Oleksandr Usyk has edged out Anthony Joshua to retain his heavyweight world titles after an enthralling rematch in Saudi Arabia.
Joshua was taking on Usyk for the second time in 11 months having lost his three heavyweight world titles to the Ukrainian last September.
Joshua, with new trainer Robert Garcia in his corner, produced a much-improved performance 11 months on from his defeat by the former undisputed cruiserweight ruler but Usyk again proved too good as he was given the nod on two of the three scorecards.
Joshua’s showing was marred by his post-fight actions when he picked up two of the four belts on offer, slammed them on the canvas and stormed out of the ring in anger. The Olympic champion regained his composure and returned to the ring before delivering an X-rated speech as emotions boiled over in Saudi Arabia.
An hour earlier, Joshua walked to the ring first for just the second time in his career and was decked out in a black, a change of outfit having been dressed in white for his previous 11 world title fights. In another nod to Mike Tyson, the Brit was accompanied by the motivational words of legendary trainer Cus D’Amato.
Usyk, meanwhile, made his walk from the changing room in the blue and yellow of his homeland as he looked to extend his unbeaten record and cement his position in the upper echelons of the mythical pound-for-pound list.
And it was Usyk who landed the first solid punch of the fight with a left hand to the chin as Joshua looked to work the champion’s body. He then responded to another left hand with a back hand of his own but it was the Ukrainian who made the better start.
Joshua punctuated the start of the second round with a right hand as he looked to take the initiative. He looked to drop down to the body but Usyk’s footwork continued to cause problems, as it did in their first meeting, as he landed flush with his lead right hand.
Joshua landed a clubbing left-right in the opening minute of the third stanza but was struggling to find any consistency in the face of Usyk’s evasive style. The champion worked his way into the round towards the bell but it was the challenger who did enough to nick the session.
Joshua’s corner told him he had won the opening three rounds and the Brit landed a stiff jab to open his account in round four. A right hand forced Usyk back but the smaller man took the shot well on his gloves before planting his feet and landing his dangerous left hand.
Left hands were traded at the start of the fifth round as a more aggressive Joshua looked more comfortable letting his hands go. Joshua looked to have Usyk hurt with a body shot but the Ukrainian complained of a low blow and was given time to recover.
Joshua stalked Usyk at the beginning of the sixth round as he landed a right hand followed by a left hook. The challenger’s right eye was beginning to show signs of wear and tear as the pace began to slow. But Joshua rallied the crowd with a right hand against the ropes. Usyk responded with a left hand-right hook before finishing the session on top.
Joshua looked to rough up Usyk as the fight entered the second half, grabbing his head and looking to land to the body. He looked to takes the centre of the ring and landed a right to which Usyk replied with the opposite hand as he took over in the second half of the round.
The referee ordered the canvas be cleaned before the start of the eighth round as the rivals’ sweat in the desert heat level the ground slippy underfoot. On the resumption, Joshua landed a left hook to Usyk’s ribs but the champion responded with a flurry. But he was forced to grab on when Joshua resumed his assault on the body, as he had promised during their final face-off.
Joshua was finally able to work his way inside and began to maul Usyk’s body in the centre of the ring. He had the champion on the back foot for the first time in 21 rounds as the Ukrainian looked momentarily shaken.
But Usyk showed no ill-effects as he made fast start to the 10th round with a flurry of left hands. Joshua had little answer to the onslaught but suddenly found a right hand from nowhere to stun his adversary. But it was Usyk who came on stronger in the final minute as his powers of recovery came to the fore.
Usyk sensed an early finish with six minutes remaining but Joshua remained dangerous when he switched to the body. But the champion had seemingly limitless reserves of conditioning as he picked his punches to ensure he took a lead into the final round.
Joshua likely needed a stoppage in the final session and did land a right hand against the ropes only for Usyk to respond immediately. And it was the champion who finished on top before the judges confirmed his reign will continue by delivering scores of 113-115, 115-113 and 116-112.