Athletes are often asked — indeed, they ask themselves — “How bad do you want it?”
It’s as if desire could be quantified. Truth is, that’s an empty question that elicits mostly vacant responses. The athlete usually understands his or her role in this exchange: To make it pass as quickly and mercifully as possible, providing for a typically glazed response like This means the world to me or I’ve been dreaming of this since I was a kid.
Desire can’t be calibrated with words. Nor does it rise with a soundtrack meant to sell sneakers or sports drinks. Still, the vacuous question causes the honest athlete to ask a real one:
Did I really kill myself training for this?
How much pain did I take for the cause?
Desire is commensurate with motivation and revealed in training. And with that in mind, there’s actually a pretty accurate way to gauge just how badly Oleksandr Usyk wants to retain the three heavyweight belts he won from Anthony Joshua in their rematch Saturday in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
Usyk’s career is without precedent. He’s the former undisputed cruiserweight champion, an Olympic gold medalist and the last man to beat the much-feared Artur Beterbiev. But in preparation for this fight he’s done things even he’s never done before. To wit:
Swimming 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) in a five-hour training session.
Riding a bike 100 kilometers (62.1 miles) in 110-degree heat, a desert trek outside Dubai, where he did most of his training.
Holding his breath for four minutes and 40 seconds, a personal best that also breaks the record of his friend and stablemate, Vasiliy Lomachenko, who held his breath for a mere 4:20 in preparation for one of his two Olympic golds.
Did I mention there’s a war? And that Usyk — of Kyiv by way of Crimea — has become a proxy for the hopes of his fellow Ukrainians?
So, yeah, you can say that Usyk wants it real bad. Still, to say as much almost demeans the cause itself. Finally, here’s a fight that should defy description as a war. And yet it’s a metaphor that many Ukrainians seem eager to invoke.
Usyk was in London being body scanned for a video game when the Russians invaded. There were tens of millions on the line for the Joshua rematch, but he hastily returned home, crossing the border though Poland and joining his local militia. For all the political fervor, it was a decision to, at the least, embrace great risk. Usyk has three children (all now safe in Europe, including the daughter who turned 12 the day the bombing began) — enough to earn him an exemption from military service. At the time, most military and political analysts — who apparently have nothing on sportswriters — considered the fall of Kyiv to be a foregone conclusion.
“In the first month of the war I lost 10 pounds,” Usyk told The Guardian’s Donald McCrae. “Every day I was there, 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.”
But then Kyiv survived. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy (whom Usyk recently praised) realized that good PR was a boon in the struggle to obtain munitions and supplies from the West. And Usyk found himself visiting wounded soldiers in a hospital in Lviv.
“As soon as they saw him, they started clapping and cheering him,” says Usyk’s manager, Egis Klimas. “They said, ‘Please, please, you don’t have to be here. We’ll fight, you go.’ Actually, it was a wounded soldier who convinced Usyk “to leave the country and make the rematch.”
I ask Klimas if he was there. He laughs at me.
“We spoke on the phone,” he says. “You’re not gonna find my ass there.”
Klimas is a boxing manager and a three-time manager of the year. He’s built an empire signing the best talent from the former Eastern Bloc nations — not just Usyk, but Lomachenko, Sergey Kovalev, Evgeny Gradovich and WBO interim middleweight titlist Janibek Alimkhanuly. He doesn’t measure himself in desire, but in what he gets for his clients — the fights and the money, of which he once had precious little, just $42 when he arrived in Seattle 33 years ago. But he’s getting testy with the war questions which inevitably lack nuance. Most fighters from the former Soviet republics avoid these questions entirely, fearing something could be lost in translation and somebody might be jeopardized back home.
Still, I find myself unable to not ask about the pressure Usyk faces.
Klimas, who served in the Soviet army before emigrating from his native Lithuania, finally concedes with exasperation: “It’s a lot of pressure, OK? It’s pressure from Ukraine, from the government. It’s pressure from Russia. It’s pressure from the British.”
From the British? I ask.
“I’m getting emails about somebody going to try to poison [Usyk] in the locker room.”
Irrational people, he means, as opposed to merely rational governments.
Still, Usyk has done his part, wearing Ukrainian colors or traditional Cossack garb. If the Saudis were as good in promoting fights as they are in procuring them, more people in the States might have gotten his message: That his desire to win for his God and his Motherland is commensurate with a new physique his promoter has compared to a “cyborg,” and an ability not to breathe for 280 seconds.
Last, he negotiated a contract to ensure the fight could be seen for free back home in Ukraine. That’s confidence.
What’s more, it informs the Ukrainian desire to have him fight in the middle of a war. Since 1996, Ukraine has won 15 Olympic medals and produced eight professional champions. In this still young century, Usyk is Ukraine’s third heavyweight champion. In other words, you can hold your breath all you want, but they’re pretty good at this.