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Ukrainian boxing champions return home to fight against Russia

Ukrainian boxing champions return home to fight against Russia

Ukrainian boxer Oleksandr Usyk celebrates and waves to the crowd as he leaves the arena at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in north London on September 25, 2021.

Adrian Denis | AFP | Getty Images

World heavyweight boxing champion Oleksandr Usyk is set to train for his biggest fight yet – a title defense against Britain Antoine Joshua and a multi-million dollar salary.

Instead, he is holed up in a Kiev bomb shelter, having returned to his native UK to enlist in the Ukrainian capital’s Territorial Defense Unit.

“What do you mean, why?” asked Usyk, looking slightly bewildered when asked on Wednesday why he signed up by CNN. “It’s my duty to fight, to defend my home, my family.”

The highly anticipated rematch against Joshua, who he stripped of three of boxing’s four major titles in blue riband division in September, will have to wait. A date had not been set; his highest payday to date would likely have been in the spring or summer.

Instead, as Russian forces continue to attack the city and their invasion of ukraine entering its third week, Usyk prepares for a different, considerably deadlier kind of combat.

Usyk, alongside Vasiliy Lomachenko and his brothers Wladimir and Vitali Klitschkois a product of Ukraine’s world renowned national boxing system, which has produced some of the world’s most technically stunning fighters of this generation.

Lomachenko, a three-weight world champion who many experts consider the best pound-for-pound boxer in the world, also traveled from Greece to his hometown of Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyi in southwestern Ukraine, which is increasingly threatened after Russia. the forces captured Kherson, some 180 miles away.

He repeatedly insisted on his desire for peace but said he had nevertheless committed to a homeland defense unit.

Yaroslav Amosov, a mixed martial arts fighter and the current Bellator MMA welterweight champion, also returned home to fight, he said in an Instagram video late last month.

Their actions have not gone unnoticed, and their global fame and millions of social media followers have allowed them to galvanize support for Ukraine and reach audiences that the country’s traditional political leaders could never hope to reach. .

mike tysonwhose adoptive mother immigrated to the United States from Ukraine, was recorded Monday telling a group of Russian journalists to “get out” of the country.

And the Ukrainian boxers from the gymnasiums around the world expressed their outrage in videos posted on social media, usually ending with the cry of “Slava Ukraini” or “Glory to Ukraine”.

“It’s really inspiring to see such famous people ready to protect our homeland with weapons in their hands,” Ukrainian sports journalist Igor Nitsak said by telephone on Wednesday.

“They had many opportunities to flee the country, but they stayed. I think it’s pure courage,” said Nitsak, 37, who fled Kyiv to the city of Zhytomyr with his wife, Lyudmyla, 37 years old, and their sons – Roman, 10, and Andriy, 2 — the day Russian forces invaded.

He added that Vitali Klitschko, the mayor of Kiev, and his brother, Wladimirboth former heavyweight boxing champions and sons of a Soviet major general, had “always been the embodiment of courage for our people”.

Vitali Klitschkowho rallied his people and posted video messages on social media about the situation in Kyiv, “beamed with a strong belief that we will eventually win,” Nitsak said.

He said Usyk’s decision to fight was notable because the former undisputed heavyweight world champion is not universally loved in Ukraine, where he has previously faced criticism for calling Russians and Ukrainians a “one people”. The trope has been used by President Vladimir Putinwho called them both Russians.

Usyk, from Simferopol in annexed Crimea, was also criticized for his appearance in the Russian film ‘Hello brother, Christ is risen’.

The fact that he and the other fighters have huge followings both in the West and in Russia is significant, Nitsak said.

“Ukraine is fighting on two fronts, military and informational,” he said, adding that some of his relatives in Russia had believed the Kremlin’s propaganda and refused to believe their country had launched a full-scale invasion. Ukraine-wide, even when he told them he was hiding from the bombings in a basement with his family.

Athletes can cross partisan lines, said Charlie Baker, a professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science. “People are more likely to pay attention to a sports personality than a politician,” he said.

“Russians who sympathize with a Ukrainian boxer, who have encouraged him in the past, would at least humanize them,” he said. “That’s a really important thing in this conflict.”

Athletes on social media not only talk about sports but also other aspects of their lives, such as their partners or their children, and it helps them become more human in the eyes of their followers, he said.

However, Baker warned that social media is being used to spread false information, “so people are wary of things that don’t match the official version of events.”

For Nitsak, however, the boxers were “a powerful weapon” because, he said, “they will help open the eyes of ordinary Russians”.