Oleksandr Usyk looms like a wild-eyed, shaven-headed, 6ft 3in, sculpted Ukrainian bogeyman in the ring.
But anyone who’s seen him box – or watched anything more than Usyk’s vicious knockout of Tony Bellew – knows he’s almost the opposite of the stereotypical Eastern European fighter with well-grooved fundamentals and heavy hands.
A loose, fleet-footed, versatile southpaw, Usyk presents a far trickier puzzle for Anthony Joshua to solve at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on Saturday.
And the unbeaten 34-year-old’s returning cornerman – the legendary, mysterious Anatoly Lomachenko – is the secret weapon behind his style.
Former PE teacher Anatoly shuns the limelight and, unlike many modern super-trainers, has no desire to be a gun for hire working with whichever superstar boxer calls him next.
He is perfectly content training his son, pound-for-pound great Vasyl Lomachenko, and occasionally other Ukrainian pros he coached as amateurs: such as ex-pupil Usyk.
The unorthodox training methods of ‘Papachenko’ include his fighters learning gymnastics, juggling and playing solo tennis; 10K open-air swims and exercises underwater (Vasyl can famously hold his breath for up to four and a half minutes).
Then there’s the coordination and reaction drills first used as diagnostic tools for cosmonauts and pilots.
The goal is to train a fighter to their cognitive and physical peak. Teaching a boxer to be mentally sharp, and to move their feet as freely as they throw combinations.
Exhibit A will always be Vasyl Lomachenko, with his dazzling, Matrix-style, in-ring movement. But Usyk is just as much a product of Anatoly’s methods.
The former undisputed cruiserweight world champion trained as an amateur under Anatoly, racking up an incredible 335-15 win-loss record. Usyk won Olympic heavyweight gold at London 2012, the same Games where Joshua triumphed in the super-heavyweight competition.
“Lomachenko’s father made this team,” said Oleksandr Gvozdyk, another Ukraine medallist at London 2012. “He created it. He’s just too humble to say it. But it’s true.
“Ask Usyk. It’s not only about boxing. He’s a psychologist, a leader. He says something and you believe in it. Because everything he tells you, it works.”
The zany, charismatic Usyk cuts a different figure in training to the younger Lomachenko. There’s still the walking around the gym on his hands, another Anatoly staple, and Usyk’s own twist on Hopak folk dancing – sometimes performed in his garish underpants. A hypnotic sight.
Then there’s the footage of Usyk sparring two fighters at once, both pressing forward at the same time as he dodges and fires back. The latter is an in-joke; a set-up poking fun at Usyk’s training methods. But the 18-0 (13 KOs) pro is serious about his respect for Anatoly’s methods.
From the outside, their professional relationship has been curiously stop-start.
Usyk has worked with different cornermen throughout his pro career, including James Ali Bashir, Yuriy Tkachenko and cutman Russ Anbar, who was in his corner when Usyk first stepped up to heavyweight to beat Chazz Witherspoon in 2019.
Post-fight, however, Usyk insisted to reporters that: “Anatoly Lomachenko trains me.”
Yet Anatoly hasn’t officially been Usyk’s cornerman or full-time trainer for a pro fight in more than three years. And that fact alone should give Joshua and his camp chills.
Because in 2018, Usyk fought the fight of his life against previously undefeated Russian Murat Gassiev in Moscow. In what was viewed as a 50-50 bout to decide the world’s no.1 cruiserweight, Usyk dominated with a spearing jab to win a landslide unanimous decision. “My team made me look like I looked in the ring tonight,” said Usyk in the aftermath.
That punch-perfect display was the last time Usyk and Anatoly Lomachenko entered the ring as an official boxer-trainer team. Before Saturday.
From the outside, Joshua’s relationship with his head trainer Robert McCracken mirrors that of Usyk and Anatoly. Both softly-spoken amateur gurus masterminded Olympic gold medals for their proteges. Both AJ and Usyk have also worked with different coaches early in their professional career, before coming back to their former tutors.
For Joshua, that paid dividends the last time he took on a Ukrainian heavyweight: his thrilling knockout victory over Wladimir Klitschko in 2017. McCracken was the glue that held that gameplan together, a calm voice of reason in the cauldron of Wembley, guiding AJ through rough patches, while Klitschko was guided by the less experienced Jonathan Banks.
This weekend, AJ’s side will have no such edge when it comes to in-corner experience. The Brit added Angel Fernandez to his own training team to help him avenge his loss to Andy Ruiz Jr and, smartly, looks lean for this contest in order to combat Usyk’s fluid movement.
Usyk hasn’t looked at his best in his two fights at heavyweight; not quite the force that won three bouts – all in his opponents’ backyards – to claim the original cruiserweight Super Six and gatecrash every pound-for-pound top 10.
So it’s understandable that the younger, bigger, power-punching Joshua starts as favourite. Especially as he seems to have learned how to maximise his dimensions since that shock defeat to Ruiz.
But Joshua should not necessarily expect the same Usyk who struggled at times with Derek Chisora to show up in north London. Especially as Anatoly believes in concocting a specific training regime tailored for each in-ring rival.
“Every opponent is different,” he told the LA Times, breaking his usual silence in 2017. “You’d like to throw one punch and knock them out, but that doesn’t happen. So you prepare for each opponent individually and do different work for each guy.”
When it comes to the Usyk-Anatoly partnership, expect the unexpected – whether that’s unique training methods or a bespoke strategy come fight night. One thing you can be sure of: Anatoly will have a masterplan in place and Usyk will strain every sinew to execute it.