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The last time Oleksandr Usyk attended a London press conference to publicise a boxing match, he dressed up as the Joker and laughed his way through the event at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium with the air of a man who never took anything too seriously.
But nearly a year on, the world has changed and so has Usyk. Now, as the Ukrainian holds court nine miles south of Spurs, it is a different, far more solemn heavyweight with a new perspective on life and certainly on fighting.
“Sometimes I just force myself to smile,” he says. “Or I force myself to sing or to dance. But I don’t even know how to explain all of this. My children are asking: Father, why do they want to kill us?
“I just don’t know how to answer that.”
That day in Tottenham, as Team Usyk played their part in the final press conference ahead of the challenge for Anthony Joshua’s three heavyweight titles, they operated with ultra confidence. They were right to.
Within two days, Usyk was the new world heavyweight champion and he spoke with pure sincerity of his desire to celebrate by planting new trees and watering existing ones. “I want to live,” he had said.
Since that night, however, Usyk has trodden the thin line between life and death as part of his country’s resistance to the ongoing Russian invasion, which began in February. It was a war that, at one point, looked certain to preclude Usyk from facing Joshua in a rematch this year. But it was confirmed in March that he would head to Poland for training camp with the blessing of his nation’s sports minister.
“I really didn’t want to leave my country or my city,” he continues. “But at one point I went to a hospital where soldiers were wounded and getting rehabilitation from the war and they were telling me, asking me to go and fight for my country and for my pride. They told me that, if I go and fight there, I am even going to help our country more than if I stayed and fought in the war.
“I know a lot of my close friends are on the front line, standing and fighting, so all I am doing right now is supporting them. With this fight I want to bring them some joy in between what they do.”
Before his departure, Usyk was part of a territorial defence battalion in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv and took part in armed patrols. “Every day I was there I would pray to the Lord, please don’t let anybody try to kill me,” he says. “Don’t let anybody shoot me and please don’t make me have to shoot any other person. But if I had felt any danger, or that me or my family’s lives were in jeopardy, I would have to.
“It took me only one day of the war to understand completely that everything I have, everything that I have achieved, all my belts, all my titles, I can lose it all in just one second.”
Dressed in a yellow and blue T-shirt that reads “Colours of Freedom”, Usyk also speaks about how he has kept in close contact with the compatriots he left behind to fight, which include fellow pound-for-pound great Vasyl Lomachenko. "He is good," Usyk says of his dear friend. “Loma is now a Ukrainian solder.”
Usyk has even had to watch footage of the house that he left vacant being ransacked by Russian soldiers.
“My family are not in Ukraine, but a lot of people I know and a lot of my close friends are inside the country,” he says. “I am in touch with them every day, I am asking them for updates.
“I want to hear how they’re feeling and that they are safe. I didn’t want to leave the country. I want to live there still. Straight after the fight I will go back to Ukraine.
“That house in Vorzel belongs to me, and it’s true that Russian soldiers went into the house, broke a fence and all sorts of different things. They made living spaces and stayed there for a while.”
When asked whether he may cut himself off from such troubling updates as the fight grows closer, Usyk shakes his head. “I’m going to be following every single day to hear what’s happening in my country,” he says.
Questions eventually turn towards his fight with Joshua, set for 20 August in Jeddah, for which he is a clear favourite with the bookmakers. All three judges scored him the winner back in August and few are predicting any Joshua revenge in Saudi Arabia.
Usyk’s answers on the subject are short and succinct. There is a feeling that boxing might be currently secondary in Usyk’s mind, but whether or not that’s a good or bad thing for Joshua remains to be seen.
“I don’t even think about him or whatever he wants to do, his new tactics or new trainers,” Usyk says of Joshua, who recently added Robert Garcia to his coaching team. “I really don’t care – I’m only thinking about what I want to do.
“When I fight, I don’t think about what I’m supposed to do, only about winning. We are working very hard and trying to be better in this next fight. We are making new goals and with the Lord’s help, yes, we are going to be better.
“Since I was 16 years old I prayed to the Lord, and every time I feel things getting very difficult for me, I thank him. I thank him for what he’s doing to me.
“I think that’s what puts me where I am right now. I believe someone is looking after me.”