FOR the second time in little more than two years, Anthony Joshua had his world titles ripped from his grasp, at Tottenham last night.
Britain’s WBA, IBF and WBO world heavyweight champion was out-boxed by the cunning Ukrainian southpaw Oleksandr Usyk – losing a unanimous and indisputable decision.
The chance of Joshua ever fighting fellow Brit Tyson Fury for the undisputed title – a fight which came close to fruition this summer – now looks extremely remote.
Unlike pretty much every petrol station in London, Usyk simply refused to run out of gas, as Joshua failed to make his superior strength tell.
Joshua ended the fight pinned to the ropes by a flurry of punches – and that late flourish came after Usyk had already built up an unassailable lead on the judges’ scorecards.
After his stunning knock-out defeat by Andy Ruiz Jr in New York in 2019, this defeat – Joshua’s first on home soil – felt nowhere near as freakish.
Usyk was the superior craftsman and thoroughly deserved his victory.
There will be a re-match next year and Joshua must find a way of figuring the elusive southpaw next time – you would not bet on that.
It had been three long years since Joshua had packed out a British stadium – when he floored Alexander Povetkin at Wembley.
In the meantime, he had won and lost his titles to the chubby Mexican Ruiz and then defeated Kubrat Pulev in front of a handful of spectators late last year.
After years of speculation, a fight with Fury had come close to fruition in Saudi Arabia this summer only for American lawyers to scupper the contest all Britain craved, demanding that Fury completed his trilogy against Wilder first.
Still, Usyk was no mere fill-in merchant. His pedigree as a former undisputed world cruiserweight champion and an Olympic gold medalist was undoubted.
Descended from Cossack warriors, and with a decent Ukrainian following here to cheer him on, Usyk had stepped up to the big boys’ division and added two wins to his unbeaten record – including a defeat of Britain’s Derek Chisora.
Joshua had spoken of his nights out clubbing in Tottenham a decade or so ago and the locals were all dolled up in their finery for a Saturday night on the tiles, relishing the first boxing show to be staged at the magnificent new home of the Spurs.
The old Lane had staged a fair few over the years, including the tragic night when Chris Eubank’s uppercut sent Michael Watson into a coma, as well as Frank Bruno’s defeat of a veteran Joe Bugner.
This new place is a multi-purpose super-venue – from the NFL to rock concerts to the Europa Conference League.
And the Saturday night fight lights added to its spectacle.
Yet just as the atmosphere was ramping up during the undercard bouts – a terrifying hush as Callum Smith’s second-round knock-out sent Lenin Castillo to the canvas, twitching then still.
The man from the Dominican Republic was carried off on a stretcher and regained consciousness in an ambulance but here, especially for the casual fight fan, was a sickening reminder of the nature of this brutal game.
Usyk had bulked up since his cruiserweight days, Joshua is far sleeker than a couple of years ago yet the Brit still weighed in 19lb heavier.
Shortly before ten, it was showtime, with MC Michael Buffer getting them ready to rumble by conducting a full house in the official theme tune to bleeding everything, Sweet Caroline.
Joshua strolled out of the home dressing room, the natural habitat of Harry Kane, in a white satin robe, looking as carefree as a bloke walking his dog on a Sunday morning, as the pyrotechnics spelt out his initials.
The first couple of rounds were cagey, full of mutual respect, Usyk showing rapid hand speed and Joshua – while landing a couple of crisp rights – finding it difficult to figure out his southpaw challenger.
In the third, Usyk began to show his class – connecting with an early uppercut, then hammering the champion with a left hook that rocked back his head.
With the atmosphere growing tense and a small knot of Ukrainians making themselves heard, Joshua landed a clean right to the head but could not follow it up with anything more substantial.
Joshua stepped it up in the fifth, scoring with several telling blows to the body and head – his superior power starting to show – yet Usyk still landed a good few of his own.
The sixth was a slow dance until Joshua edged it with a couple of juddering rights late on – drawing cheers of relief from an anxious audience.
Joshua landed with a left hook in the seventh but Usyk immediately retaliated with a strong straight left and towards the end of the round, he rocked the Brit back with another clubbing left – leaving Joshua in serious bother.
The champion discovered a second wind, though, and won the eighth – bobbing, weaving, finding his target frequently – yet Usyk was durable still.
The ninth was cat-and-mouse – Usyk connecting with a thudding left, Joshua with a decent combination.
Joshua opened up a cut around the Ukrainian’s right eye early in the tenth and Usyk looked rattled for the first time – swinging wildly while the hometown hero performed the more efficient work.
Usyk was bloodied but unbowed and in the penultimate round, he shook Joshua with a straight left and out-boxed the champion.
Close to the final bell, Usyk pinned Joshua to the ropes and almost floored the Brit, underlining his superiority.