‘I was praying: don’t let anybody kill me’ – Oleksandr Usyk on life in Ukrainian army

Oleksandr Usyk, the IBF, WBA and WBO world heavyweight champion, is one of the greatest fighters on the planet but he is not embarrassed to express the fear he felt this year as a soldier in the Ukrainian army. Soon after Vladimir Putin unleashed Russia’s onslaught on Ukraine on 24 February, Usyk and his friend Vasiliy Lomachenko, another of the best boxers in the world, joined the military. But as he patrolled the streets, carrying a machine gun rather than boxing gloves, dread gripped Usyk.

“Every day I was there,” he says, “I was praying and asking: ‘Please, God, don’t let anybody try to kill me. Please don’t let anybody shoot me. And please don’t make me shoot any other person.”

Usyk has been in London this week to promote his belated rematch on 20 August against Anthony Joshua, whom he beat so convincingly to become world champion last September, and he looks up after making that candid admission. “But if I had felt in danger, if I feel my life or my family is in jeopardy, I would have [killed a Russian soldier].”

Despite that very human reaction in a war zone, Usyk stresses: “I really didn’t want to leave our country. I didn’t want to leave our city. At one point I went to the hospital where soldiers were wounded and getting rehabilitation and they asked me to go, to fight [Joshua], to fight for the country. They said if you go there, you’re going to help our country even more instead of fighting inside Ukraine.”

Usyk left the war in late March to begin his training camp in Poland but footage on social media soon emerged which suggested that one of his former houses had been ransacked by invading Russian soldiers . “It was not my former house,” Usyk says calmly. “It’s my regular house in Vorzel. That house belongs to me and yes, it’s true. Russian soldiers broke in. They broke things and they made some kind of living space and stayed there for a while.

“My family is not in Ukraine but a lot of my close friends are still in the country. I’m in touch with them every day. I ask them, because it’s very important for me, how are they feeling? Are they in a safe place? I want to live there and right after the fight I’m going back to Ukraine.”

Will he return as a soldier? Usyk shakes his head because he knows that his place as one of the most famous men in Ukraine means that “nobody will let me go to the front line. But a lot of my close friends are on the front line. I’m supporting them and with this fight I want to bring them some kind of joy in between what they do.”

Usyk’s anger towards Russia is obvious. His eyes fix on me in a steely gaze when I mention reading about a young Russian soldier captured in Ukraine. He was a boxing fan who admired Usyk and Lomachenko and he said his perceptions of the invasion changed when he realised that two such significant fighters had enlisted in the Ukrainian army. Usyk shrugs and concentrates instead on the propaganda that is being beamed into ordinary Russian homes.

“I don’t believe what they are saying because they are not showing what is true in their country. They are bombing soldiers. They are bombing army battalions. But they are not showing the bombs landing on civilian houses or hospitals. Two days ago in Kyiv a bomb landed on the house where civilians lived. Two days ago a rocket landed on a shopping mall in Kremenchuk where all the normal people were. Their soldiers are saying on their TV that [Ukrainians] are shooting each other. So I don’t trust what they say.”

It feels prosaic to break away from the war and to ask Usyk about Joshua. But retaining his titles will mean so much to people in Ukraine and that weight of responsibility lends a quiet edge to his assessment of the man he beat so comprehensively last year. It was only his third fight as a heavyweight, having moved up from the cruiserweight division where he was an imperious undisputed champion, but Usyk was unfazed when facing a much bigger and more powerful man.

He insists that Joshua never hurt him and he welcomes the idea that the British fighter will box much more aggressively in August. “Let him think about that,” Usyk says of speculation that Joshua is intent on trying to knock him out. “Let him desire that.”

Usyk knows he has much more natural talent than Joshua, with superior skills, and he believes he will be even better in the rematch. “I have watched the first fight many times with my whole team. We look at the mistakes I made and we will work on them to make sure we don’t make them again. I don’t think about [Joshua] and I really don’t care whether he has a new tactic or a new trainer. I’m just thinking about me. We are working very hard, we are setting new goals and with the Lord’s help we will be better.”

When I ask if he found Joshua predictable in the ring, Usyk nods. “Yes.”

The champion’s haircut is less predictable – with the right side of his head shaved and the left side resembling a gleaming comb over. “It’s a traditional Ukrainian Cossack warrior haircut,” Usyk says soberly.

He was once an exuberant joker, full of laughter and capers, but war has changed him. Usyk now seems deadly serious and he nods sadly. “Sometimes I force myself to smile. Sometimes I force myself to sing. I don’t even know how to explain it.”

The world heavyweight champion looks briefly helpless. “My children are asking: ‘Father, why do they want to kill us?’” he says of the Russian invasion. Usyk looks desolate as, after a pause, he finally says: “And I don’t know what to tell them.”