PARIS – Ukraine’s world heavyweight boxing champion Oleksandr Usyk has told AFP he has two goals in 2023 – a unification title fight with Tyson Fury and rebuilding the house where his “good friend” was killed by Russian soldiers.
Oleksiy Dzhunkivskyi, a former teammate of Usyk, was shot in the hall of the building in Irpin, a suburb of Kyiv.
Usyk has teamed up with the charity United24 and is raising funds to restore the badly damaged five-storey house to its former glory. He has contributed US$205,000 (S$268,950) towards the overall cost of US$330,000.
In a Zoom interview, Usyk told AFP it had been a coincidence he had selected the building to take a look.
“I randomly chose this house,” the 36-year-old former cruiserweight world champion said through an interpreter.
“When we came to look at it and saw how destroyed the house was, I was a little surprised.
“In this house, there was a boxing gym of my good friend. He and I were in the national team, we went to boxing competitions together. Oleksiy Dzhunkivskyi was shot by Russian soldiers right in this hall.”
When Russia invaded Ukraine last February, Usyk had wanted to take up arms immediately. However, he was dissuaded from doing so as his compatriots felt that in his role as a sports star with global renown, he could add another weapon to the Ukrainian war chest.
“The guys from the Armed Forces convinced me that I need to help my country on the international stage, talk about it and bring opportunities to Ukraine to restore my country,” he said.
Usyk, whose family are in Kyiv, was especially moved by a visit to a hospital where wounded soldiers were being treated. He met with them before a title rematch in Saudi Arabia last August with the British boxer Anthony Joshua, who had been dethroned by Usyk in September 2021.
“Well, it was touching because some guys told me: ‘Alex, you should go and prepare and come back with a victory.’
“These guys, ten to 15 of them, came to Saudi Arabia and supported me.
“These soldiers, who have been fighting since day one, we brought them to watch the fight.
“Some guys didn’t have limbs, and when I met them on the eve of the fight, I felt that a part of the Ukrainian army was with me. (Either) in the locker room or with me in the country.”
Usyk went on to retain the title on a split points decision but he said he felt a heavy responsibility on his shoulders during the bout.
“In the ninth round I realised that if I fall now, the spirit of the fighters who defend our country will also fall. I didn’t box for myself, I boxed for all those who defend the country,” he said.
He also added that a unification title fight with British fighter Fury could possibly take place “at the end of April”.
This is not Usyk’s first experience of war as his father was wounded twice fighting for the Soviet Army during their 10-year occupation of Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989).
“I saw the consequences of this post-war condition and what happened to him. He often had headaches, he had very high blood pressure,” said Usyk.
“I remember that until the last he had some nightmares in which he called out the names of his comrades who were killed.”
Usyk’s father never talked directly about his experiences to his son but his message to him was clear.
“He said the inhuman things that happen in the war are terrible and God forbid that this should happen, for example, with you, so that you either went to war or saw a war,” said Usyk.
With the war about to enter its second year, Usyk has a message for his compatriots – and is utterly dismissive about the Russians.
“My message to my indomitable people is the yellow-blue heart is strength, it is victory,” he said.
“To the neighbours (Russians)... They are so sick that it is impossible to reach them.
“They write to me in large quantities that I am bad, that I am not polite and that I should die. Sick people need to be treated, so let them treat themselves there.” AFP