Ukrainian boxing champions return home to fight against Russia

Ukrainian boxing champions return home to fight against Russia

World heavyweight boxing champion Oleksandr Usyk is set to train for his biggest fight yet – a title defense against Britain’s Anthony Joshua and a multimillion-dollar payday.

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?” Usyk said, looking slightly bewildered when asked why he signed up by CNN Wednesday. “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. Although no date has 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 enters its third week, Usyk prepares for a different, considerably deadlier kind of combat.

Usyk, alongside Vasiliy Lomachenko and brothers Wladimir and Vitali Klitschko, is a product of Ukraine’s world-renowned national boxing system that has produced some of the world’s most dazzling fighters of this generation.

Lomachenko, a three-weight world champion who is considered by many to be 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 by Russian forces after capturing the city of Kherson about 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 Tyson, whose adoptive mother immigrated to the United States from Ukraine, was filmed Monday telling a group of Russian journalists to “get out” of the country.

And Ukrainian boxers in gyms around the world expressed their outrage at the invasion in videos posted on social media, usually signing off with the shout “Slava Ukraini” or “Glory to Ukraine”.

“It’s truly inspiring to see such famous people ready to protect our homeland with guns in hand,” Ukrainian sports journalist Igor Nitsak told NBC News on Wednesday by phone.

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

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

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

He added that 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 was used by President Vladimir Putin, who called them both Russians.

The fighter, 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 believed the Kremlin’s propaganda and refused to believe their country had launched an invasion in Russia. large scale of Ukraine, even when he told them he was hiding from the bombings in a basement with his family.

Athletes can cross partisan lines, according to 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 don’t just talk about sports, but other aspects of their lives, like their partners or their children, and that 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”.