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

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.

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.

“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.

“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.”

Oleksandr Usyk outside the bombed-out apartment block in Irpin.
Oleksandr Usyk has donated $205,000 to help rebuild homes in Ukraine. Photograph: Andrii Yushchak

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.

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.

“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.”

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 kids were afraid but, in me, there was no fear. I just had a determination to drive to safety and survive. As soon as we got there my husband joined the Territorial Defence Forces.

“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.”

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.”

Diana Savenok with her daughters Lily and Sofia.
Diana Savenok with her daughters Lily and Sofia. Photograph: Dan Balashov

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.”

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.

“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.”

Oleksandr Usyk in Oleksiy Dzhunkivskyy’s old gym.
Oleksandr Usyk in Oleksiy Dzhunkivskyy’s old gym. ‘It’s impossible to describe my emotions when I went inside.’ Photograph: Andrii Yushchak

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.”

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.”

Usyk smiles when I say that I admired his reaction. Perhaps it even suggested Usyk won the first round of their psychological battle. “I think I was able to get into his head a little bit, Mr Don,” he says. “I have been watching Tyson Fury get into the heads of his opponents for many years. And then I got into his head.”

How is Fury with him when they are alone? “When there are no cameras he is completely different. He plays the bad guy for the cameras. I think he likes movies about love and when he watches them he cries a little. And that’s not a bad thing. When I watch some sentimental movies, I can shed a tear too.”

Usyk is confident their unification bout will soon be agreed, but the most difficult test of his career awaits. Fury’s massive size advantage and deft ringcraft will not be easily overcome, even by a boxing master such as Usyk. “I agree completely,” he says.

But the way he twice outclassed and outfought Anthony Joshua proved Usyk’s calibre in moving from cruiserweight to boxing’s flagship division. Unlike Fury, who resorts to insults, Usyk has generous words for his vanquished rival. “Joshua shouldn’t be upset because he lost to me. He just needs to keep working because he’s a very cool boxer and a nice man. He will have an opportunity to become the world heavyweight champion again.”

Oleksandr Usyk and Tyson Fury come face to face in London
Oleksandr Usyk and Tyson Fury come face to face in London. Photograph: Mikey Williams/Top Rank/Getty Images

While Usyk prepares his bid to become the undisputed heavyweight champion, he will continue helping to rebuild Ukraine. When Diana Savenok heard her home would be the first to be restored she says: “The kids, my husband and I all cried from happiness. Oleksandr Usyk is our national pride. Just imagine what I felt when I found out that our family was under his patronage.

“I wouldn’t say I’m a boxing fan, but we watch his every fight with family and friends. It’s impossible to miss because this is a story of global Ukrainian success.”

Did she know Oleksiy Dzhunkivskyy? “Our children know him because of his boxing club in the basement. My girls are more creative. They didn’t do boxing but they always looked in the windows as they were very curious to watch the training. They say he was so kind. He never shouted at the kids, even when they were annoying and interfering with his training. There’s terrible grief when wonderful people like him are taken away by this war.”

Diana still sounds hopeful even as the killing grinds on. “I want to express my deepest gratitude to every person in the world who supports us. Not even with weapons or money, but just with your feelings and your words. It makes me believe my kids will return home soon.”

Usyk, being a fighter at his very core, is more pragmatic and forceful: “The world, it seems to me, is afraid of giving us the support we need. Ukraine is now a fence that holds back an incredible number of cannibals who want to seize half the world for themselves. Ukraine is the fence holding back Russia.”

He raises his fist when I ask him how best the world can support Ukraine. “Give us tanks, give us arms, and contemplate victory.”

Usyk sounds as calm as he is certain of victory – against Russia and Fury. He turns to look behind him. “This flag was given to me by my friend and colleague when I was serving in the Ukraine border service. It is signed by the guys who are defending our country in Bakhmut. They gave me this flag and it is with me always. It gives me strength.”

A butterfly with burned wings in Diana Savenok’s apartment building
A butterfly with burned wings in Diana Savenok’s apartment building. Photograph: Dan Balashov

Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, recently said of the military effort in Bakhmut: “Last year, 70,000 people lived there. Now only a few civilians are left. There is no place that is not covered with blood. There is no hour when the terrible roar of artillery does not sound. Still, Bakhmut stands.”

A few days after we spoke, two emails arrive from Ukraine. There are updates from Usyk and the Savenok family, who attach a photograph of a beautiful butterfly in their bombed apartment. The butterfly rests on the hand of Diana’s youngest daughter. It reminds me of Usyk’s T-shirt of Ali, the world heavyweight champion who, during great political adversity, could float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.

The words below the photograph are written in simple but moving English: “The butterfly was in our apartment burned by Russian shells. We don’t know how he ended up there. But we know that this is definitely a sign that life will win.”

Donations to UNITED24 and Oleksandr Usyk’s fundraiser to Rebuild Ukraine can be made at https://donorbox.org/hb_usyk


Exclusive by Donald McRae

The GuardianTramp

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