Joshua v Usyk: Ukrainian aiming to follow Klitschko brothers, Povetkin and Valuev

By Sports Desk September 23, 2021

Oleksandr Usyk will aim to make the most of his opportunity on Saturday, with the Ukrainian looking to upset the odds and dethrone Anthony Joshua in London. 

Already holding the IBF, WBA and WBO titles, heavyweight Joshua appeared set for a hugely lucrative unification showdown with Tyson Fury, holder of the WBC belt, that would identify an undisputed champion in the division. 

An arbitration hearing put paid to that plan, though, as Fury was ordered to face Deontay Wilder for a third time, denying boxing fans the fight they desperately wanted to see. 

However, Usyk is an intriguing prospect for Joshua to deal with. Dominant at cruiserweight before stepping up, the 34-year-old has the potential to cause problems, considering both his boxing skills and outstanding resume. 

Britain may dominate right now, but fighters from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Republics have ruled the roost at different times, albeit with varying degrees of longevity.  

 

VITALI KLITSCHKO

The baton passed from the famed heavyweights of the 1990s to the coming generation when Lennox Lewis uncharacteristically slugged his way to victory over Vitali Klitschko in Los Angeles in June 2003. The last man standing from his era after comprehensively beating Mike Tyson, Lewis was given hell by "Dr Steelhammer" but managed to inflict enough damage for the challenger to be stopped on cuts after six gruelling rounds.

Lewis never boxed again and Klitschko never lost again, winning 13 fights in succession either side of a four-year retirement. He lifted the WBC title and settled a family grudge by stopping Corrie Sanders in April 2004. He was never without the famous green belt in the ring up until he hung up his gloves in 2012 to focus full-time on a political career than now sees Vitali serving at the Mayor of Kyiv.

WLADIMIR KLITSCHKO

The younger Klitschko was the first eastern European to lift a heavyweight title in the 21st century when he twice floored Chris Byrd on the way to a unanimous decision to win the WBO belt in October 2000. Byrd became champion in his previous fight when, way down on the cards, Vitali withdrew on his stool due to a shoulder injury. It meant Vitali was returning a favour against Sanders, who demolished Wladimir over two harrowing rounds in March 2003.

Another knockout loss followed a little over a year with the vacant WBO strap on the line against Lamon Brewster. At that stage, it was impossible to foresee the imperious dominance that would follow a second win over Byrd for the IBF and 18 successful defences. Closing out his career with losses to Fury and Joshua carried a heavy sense changing eras, as with his brother and Lewis a decade and a half earlier.

NIKOLAI VALUEV

All the men on this list could lay claim to the moniker of "Beast from the East" but none would be able to pull it off as well as the preposterously proportioned Valuev. Standing at 7ft and tipping the scales at over 300lbs, he became the tallest and heaviest heavyweight champion in history. Valuev's skills were akin to a rudimentary club fighter, but he was just far too big for most opponents to handle.

Each of his two stints as WBA ruler began with prophetically forgettable points wins over John Ruiz and after a 2008 loss to a pot-shotting David Haye he walked away to a varied post-fight career. Like Klitschko he entered politics, winning election to the State Duma in Russia's 2011 parliamentary election. He also became an unlikely face of children's television in his homeland, presenting the long-running "Good Night, Little Ones!".

SIARHEI LIAKHOVICH

Liakhovich's period reign as WBO champion lasted seven months. The Belarusian won a unanimous decision win over Brewster in April 2006, despite taking a knee in the seventh. He was up on the cards when Shannon Briggs dramatically knocked him through the ropes during the closing seconds of his first defence. Briggs was the last American to get his hands on any portion of the heavyweight title before Wilder's WBC reign began in 2015. Two years earlier, the "Bronze Bomber" left Liakhovich quivering on the canvas after a terrifying first-round KO.

OLEG MASKAEV

Three months before Briggs' late show against Liakhovich, Maskaev battered one-time Lewis conqueror Hasim Rahman to defeat inside the final minute of their August 2006 rematch in Las Vegas. A product of the Soviet amateur system, Maskaev based himself in the US for the majority of his professional career. He was 37 by the time he ripped the WBC crown from Rahman and, after a successful defence against Okello Peter in Moscow, the Kazakh-born fighter was knocked out by Samuel Peter - the "Nigerian Nightmare" who was himself stopped by a returning Vitali Klitschko next time out.

RUSLAN CHAGAEV

If the WBA was a sofa, Chagaev would be the loose change they continue to find lurking between the cushions. He first won the organisation's belt with a majority decision win over Valuev in April 2007, although subsequent illness and injury led to him being declared "champion in recess". As such, the WBA belt was not on the line when his corner waved off a June 2009 shellacking at the hands of Wladimir Klitschko after nine rounds.

The organisation then elected to install Chagaev not as its champion but number one challenger, and he dropped an August 2011 decision to Alexander Povetkin for the vacant belt. The story did not end there, however, as Chagaev and the unheralded Fres Oquendo were selected to box for the WBA's vacant "regular" title in July 2014. Almost two years and one competitive round later, Chagaev was knocked out by Lucas Browne, who then failed a drugs test. The Uzbek was given back his title, only to be stripped in July 2016 for failing to pay the WBA sanctioning fees for that already barely remembered Oquendo contest, seemingly ending the saga.

SULTAN IBRAGIMOV

Not one to linger like Chagaev, Russia's Sydney 2000 heavyweight silver medallist Ibragimov outpointed Briggs in his 22nd professional bout to lift the WBO belt in June 2007. Under the tutelage of Jeff Mayweather, he comfortably beat the great Evander Holyfield in his first defence. A unification showdown with Wladimir Klitschko was most notable for the Madison Square Garden crowd booing a safety-first affair. With that sole defeat, Ibragimov was gone, retiring in 2009 due to persistent injuries to his left hand.

ALEXANDER POVETKIN

Another decorated amateur, Povetkin won super-heavyweight gold at the 2004 Olympics and made four defences of the WBA title after beating Chagaev. To repeat a theme, all roads led to an uncompromising Klitschko, with Wladimir sending him to the canvas four times during a landslide Moscow triumph in October 2013. Failed drugs tests did little for Povetkin's wider reputation and put paid to a proposed meeting with Wilder.

A promising start unravelled to a seventh-round stoppage when challenging Joshua in September 2018, although Povetkin sensationally recovered from two knockdowns to ice Dillian Whyte this year. After losing the rematch, the Russian announced his retirement at the age of 41.

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  • Bungles no more – Burrow & Chase restoring Cincinnati as AFC contenders Bungles no more – Burrow & Chase restoring Cincinnati as AFC contenders

    Few things in the NFL are as important as continuity.

    Teams that develop an understanding through the experience of consistently lining up with the same players have a distinctly better shot of enjoying success than those who are constantly chopping and changing.

    Joe Burrow and Ja'Marr Chase already had a well-established rapport from their time at LSU, in which they combined for 20 passing touchdowns in 2019 as a high-powered passing game helped the Tigers surge to a National Championship.

    The Cincinnati Bengals banked on that partnership translating to the pro game. A year after taking Burrow with the first overall pick in 2020, they passed on the top offensive linemen in the draft, much to the bemusement of many observers, to select Chase fifth overall.

    Their faith in the mind meld between quarterback and wide receiver has, to this point, been handsomely rewarded.

    Burrow threw for a career-high 416 yards and three touchdowns on Sunday while Chase went for 201 yards and a score on eight catches to help the Bengals emphatically brush aside the Baltimore Ravens 41-17 and take the lead in the AFC North.

    With Cincinnati sitting pretty at 5-2, doubts over whether Burrow could showcase the required progress after the knee injury that prematurely ended his rookie year are a thing of the past. Meanwhile, Chase is in hot pursuit of history and looks a near-lock for Offensive Rookie of the Year.

    Separated by a year, Burrow and Chase remain firmly on the same page, and they are helping a well-balanced Bengals team write an exciting new chapter in the story of a franchise that has predominantly been a tale of its shortcomings.

     

    Burrow joins exclusive group

    Burrow, having racked up 406 yards and three scoring throws in a meeting with the Cleveland Browns last year, became the fourth player with two games with at least 400 yards and three touchdown passes within his first 20 career outings. 

    He joins a select club also featuring Patrick Mahomes, Nick Foles and Billy Volek.

    Given the contrasting careers experienced by those three quarterbacks, that achievement is no guarantee of future success.

    However, the displays Burrow has put on show through seven games suggest he is on the right path to vindicating his selection as a first overall pick and becoming a top-tier NFL quarterback.

    Burrow does not have the strongest arm in the league, but he can beat defenses with his accuracy and his poise, both of which came to the fore against the Ravens.

    He delivered an accurate well-thrown ball on 80.6 per cent of his passes against the Ravens, according to Stats Perform data. That was only just above the league average of 79.8 for the week but it was the highest among quarterbacks who threw 10 passes to have averaged at least nine air yards per attempt.

    Burrow finished the game with 11 air yards per attempt, illustrating his willingness to push the ball deep regardless of his perceived deficiencies in arm strength compared to some of the league's best.

    And he remained accurate and aggressive in the face of pressure, his composure and intelligent movement in the pocket allowing him to excel even with Ravens pass rushers in his vicinity.

    Burrow's well-thrown percentage under duress was 81.8 per cent, while he averaged 13.55 air yards on his 11 pass attempts with pressure.

    Frustrating the Ravens with his ability to evade defenders in the pocket, Burrow's cool was exemplified by the Bengals' first touchdown of the game, which saw him shuffle to his left to avoid the monstrous figure of Calais Campbell after a play-action fake and uncork a perfect deep ball to an open C.J. Uzomah.

    His prowess in that area has enabled Burrow to thrive while negating the issues on a still problematic offensive line, and having a receiver on a record-setting pace who has put concerns over his skill set to bed has significantly aided the 2019 Heisman Trophy winner's cause.

     

    Chase on course for history

    The Bengals selected Chase after a pre-draft process that saw plenty of pundits voice their doubts about a player who opted out of the 2020 college football season and who often relied more on physicality than his route-running to defeat the coverage of opposing cornerbacks.

    Yet across the first seven games, Chase has made the Bengals' selection look astute by posting 754 receiving yards and scoring six touchdowns.

    Chase's total puts him second in the league in receiving yards and means he has surpassed Harlon Hill (685 in 1954) for the most such yards by a player in his first seven career games all-time.

    Averaging 107.7 yards per game, he is on track to smash the rookie receiving yards record set by former LSU team-mate Justin Jefferson, who finished the 2020 season with 1,400.

    Chase is on pace for 1,830 yards and he is producing at such a rate in part because of the prowess he has displayed as a route-runner.

    Going against an All-Pro cornerback in Marlon Humphrey, who went into Week 7 having allowed receivers to get open on only 19 of his 72 coverage matchups, Chase excelled at creating separation.

    With 32 seconds left in the first half, Chase beat Humphrey's press coverage through selling an outside release and cleverly using his hands to render the corner's attempt to jam him immaterial as he got free over the middle for a 26-yard catch and run, setting Cincinnati up for a go-ahead field goal.

    But Chase saved his best for the game-breaking play of the contest. Initially stemming outside as he lined up against Humphrey again, Chase showed his lower-body flexibility with a fluid break back to the inside on the slant. He then adjusted to a pass thrown slightly behind him before using his balance and body control to avoid three tackle attempts and proceeded to gallop free for an 82-yard score from which the Ravens never looked like recovering.

    Announcer Kevin Harlan's description of Humphrey being "in a blender" could hardly have been more accurate and it encapsulated what Chase has blossomed into at the next level.

    Producing a big play on 41.1 per cent of his targets – the sixth-highest rate among receivers with at least 25 targets – Chase is a wideout who can discombobulate even the most accomplished NFL corners, and more defenders seem likely to suffer the same fate as Humphrey as the Bengals plot a long-awaited return to the playoffs.

    Defense defying expectations

    Cincinnati's rise back to prominence is not all about Burrow and Chase, though.

    They have played the most substantial role in the Bengals putting up 6.22 yards per play on offense, the third-best average in the league.

    Yet a Bengals defense that held the Ravens to their lowest points total of the campaign is also worthy of significant praise.

    Cincinnati's defense is allowing 5.14 opponent yards per play, the fourth-fewest in the NFL, the Bengals doing an excellent job of putting their opponents behind the sticks.

    Indeed, only the Carolina Panthers (48) have forced more negative plays from their opponents than the Bengals (47).

    The combination of an efficient offense boasting a receiver adept at delivering explosive plays and a defense that excels at creating plays where their opponents lose yardage is a winning formula that can lift the Bengals to stunning upsets over well-established contenders like the Ravens.

    It remains to be seen whether it can be sustained, but a franchise that at regular intervals in its history has been known for poor personnel decisions and underwhelming performances is being rewarded for making the right choice in this year's draft and seeing its roster compete with rivals that entered the season viewed as existing on another level altogether.

    It's way too early to declare the Bengals a complete team. Seven weeks of evidence is not enough for an organisation that has not enjoyed a winning season since 2015. However, what can be said with some certainty is Burrow, Chase and a defense performing well above expectations have put the Bengals in a position where results akin to what they produced in Baltimore will not be a surprise for much longer.

  • Why still him? Liverpool obliteration leaves Solskjaer with nowhere left to hide Why still him? Liverpool obliteration leaves Solskjaer with nowhere left to hide

    Manchester City's 6-1 demolition of Manchester United at Old Trafford, 10 years and one day ago, was probably the worst defeat ever endured by Alex Ferguson.

    In the club's modern history, even in the post-Fergie wilderness, there had never quite been an occasion to match it, even accounting for Tottenham's victory by the same scoreline last year.

    There has now.

    Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, the hero of Barcelona 1999, knew a thing or two about creating spectacles as a player. As a manager, he still has the knack.

    Manchester United 0, Liverpool 5. Has there ever been a more abject, visceral demolition of the 20-time English champions in the Premier League era? Has it ever looked this bad?

    A goal down after five minutes and a missed Bruno Fernandes sitter. A hat-trick for Mohamed Salah, the first in the league away to United since QPR's Dennis Bailey in 1992. A disallowed goal for Cristiano Ronaldo. A 15-minute cameo for Paul Pogba that ended in a red card. A total of 35 home goals conceded in 2021, their worst such return for 60 years. The biggest win for Liverpool over their rivals since 1925. And hardly a whiff of surprise about the whole sordid thing.

    As former midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger tweeted at full-time: "A devastating day for all Man Utd supporters and the club but it didn't come out of nowhere. It was not a surprise."

    City's 6-1 win in October 2011 was a watershed moment; a giant step on the way to their first Premier League title. But it was still an aberration: after all, United finished level on points that season and responded by winning the trophy back a year later.

    This was more in keeping with Liverpool and City's 3-0 wins over David Moyes' United. Those games, too, were barely contests, barely surprising given United's problems, and barely left the manager anywhere to hide.

    The Glazers have stood by Solskjaer, resolutely, perhaps misguidedly. Watching United lose 3-1 at Anfield was enough for them to sack Jose Mourinho three years ago. If they tuned in to Sunday's match, if they saw homecoming hero Ronaldo eclipsed by Salah and 'legacy fans' leaving in droves at half-time, can they afford not to act?

    United have played nine games since the fanfare of Ronaldo's goalscoring return against Newcastle United. They have won three of those, drawn one and lost five.

    That's bad enough, but consider the circumstances. Only a last-second penalty save from David de Gea ensured the 2-1 win at West Ham; only Ronaldo's injury-time intervention salvaged an undeserved victory over Villarreal; only Tom Davies' strange decision to pass to the offside Yerry Mina, rather than shoot, meant Everton left Old Trafford with only a 1-1 draw.

    Fine margins have been the difference between United's form being considered merely unacceptable, and the alarms this embarrassment will sound. Nobody who has watched them across those nine matches could seriously claim what happened against Liverpool could not have been foreseen.

    The rain-soaked turf was a glistening canvas depiction of everything wrong about Solskjaer's team – if we needed reminding.

    There are the collective tactical concerns, as seen for Naby Keita's opening goal, when Mason Greenwood and Aaron Wan-Bissaka gave up their positions to press Liverpool with all the ferocity and endeavour of an apathetic tortoise.

    There are the individual mistakes, some of which would be incomprehensible for amateurs, never mind those playing for the world's most supported football club. Keita and Salah each scored with the United back five blocking not their route to de Gea's goal, but back to the halfway line. Before Diogo Jota's tap-in, Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw, defenders who cost a combined £110million, shied away from a loose ball as though under duress to keep dirt off the sponsor logos on their shirts.

    United have committed eight errors leading to shots this season, the joint-most in the Premier League along with Wolves. But where Bruno Lage's men counter that through tackling – only eight sides have won more – United have won a league-low 61. When it comes to making amends for these mistakes, the Red Devils right now are either not interested or not capable.

    Salah completed his hat-trick early in the second half, Ronaldo had a fine goal of his own disallowed by VAR, but many United fans were no longer in the stadium to watch. The loyalty to Solskjaer's legacy as a player has kept him immune to the kind of vitriol seen in the final days of Moyes, or Louis van Gaal, or Mourinho, but little served up by any of Fergie's successors was quite as horrifying as this.

    United's daunting run of games since the October international break has yielded one win, two defeats, five goals scored and 11 conceded. With Tottenham, Atalanta and City to come next, you'd expect them to lose all three.

    This is Manchester United's new normal: a total, shameful mess.

  • El Clasico: Alaba and Vinicius illustrate widening gap between Madrid and Barca El Clasico: Alaba and Vinicius illustrate widening gap between Madrid and Barca

    David Alaba is one of few footballers who can claim to have experienced consistent success against Barcelona in the 21st century and he once again proved a thorn in their side as El Clasico went in Real Madrid's favour at Camp Nou.

    In three games against Barca for Bayern Munich, Alaba enjoyed a 100 per cent win record.

    Bayern scored 15 goals and conceded just two across those matches, eight of those coming in Die Roten's incredible Champions League quarter-final win of 2020.

    And the Austria international remains unbeaten versus the Blaugrana, his stunning left-foot finish helping settle a game in which Barca misfired in their first Clasico since Lionel Messi's departure and Madrid's brightest young talent rose to the occasion.

     

    Alaba opens his account in style

    Alaba's goal, his first since joining Madrid, was one worthy of winning a fixture of such magnitude. Having won the ball from Memphis Depay on the edge of his own box, he surged forward before finding Vinicius Junior on the left flank.

    The former Bayern star initially wanted the return pass but Vinicius eschewed that option, instead playing a superb ball to Rodrygo Goes in the centre.

    Rodrygo's pass to find Alaba continuing his charge was inch-perfect, only bettered by the quality of a blistering finish from just inside the area.

    Barca struggled to deal with Madrid's threat down the left flank throughout, Vinicius taking the chance to emerge as the star of a Clasico absent its departed modern-day leading man.

     

    Vinicius shines in the spotlight

    Vinicius went into the fixture having scored seven goals and provided the assist for three in all competitions. He did not add to either of those tallies but his influence across the Brazilian's 87 minutes on the pitch was obvious,

    Ensuring Sergino Dest endured a difficult afternoon at both ends of the pitch, Vinicius attempted a game-high eight dribbles, four of which were successful.

    No player on the field participated in (20) or won more duels (10) as Vinicius excelled at putting Barca under pressure.

    Only Depay (six) and Ansu Fati (seven) had more touches in the opposition box, yet Barca's inability to make the most of those touches was telling.

    Barca bereft of attacking inspiration

    Alaba's shot that gave Madrid the lead had an Expected Goals (xG) value of 0.08, reflecting the difficulty he should have had in beating Marc-Andre ter Stegen.

    It came seven minutes after Dest had blazed high over the crossbar with the goal seemingly at his mercy from close range. Barca did not have a chance as presentable until Sergio Aguero scored with a point-blank effort from effectively the final kick of the game after Lucas Vazquez had put it to bed with Madrid's second goal.

     

    Barca finished with 12 shots but only two on target. Madrid hit the target with five of their 10 efforts. Nine of Barca's shots came from inside the box but they ended a frustrating encounter with only two 'big chances' compared to three for Los Blancos.

    Those numbers are reflective of a game in which, without Messi there to stretch Madrid's shape, Carlo Ancelotti's men succeeded in staying deep and compact and hitting Barca on the counter, which they twice did to devastating effect.

    When Barca got into the final third, the lack of creativity and threat in contrast to Madrid was startling.

    Ronald Koeman could do nothing to prevent Messi from leaving under the financial pressures faced by Barca and he certainly cannot be blamed for a howitzer of a strike from Alaba that tilted matters in Madrid's favour.

    Yet there will surely be questions asked as to how a man who played under Johan Cruyff at Barca can oversee a team that, at least on Sunday, was so desperately short of the attacking flair that has for so long defined this famous club.

    The final score may have looked tight but, in the post-Messi era, the gap between Barca and their arch-rivals is a chasm.

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