IT started at York Hall on Monday morning and ended on the streets of Tottenham very early on Sunday. It was a proper fight week of locations, lunacy, down-facing-dogs, kebabs, fight people from boxing’s ancient history and then a craftsman at work. It was a rare treat of a week.
Underneath the constant rumble of a fight desperate to happen, I traipsed across the capital in six full days of searching. I stopped at venues, offices, hotel suites, studios, private rooms and a yoga parlour to speak to fight people on my way.
George Groves joined me on Monday at York Hall, which is an odd venue when the ring has been removed. Groves now looks like a big, happy and healthy farmer. We stood on the balcony and he painted a joyous picture of Oleksandr Usyk’s skills and boxing brain. He was persuasive.
I grabbed Lawrence Okolie an hour later at the same venue; he went for power and it made sense, especially before noon on Monday. Eddie Hearn was there and he talked to me about the need for “AJ to put a dent in Usyk early.” It was, to be honest, the driving line of the week.
On Tuesday, I was out near Heathrow with Frazer Clarke. The big lad was in fine form, producing his beloved Olympic medal from his pocket and taking it out of the sock he uses to carry it. He still holds it like it breathes, gentle and in still in awe.
He told a wonderful story about fighting Joshua in a working man’s club in Burton-on-Trent. “I had sold the place out and I just thought they might have got me an easy one,” Clarke said. “No, I looked over as there was this giant. I thought, thanks.”
He praised Usyk, he knew enough about him from being on the road. Frazer still fancied Joshua because of the size.
The yoga parlour in Hampstead was closed when I sat down with Dereck Chisora on Wednesday morning. It’s possible that Del Boy at 37 is in the best physical shape of his life; he is certainly in the best frame of mind. He was reflective, honest and insightful. We all overlook Chisora’s record and performances, the man is a fighting treasure.
He stood to show me how Usyk does what Usyk does. You know, that little magical shuffle, the one where he gets outside, and you then turn into his straight left. He hurt Del Boy in their fight. The following night, live on Five Live, Tony Bellew would describe the same move. They each warned Joshua. They each fancied Joshua with a heavy stoppage, but they had so much respect for Usyk.
On Wednesday afternoon, a long way from the yoga in Hampstead, I waited in a room on the 14th floor of an apartment complex in Stratford for Usyk and his team in turquoise to arrive. They did, Usyk had shaved his head and had just found the room he shared in a small block at the London 2012 Olympics. “I found the window I looked out,” he explained. It clearly meant a lot to him.
The translation was performed by Egis Klimas, the Mickey Duff of the old Iron Curtain states. He is packed with knowledge and shrewd judgements.
Usyk left warning after warning. He seemed shocked that anybody doubted he would win. He asked me when we sat down: “How do I lose?” That, obviously now, is a very good question. Usyk’s utter calm concerned me.
On Thursday, high above the pitch at the stadium, I sat in the sun with Joshua. We talked about Errol Christie, Ron Lyle and Usyk. It was that type of chat. Joshua sounded exceptional, focused, clear on his job, fully aware of Usyk’s wizardry. I would like to lie and tell you there was a single thing that concerned me – there was not, he was ready. He ate dates stuffed with peanut butter. I’m all about the detail.
The texts started to arrive late on Thursday, simple requests for some inside information from friends looking to bet. “What did he look like?” Very calm. “I fancy AJ early.” I don’t, I replied. “I got sevens on the Russian on points.” He’s not a Russian. “I still got sevens.” It went on. I told them Del Boy did a mean down-facing-dog.
It was the O2 for the weigh-in on the Friday afternoon; no surprises, if anything I expected Usyk to be a few pounds heavier. Carl Froch joined me for the BBC podcast. Froch was crystal clear on Joshua’s task: “He has to hit and hurt him.” Trust me, when I say this, nobody at any point during the week thought that Joshua would struggle to hit and hurt Usyk. To be fair, everybody made a sensible case for Usyk winning, but in the end it was always Joshua’s power, power, power. The fella on the tube, Eddie, the security guard at the BBC, Del Boy, the manager at the hotel, Froch. It was the theme: Power.
And then the fight was over. There was no power, just a lot of Ukrainian magic.
A little after midnight I left with Froch. I walked with him and my producer, Jack Davenport, through thousands of lingering fans and followed a hopeful beep on a phone that was Carl’s taxi. We finally found it in a gridlocked street about two kilometres from the stadium. People were just standing, talking into phones and waiting for buses and taxis that would never come. There was a fair amount of disbelief on the Tottenham streets.
The week was over and I carried on walking.