Oleksandr Usyk: ‘There had been laughter in that gym. When I got there, only darkness and death

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As the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine approaches, the world heavyweight champion talks about the devastation of war and searching for signs of hope

“The walls were shaking and the dogs were hiding,” Oleksandr Usyk says quietly, a few hours after another wave of Russian bombs hits Kyiv on a mid-winter morning. The world heavyweight champion is hard at work in his training camp outside the capital as he prepares for his planned unification bout with Tyson Fury in the coming months. But the greedy machinations of boxing matter little when set against the war in Ukraine.

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Usyk, who looks lean and fit as he tugs thoughtfully at his close-cropped beard, wears a pristine white T-shirt. A beautiful black and white photograph of Muhammad Ali is printed on the front. The old promise of “float like l butterfly” ripples below the photo and Usyk grins while Ali dances across my Zoom screen. A friend gave him the shirt for his 36th birthday on 17 January, but a Ukraine flag, signed with messages for the champion by soldiers on the frontline, hangs behind him in a reminder that he is on the edge of a war zone.

Tyson Fury vs Oleksandr Usyk

“I am outside Kyiv but my wife and my kids felt the attack this morning,” he says of the heavy shelling. “But, thank God, everything is fine with the family.”

Usyk used to be a joker, playing pranks in the gym and peppering interviews with quips, but he now carries the gravity of a country under siege. He leans forward, his head almost touching the screen, when I suggest it must be hard being away from his family when Kyiv is bombarded again.

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“It’s not that difficult,” he says calmly. “The anxiety starts but people are prepared. They’re all thinking: ‘These dogs launched bombs or started shooting at us again.’ They are used to it so our people live with it. They go down into the bomb shelters where they can be safe.”

Usyk still feels the devastation of war acutely for this month marks the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion and the people of Irpin, just outside Kyiv, suffered more than most. Irpin was hit hard by bombs before Russian soldiers briefly took control on the ground in a strategic plan to surround Kyiv. The Battle of Irpin lasted until 28 March when Ukrainian forces repelled the Russians and reclaimed the city in an early sign of the great resistance the country would show.

Oleksandr Usyk

Usyk has joined the government initiative UNITED 24 in a programme called Rebuild Ukraine, which aims to restore 18 shattered buildings in five cities close to Kyiv. Once the work is complete, 4,237 Ukrainians will return to their rebuilt homes. Usyk launched the programme by making a donation of $205,000 – with $333,000 needed to restore the first home, belonging to Diana Savenok’s family.

Usyk helps me talk to Diana, a 34-year-old mother of two girls, Sofia and Lily, from Irpin. Her husband, Egor, has spent the past 11 months fighting in the war and Diana describes how their lives were torn apart when the invasion began on 24 February 2022: “We were at home together and had not been awake for long when my family called, letting me know war has come. When I saw the planes in aerial combat from my window I realised it won’t just be strikes against military facilities. The bombs will fall on civilians.

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“We quickly packed and moved to the shelter. My husband hardly slept as he patrolled the area or tried to buy food. Most stores were closed and those that were open had kilometre-long queues.”

Oleksandr Usyk

The Savenoks knew they had to escape. Diana pauses when I ask what emotions tumbled though her as they fled to her parents’ home, far from Irpin, on 4 March. “We had no right to feel emotions. We knew we have to run as fast as we can. At the checkpoint they let us go without checking documents. They just said: ‘Faster, faster. Drive for your life.’

“The next day our home was bombed. So we escaped at the last moment because, when we were evacuating, Russian troops entered Irpin. On 5 March, our neighbours messaged me to say our building was on fire. A shell hit level four and our apartment was on level five, which was engulfed in flames.”

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Their home is in an apartment block at Lysenko 14G and when Usyk made his first tour of the damaged building, he was struck by a haunting coincidence. “I had eight different propositions to start the rebuild,” he says. “I chose this one building randomly. When I arrived, I was deeply moved. In the basement there was a gym where my good friend, Oleksiy Dzhunkivskyy, used to train children to box. Russian soldiers killed him.”

Oleksandr Usyk

Did he have no idea his friend had used the same building for his gym? Usyk shakes his head. “When we approached I saw what was destroyed. A shell flew right into the building and tore off the roof and damaged five floors. There were no windows but I saw a sign saying Gym Dzhunkivskyy. I turned to my friend, saying: ‘Brother, do you think this is the Hall of Jonik [Dzhunkivskyy]?’ It’s impossible to describe my emotions when I went inside.”

Usyk will soon face the force of Fury but, in this more personal moment, he finds the right words. “Once there had been children’s laughter and the smell of boxing in that gym. All the passion of boxing. When I got there it smells only of darkness and death. In that moment I decided I want to return young athletes to this gym and I want to return people to their homes.”

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What kind of man was Dzhunkivskyy? “Oleksiy was very brave and bold. He loved kids and his boxers had good results. He even trained European champions. When the Russians came he did not give up. He was not tall, but he had the heart of a lion as he defended his gym. They killed him right in front of the building or inside the gym. I can’t say for sure.

Oleksandr Usyk

“He was a few years older than me and the first time I saw him was in Odesa. At the Ukraine championships in 2006 I was 19 and became national champion for the first time. He was a silver medallist as a lightweight. We started talking and always kept in touch.”

Usyk stresses the coincidence of beginning the first restoration in a building that housed his friend’s gym has “redoubled my motivation. After this building is rebuilt, I choose another one and one after that. I want to give people back the warmth of their homes before the invasion. I want to help in a human way because our people deserve it.”

Oleksandr Usyk

War has made the bluster of boxing seem more ridiculous than ever. Two months ago, Usyk, who holds the IBF, WBA and WBO versions of the world title, was ringside as Fury bludgeoned Derek Chisora in defence of his WBC belt. Afterwards, the two world champions came face-to-face in the ring.

“Usyk, you are next, you little bitch,” Fury roared as the Ukrainian stared at him silently. “You’re next, rabbit! Prick. Fifteen stone little midget bodybuilder. I ain’t a bodybuilder, sucker. I’m going to write you off. I’ve already done one Ukrainian in [Wladimir] Klitschko and I’ll do you as well, gappy teeth.”

Usyk held Fury’s gaze, his silence speaking volumes. Fury kept ranting: “You ugly little man. Let’s get it on, bitch. You may laugh now, but I’ll end you, lil’ sucker. You’re gonna do fuck all, you little sausage.”

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