As he trudged back to his stool, Oleksandr Usyk was on the brink.
He’d taken a volley of hard body shots from Anthony Joshua in the ninth round of their unified heavyweight title fight and looked, for all intents and purposes, as if he’d fold in the subsequent three minutes against a powerful big man bent on regaining championship status.
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AJ PILES ON THE PRESSURE 😲<br><br>HUGE ONSLAUGHT <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/UsykJoshua2?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#UsykJoshua2</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/RageOnTheRedSea?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#RageOnTheRedSea</a> <a href="https://t.co/6E12iObyXh">pic.twitter.com/6E12iObyXh</a>
But then he didn’t.
In fact, not only did Usyk refuse to let a nearly year-long reign wither in the Saudi desert, he managed to compellingly turn fight-altering momentum against his foe while simultaneously setting up the biggest match of the current heavyweight era.
And as he grabbed the microphone after the fight, he knew it.
“This is already history,” Usyk said.
“Many generations are gonna watch this fight. Especially the round when somebody tried to beat me hard. By I stood up to it and I turned it around.”
Turned it around in the form of a one-sidedly violent 10th round that left Joshua a spent, rubber-legged shell with little to offer over the final six minutes before a closer-than-necessary split-decision verdict.
Usyk and Joshua were awarded matching 115-113 verdicts (seven rounds to five) on the first two scorecards read by Michael Buffer, but the reigning IBF/IBO/WBA/WBO champion got a 116-112 nod on the third to retain his jewelry and set his sights on the only belt he doesn’t own.
Tyson Fury, it’s your move.
“Yes, of course (I want Fury),” Usyk said.
“I’m sure that Tyson Fury is not retired yet. I’m convinced he wants to fight me. I want to fight him. If I’m not fighting Tyson Fury, I’m not fighting at all.”
The still-unbeaten Brit is still the WBC’s champion of record but had played coy about his future intentions since last defending his title against Dillian Whyte in April.
He’d said as recently as last week that the latest retirement decision was authentic, but he was active on social media shortly after Saturday’s fight with the throaty claim that he’d annihilate both Usyk and Joshua on the same night.
He boastfully upped the ante and all but made a return official.
“Get your f—king checkbook out because the Gypsy King is here to stay,” he said. “Forever.”
Given Fury's personality, it's impossible to believe a full-on unification will occur until the two men are in a ring together.
But the comprehensive nature of the Ukrainian's second win over Joshua—aside from some early rounds and the aforementioned ninth—it's just as impossible not to be titillated by the prospect of the division's top talents meeting for all the marbles.
Though shorter by three inches and lighter by more than 20 pounds, Usyk was again able to confound his less-polished foe with frenetic hand and foot movement that had the second-tier Englishman appearing more thoughtful and tentative than active and aggressive.
An essentially even first four rounds soon gave way to a middle stretch in which Usyk strafed Joshua with southpaw jabs and snapping right hands that didn't register on the concussive scale so much as they left the former titleholder less willing to work his own offense.
Joshua began finding the mark with body work in the eighth, though, and had Usyk in serious discomfort through the ninth, eliciting winces and deep breaths that seemed to foreshadow a dramatic charge that'd enable him to dominate down the stretch.
Instead, Usyk charged from his corner to start the 10th, walked through a hard right at the round's midway point and stepped on the gas in the final minute with a barrage that had Joshua reeling.
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USYK ABSOLUTELY LAYS IT ON ANTHONY JOSHUA 🤯<a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/UsykJoshua2?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#UsykJoshua2</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/RageOnTheRedSea?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#RageOnTheRedSea</a> <a href="https://t.co/ol0s5oeY6G">pic.twitter.com/ol0s5oeY6G</a>
He won the final three rounds on all three scorecards in their first fight last September and controlled the same stretch in the rematch, earning the respect of Joshua's longtime promotional ally, Eddie Hearn.
"In the ninth round I ran over. I thought we had it," he said.
"What Usyk did in the 10th, 11th and 12th was incredible and that was the difference tonight. Usyk came out like a train.
"That 10th round was the moment he decided to retain his titles. and what he did in the 10th, 11th and 12th was
why he's the pound-for-pound No. 1. Championship rounds from a championship fighter."
It'll be a significantly bigger challenge, literally and figuratively, to beat Fury, who stands three inches taller than Joshua at 6'9", has a pterodactyl-like 85" reach and weighed 264.75 pounds for his last fight, more than 43 pounds heavier than Usyk's career-high 221.5.
He has 23 KOs in 32 wins and has won three straight by stoppage, but also has surprisingly nimble feet for a big man and handled the power of KO artist Deontay Wilder while going 2-0-1 against him across 30 rounds of action.
Fury-Wilder was the most recent meeting of top-shelf unbeaten title claimants.
A match between he and Usyk, though, would feel much bigger because of their shared placements on respected pound-for-pound lists and impressive lists of in-ring victims.
Fury would presumably open as a sizable betting favorite given the size advantages and prodigious skill set, but the 2012 Olympic heavyweight gold medalist will certainly have supporters, too. And Hearn is already going on record as one of them.
"AJ wasn't good enough," he said. And I'm not sure anyone can beat Oleksandr Usyk."