Oleksandr Usyk edged out Anthony Joshua to retain his world titles after an enthralling rematch in Saudi Arabia.
Joshua, with new trainer Robert Garcia in his corner, produced a much-improved performance 11 months on from his defeat by the former undisputed cruiserweight world champion. But Usyk again proved to be too good as he was given the nod on two of the three scorecards.
But Joshua’s performance was marred by his post-fight actions when he picked up two of the four belts on offer, slammed them on the canvas and stormed out of the ring in anger. The Olympic champion regained his composure and returned to the ring before delivering an X-rated speech.
Usyk dominated Joshua over 12 rounds in London last September. On that occasion, Joshua claimed he wanted to out-box his unbeaten rival only for his gameplan to fall apart as he conceded the early rounds.
Joshua was unable to recover and was almost stopped on his feet in the dying stages as Usyk ran out a comfortable winner in just his third fight at heavyweight. Joshua immediately triggered his rematch clause but the fight was delayed from April to July and finally to late August after Russia invaded Ukraine.
Joshua walked to the ring first for just the second time in his career and was decked out in a black, a change of outfit having been dressed in white for his previous 11 world title fights. In another nod to Mike Tyson, the Brit was accompanied by the motivational words of legendary trainer Cus D’Amato.
Usyk, meanwhile, made his walk from the changing room in the blue and yellow of his homeland as he looked to extend his unbeaten record and cement his position in the upper echelons of the mythical pound-for-pound list.
And it was Usyk who landed the first solid punch of the fight with a left hand to the chin as Joshua looked to work the champion’s body. He then responded to another left hand with a back hand of his own but it was the Ukrainian who made the better start.
Joshua punctuated the start of the second round with a right hand as he looked to take the initiative. He looked to drop down to the body but Usyk’s footwork continued to cause problems, as it did in their first meeting, as he landed flush with his lead right hand.
Joshua landed a clubbing left-right in the opening minute of the third stanza but was struggling to find any consistency in the face of Usyk’s evasive style. The champion worked his way into the round towards the bell but it was the challenger who did enough to nick the session.
Joshua’s corner told him he had won the opening three rounds and the Brit landed a stiff jab to open his account in round four. A right hand forced Usyk back but the smaller man took the shot well on his gloves before planting his feet and landing his dangerous left hand.
Left hands were traded at the start of the fifth round as a more aggressive Joshua looked more comfortable letting his hands go. Joshua looked to have Usyk hurt with a body shot but the Ukrainian complained of a low blow and was given time to recover.
Joshua stalked Usyk at the beginning of the sixth round as he landed a right hand followed by a left hook. The challenger’s right eye was beginning to show signs of wear and tear as the pace began to slow. But Joshua rallied the crowd with a right hand against the ropes. Usyk responded with a left hand-right hook before finishing the session on top.
Joshua looked to rough up Usyk as the fight entered the second half, grabbing his head and looking to land to the body. He looked to take the centre of the ring and landed a right to which Usyk replied with the opposite hand
The referee ordered the canvas be cleaned before the start of the eighth round as the rivals’ sweat in the desert heat level the ground slippy underfoot. On the resumption, Joshua landed a left hook to Usyk’s ribs but the champion responded with a flurry. But he was forced to grab on when Joshua resumed his assault on the body, as he had promised during their final face-off.
Joshua was finally able to work his way inside and began to maul Usyk’s body in the centre of the ring. He had the champion on the back foot for the first time in 21 rounds as the Ukrainian looked momentarily shaken.
But Usyk showed no ill-effects as he made fast start to the 10th round with a flurry of left hands. Joshua had little answer to the onslaught but suddenly found a right hand from nowhere to stun his adversary. But it was Usyk who came on stronger in the final minute as his powers of recovery came to the fore.
Usyk sensed an early finish with six minutes remaining but Joshua remained dangerous when he switched to the body. But the champion had seemingly limitless reserves of conditioning as he picked his punches to ensure he took a lead into the final round.
Joshua likely needed a stoppage in the final session and did land a right hand against the ropes only for Usyk to respond immediately. And it was the champion who finished on top before the judges confirmed his reign will continue by delivering scores of 113-115, 115-113 and 116-112.
On the undercard, Callum Smith earned himself a shot at a light-heavyweight world title with a stunning knockout of Mathieu Bauderlique. Smith, who lost his super-middleweight crown to Canelo Alvarez two years ago, earned his second win at 175lb with a fourth-round stoppage.
Bauderlique started well and showed no sign of being daunted by Smith’s power, but the Liverpudlian dropped his French rival with a left hook to stamp his authority on the bout. And he completed the job before the end of the fourth session when he landed the same shot on the ropes to leave Bauderlique down and out.
“It’s been a long time out the ring, and it’s good to get back in,” said Smith. “It puts me in line for the world title next, so a good night all round. I was surprised by how much he engaged with me early on; I thought he was going to move a lot and try to offset and then take me on later in the round.”
In the chief support fight, Filip Hrgovic overcame a huge scare to secure a controversial win over Zhang Zhilei to earn a shot at the winner of the main event. Hrgovic was the favourite to secure a world title shot but was dropped in the first round when he was clipped behind the ear with a left hand. The Croatian recovered well, however, but Zhang then began to take over from the fourth round