadion Wroclaw in Wroclaw, Poland, where so many Ukrainians were forced to move ahead of Russia’s invasion last year.
Thursday is Ukrainian Independence Day – displaced Ukrainians all over the world will commemorate the day in 1991 their country became independent from the Soviet Union – and, recognising the extent to which his remarkable success has made him a symbol of national pride at so difficult a time for his country, Usyk is fighting to provide for them a sense of release.
“I lived with the soldiers,” said Usyk, recalling his time in the under-siege Ukrainian town of New York in the aftermath of his second victory over Anthony Joshua. “I spent some time with them. Of course, with that, I’m getting more motivation.
“I get a lot of text messages from my fans, but I also get them from my friends who are on the frontline. Sometimes, when I’m talking with my friends on the phone, missiles are exploding and I hear bombing, then he says, ‘Brother, I’m gonna call you back if I’m still alive’. Most of the time, they’re still alive.
“By binoculars, at 900m, I saw my enemies running. I saw exploded tanks. I saw broken houses. I saw people with no legs; no arms. And I also saw some people walking, but who looked to me like they were dead.
“Then I was going in a car, around the city – I realised it’s a dead city. I saw children’s toys. I saw places for children to play, but it looked to me like everything was dead. There was no energy in that city. I realised one day, in that place, on that ground, kids were playing. But now, it’s completely dead.
“Some of the guys from the frontline said, ‘What are you doing here? We don’t understand – why do you come here? Some of the generals are not coming here to this place’, and I told them, ‘I am not a general – I am just a regular Ukrainian guy’.
“In the last year and a half, my family are separated. My kids cannot be in Ukraine – they live somewhere else, but all of this makes me stronger. I see how some people change in themselves. Even people I know are changing in a different way – not the best way.
“I spent a lot of time with those people and they are not professional soldiers that are ready for war. They are regular people. One of them was a banker; another one had a bakery; the third one had a different business, but they went. Of course there are soldiers who were in the army, but a lot of guys aren’t soldiers and they’re there to get freedom for the country.”
Usyk, who is 11 years older than Dubois, previously fought in Poland in 2016 when in Gdansk he outpointed Krzysztof Glowacki to win his first professional world title, of the WBO at cruiserweight.
“[Wroclaw] has a big Ukrainian community; boxing history; even Vitali Klitschko was fighting in Wroclaw,” he said. “If I can bring them just a little bit of enjoyment, I would fight everyday.
“I understand because they are there [on the frontline], they’re not watching anything, they’re fighting for freedom. But we’re gonna get the freedom later.”