Oleksandr Usyk was so excited about winning heavyweight gold at the London Olympics that he broke into a traditional Ukrainian dance in the ring to celebrate.
But the Ukraine he pointed to so proudly on the front of his boxing uniform is a different country than it was two years ago. Usyk’s hometown in Crimea has been annexed by Russia, and deadly clashes have broken out in recent weeks in Ukraine’s east between separatists and the country’s military.
And as Usyk fights Saturday night in Odessa, Ukraine, he has more to worry about than the journeyman he will face in his fourth fight as a pro. He must walk a fine line in a country where loyalties are divided and everyone is on edge.
“He’s always asked, are you Ukrainian or Russian,” promoter Alexander Krassyuk said. “He keeps telling journalists he’s out of politics and boxing is his politics. He is a good sportsman and very smart to avoid politics and stay away from it.”
Usyk is expected to draw a sellout crowd at the Sport Palace in Odessa when he meets Argentine Cesar David Crenz in a cruiserweight fight. It’s his fourth bout since turning pro in November, part of an ambitious schedule that Usyk has laid out to become a champion in less time than the 12 fights it took Evander Holyfield to win his 190-pound title.
“I know Evander Holyfield was a cruiserweight champion,” Usyk said through an interpreter in a phone interview from Odessa this week. “I will try to break this record to become a champion faster than Evander.”
Usyk isn’t the only Ukrainian on the professional fast track, or the country’s biggest boxing name. That would be Vasyl Lomachenko, who won his second gold medal as a lightweight in London and fought unsuccessfully in just his second pro bout for a title in March, when he lost to Orlando Salido.
But Usyk became a star in his own right after his gold medal win when he celebrated by doing a dance called the Hopak that is widely regarded as Ukraine’s national dance.
“He was really looking very, very Ukrainian,” Krassyuk said. “The dance really made people notice him and his natural charisma.”
That showed Thursday when Usyk drew a big crowd for an outdoor workout on a Black Sea beach in Odessa. In a country savaged by fighting between the armed forces and separatists who want parts of eastern Ukraine to become part of Russia, his fight offers a diversion from everyday troubles.
Usyk is promoted by K2 Promotions, which is operated by Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko, the former and current heavyweight champions from Ukraine. Vitali Klitschko was a prominent leader in the uprisings earlier this year against the former Ukraine government and won election earlier this week as mayor of Kiev.
Like the Klitschkos, Usyk was born at a time when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union. Complicating matters for Usyk, though, is that he was born and lives in Simferopol, the capital of Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in March.
Krassyuk said Usyk has not applied for Russian citizenship like many in his city, and doesn’t intend to. But Usyk — who speaks Russian as his native language — won’t answer questions about the political situation.
“I am Ukrainian and fighting like a Ukrainian,” he said.
Krassyuk said Usyk’s fight couldn’t have come at a better time for a country in turmoil.
“People are tired of politics. We’ve had so much of it,” he said. “Everybody wants to have peace to live their life with their families and enjoy life. Usyk is one who can help give them that pleasure.”