Boxing champion Oleksandr Usyk was the dancing Olympics hero who became an icon for war-ravaged Ukraine | The Sun

THIS Saturday, Oleksandr Usyk is going to do what he does best.

The 36-year-old boxer is putting his belts on the line at the Tarczyński Arena in Wroclaw, Poland to face British challenger Daniel Dubois.

It promises to be a fascinating contest for The Cat, who has come a long way from Olympic glory in 2012, when he would dance and joke around during his training sessions.

Although the humour is still there, the steely determination to do his country proud is arguably stronger than ever.

After all, this man loyally put his career on hold and joined the army to fight for war-torn Ukraine, after it was attacked by Russia.

Like Arsenal star Oleksandr Zinchenko, he became an icon for his people – leading the battle-cry against foreign invasion.

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His story is one of courage and ambition.

Early years

Usyk was born in Ukraine's Crimea region in the city of Simferopol in 1987, and immediately was thrust into a life where his only release was sport.

"As a child, I did some wrestling, hand-to-hand combat, karate… But without fanaticism," he revealed.

"We would do push-ups, squats, sometimes learned some simple techniques."

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However, it seemed that a life in football was more likely a path out of the poverty of Simferopol.

Up until the age of 15, Usyk was in the academy of then-Ukrainian Premier League side SC Tavriya Simferopol.

But the cost of playing football was too much for his parents, and he picked up his first pair of boxing gloves in 2002.

"(I) played for Tavria from Simferopol, and I did pretty well. I was never a benchwarmer, I was always a starter.

"Soccer demanded some very serious expenses. And two or three hundred hryvnias was a substantial amount for my parents.

"Boxing was simpler, more sociable. The coach gave me his gloves, his wife sewed them into the right form.

"The only thing that my mom spent money on was a travel ticket."

Brush with death

As a kid, Usyk had a brush with death.

"When I was in year two at school, I got really ill – I had serious pneumonia. It was very bad. The doctor even told my mum that I might not survive, he told Gary Neville in an episode of The Overlap.

“That illness lasted for a year. I’d spend two months in hospital, then two weeks at home, or a month in hospital then go home for a week."

But, after he made a full recovery he worked to support his poor family. A teenage Usyk scored a job on a farm grazing cattle.

He even sold fruit and ice cream on the streets to make ends meet for his mum and dad.

Usyk revealed: "I sold ice cream, I sold apricots, I sold peaches, I worked on a farm, I grazed cattle.

"I am not ashamed of this, because everything I did, I did in order to survive. I wanted to help my family and that’s normal."

Success story

In 2006, Usyk showed his boxing promise by reaching the semi finals of the European Championships.

Two years later, he was victorious at the Strandja Cup in Bulgaria, an event that goes a long way into determining who qualifies to compete in the Olympics.

However, it wasn't until 2012 that the crowning glory of his amateur career propelled him towards international stardom.

Usyk won the gold medal at the London Olympics, beating Artur Beterbiev, Tervel Pulev and Italy's Clemente Russo.

It was a moment that was tinted with sadness, as he had an emotional phone call with his dad afterwards which he saw as a farewell.

“He was already ill when I went to the Olympics in London," he explained.

“I was preparing for the finals, he didn’t call me prior to the finals or anything and we didn’t speak for a few days.

“When I won and got back to my hotel room, he called me. We talked on the phone for about an hour. We’d never spent an hour on the phone together before.

“It was as if he was saying his farewell to me.”

Going through the divisions

It's astonishing to think that Usyk fought at 165lbs (11st 13lbs) in 2006.

His journey to heavyweight has since seen him go through the cruiserweight and light-heavyweight divisions, dispatching everyone he has faced in his professional career to record a 20-0 record.

Usyk became known as the joker in the pack – sharing video clips of his training sessions, where he would perform traditional Ukrainian dance, the Hopak.

Amazingly, Usyk has only fought at heavyweight since 2019 – retiring Chazz Witherspoon inside seven rounds.

He followed that up with a comprehensive unanimous decision win over Derek Chisora.

Then came the blockbuster fights with Anthony Joshua, which made him a man of the people for the Ukraine.

However, it was acts between his first battle with AJ to their rematch that made his fighting skills seem less heroic.

War effort

Months before he would take on Joshua for a second time, Usyk did the unthinkable.

Supporting his country's efforts, and harbouring a revenge for the Russians annexing his hometown of Simferopol in 2014, he joined the army to defend his homeland from Russia's attacks.

Clutching a machine gun, Usyk posed alongside his comrades, including Andrii Nebytov, the head of the Kyiv Police and declared his allegiance.

He then sent a warning to Vladimir Putin to stop the war.

He said: "Good morning to everybody. My name is Oleksandr Usyk. I’d like to speak to the people of Russia. 

"If we consider ourselves as brothers, Orthodox ones, do not send your children to our country, do not fight with us. 

"Also I’m addressing this to the President, Vladimir Putin. You can stop this war. 

"Please just sit down and negotiate it with us without claims. 

“Our kids, wives, grannies are hiding in the basements. We are here in our own country, we cannot do it any other way.

"We are defending. Stop this war, stop it. No War."

Usyk returned to the ring a month later, on the insistence of his fellow soldiers, to train for his bout with Joshua – understanding the importance of his role in flying the Ukrainian flag on a global level.

Back in March, Usyk addressed his situation.

"I haven't been fighting where our soldiers are fighting now. I was in the territorial defence of Kyiv, it was difficult," Usyk said.

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"I know a lot of military men, as I served in the Border Guard Forces. When I went to the hospital to see my pals who were recovering from injuries sustained in the first months of the war, they told me that it was my duty to train and prepare for the fight and come back home with a victory."

He did just that and became a hero for his people. Whatever Daniel Dubois brings in terms of strength, Usyk will bring bravery beyond the world of a sportsman.

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