The coach who inspired Oleksandr Usyk’s biggest test has revealed the tactic that threatened to inflict the Ukrainian’s first defeat.
Usyk defends his IBF, WBA and WBO heavyweight titles in a rematch with dethroned Anthony Joshua on Aug. 20 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and does so knowing that Joshua has sworn to be a transformed fighter.
The 35-year-old claimed victory over Joshua at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in September, and as Joshua has since replaced then-manager Rob McCracken with American Robert Garcia and has spoken of his desire to force the champion to a more attritional affair.
Usyk remains unbeaten in 19 fights as a professional, but will not have forgotten that another British fighter, retired Tony Bellew, has come the closest to changing that. Applying the tactics of his trainer Dave Coldwell, Bellew’s timing and intelligence meant he deservedly led on the judges’ scorecards when they fought in 2018, forcing Usyk to produce the stunning knockout at the eighth round that concluded his cruiserweight career.
Not only did Joshua fight a very different fight when, by his own admission, he mistakenly tried to send Usyk out, he talks more and more about “getting back to basics and for the knockout”, but Coldwell said to talkSPORT: “Normally with a lot of fighters there is always something going on. But when you look at Usyk you don’t see any weaknesses which forces you to focus on every minor detail.
“I spent hours and hours watching it. Most of his career, everyone came to him – that’s what he’s used to; he’s comfortable with it and that’s what his style is made for. If Bellew came after him, we would fall into traps. It’s different from AJ, because he has the height, the reach, the physique; the danger of a punch.
“I came across the Michael Hunter fight. It was the first [Usyk] fight, I thought, “He can be sent to a box”, because the first rounds Hunter was in a negative style which gave him a lot of difficulty. It can’t just be negative, because mentally Usyk will tire you out, so you also need to put a fingerprint on him. So I almost wanted to mirror what Usyk does to his opponents.
“Bellew is very, very disciplined, so I knew he was capable, and I also wanted him to land shots to the body, because I encountered something in the amateurs, that nobody talks about – Usyk fell with a body shot. When I saw that, I thought, ‘There’s a flaw.’ But he’s very good with his defense, so if you’re just trying to bludgeon him, he knows how to cover.
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“Marco Huck; Mairis Briedis; those good fighters couldn’t control it. Bellew is smart and hits hard enough to wear you down at the same time. The game plan was to lay traps for Usyk, as he is more comfortable backing up.
“With AJ it’s different, because of his physical qualities. If he grabs you, he’s at least going to throw you off balance and wear you down – if he uses those physical attributes, which he really hasn’t in that first fight.
“[But] it is [also] the effort and focus it takes in those first six laps to stay with him. You work so hard to stay with him that you’re screwed, and then mistakes creep in because you’re tiring. It’s not that he’s stepping up a gear. That’s his game – you survive, mentally.
Coldwell nonetheless acknowledges that Garcia – who is expected to be joined in Joshua’s corner by Angel Fernandez and Joby Clayton – is also in the unenviable position of trying to reinvent his fighter’s approach while working with him for the first time.
“It takes a level of trust and respect,” says Coldwell, who led Bellew in revenge on Nathan Cleverly ahead of the WBC heavyweight title, two wins over David Haye and more until the night their winning run s is over against Usyk.
“There was a huge element of trust that allowed him to have conviction in his actions. [when following instructions fighting Usyk].
“A big plus for AJ is that he has proven himself that he can be destroyed in a fight – the [Andy] Losing Ruiz was far more devastating than getting sent off by Usyk – go, reset, come back and win convincingly in a completely different rematch.
“Is Usyk going to clean AJ up in one fell swoop?” No. [But] did he clear Bellew all at once? No, he didn’t. It was wear and tear, and what Usyk was doing before, that slowly broke Bellew’s stamina. Usyk is able to stop AJ; AJ is also going to have to let go of his hands more, which will make him more vulnerable to kickbacks, so [Usyk will] have more opportunities to land clean shots.
“I expect AJ to box in a different way so Usyk will take a few more rounds to find out. But if AJ becomes more orthodox and conventional trying to knock him down and be a front-foot fighter, [Usyk’s] has dealt with this his entire career.
Another challenge for Garcia surrounds Joshua’s corner on fight night. Joshua, 32, has since slammed the instructions he received from his corner on a chaotic evening when McCracken, Fernandez and Clayton argued to be heard, and contributing to an equally respected team when David Haye fought Wladimir Klitschko in 2011, Coldwell explained the only way it can work.
Coldwell was present in Germany, where Adam Booth was joined in the corner on fight night by Paddy Fitzpatrick. Coldwell also worked alongside Booth in the George Groves corner, and he said: “It was [Adam’s] corner. This is the presence you need to have as a coach.
“Adam and I were always discussing things, but Adam was always the trainer, and I was just there to help and help. If I noticed things, I would talk to Adam, not the fighter. You should have a voice in the corner – especially when the shit is bad.There should be a focal point where you can look straight ahead and into your trainer’s eyes, and you listen.
Usyk vs. Joshua 2 on talkSPORT
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