AS Oleksandr Usyk steps into the ring to fight Anthony Joshua for the WBA, WBO and IBF heavyweight belts on Saturday at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, the Ukrainian could be forgiven for reminiscing about how far he’s come.
The 34-year-old only made his debut in the heavyweight division in 2019, after crushing everyone at cruiserweight level.
But already he’s disposed of the likes of Chazz Witherspoon and Derek Chisora to became the mandatory challenger that poses a serious threat to AJ this weekend.
Should he win, it would cap an incredible journey for Usyk, who only turned pro aged 26 after a grounding that included 35o amateur fights.
In 2012, he won a gold medal at the 2012 Olympics – a year after he achieved the same feat at the World Championships.
However, it wasn’t always so easy for the man nicknamed The Cat.
SPORT WAS HIS SALVATION
Usyk was born in Ukraine’s Crimea region in the city of Simferopol in 1987, and immediately was thrust into a life where his only release was sport.
“As a child, I did some wrestling, hand-to-hand combat, karate… But without fanaticism,” he revealed.
“We would do push-ups, squats, sometimes learned some simple techniques.”
However, it seemed that a life in football was more likely a path out of the poverty of Simferopol.
Up until the age of 15, Usyk was in the academy of then-Ukrainian Premier League side SC Tavriya Simferopol.
But the cost of playing football was too much for his parents, and he picked up his first pair of boxing gloves in 2002.
“(I) played for Tavria from Simferopol, and I did pretty well. I was never a benchwarmer, I was always a starter.
“Soccer demanded some very serious expenses. And two or three hundred hryvnias was a substantial amount for my parents.
“Boxing was simpler, more sociable. The coach gave me his gloves, his wife sewed them into the right form.
“The only thing that my mom spent money on was a travel ticket.”
FRUIT-SELLER AND FARM WORKER
Usyk has always had a strong work ethic, even when he was a teenager.
Coming from poor background and having to support his family, he took on jobs that helped them stay afloat.
That included working on a farm, as well as collecting and selling fruit and ice cream on the streets to make ends meet.
“I sold ice cream, I sold apricots, I sold peaches, I worked on a farm, I grazed cattle,” he said.
“I am not ashamed of this, because everything I did, I did in order to survive. I wanted to help my family and that’s normal.”
In 2006, Usyk showed his boxing promise by reaching the semi finals of the European Championships.
Two years later, he was victorious at the Strandja Cup in Bulgaria, an event that goes a long way into determining who qualifies to compete in the Olympics.
However, it wasn’t until 2012 that the crowning glory of his amateur career propelled him towards international stardom.
Usyk won the gold medal at the London Olympics, beating Artur Beterbiev, Tervel Pulev and Italy’s Clemente Russo.
The 6ft 3in southpaw would later hang up his amateur gloves with an impressive record of 335 win and just 15 losses.
HE’S IN THE HISTORY BOOKS
The likes of Terence Crawford, Jermain Taylor, Bernard Hopkins and Cecilia Braekhus have all held the WBA, WBC, IBF and WBO titles at the same time.
But Usyk, rather uniquely, is the first boxer to hold those belts in the cruiserweight division.
In 2016 he defeated Krzysztof Glowacki on points in a breathtaking fight to snatch the WBO title.
He then landed the WBC title against Mairis Briedis, before winning the WBA and IBF titles beating Murat Gassiev by unanimous decision after 12-rounds.
Like his fellow countryman Vasyl Lomachenko, Usyk loves to dance.
In fact, he often performs the hopak (a Ukrainian traditional dance) after a rigorous training session, which explains why he has such nimble feet.
“Dancing is his lifestyle,” Alexander Krassyuk, the director of K2 Promotions, told Boxing Monthly.
“Everything in his life is done with inspiration, a positive spirit and flexibility.
“He always tries to charge people with love for God and for each other. Dancing is the way he expresses love.”
While he’s more famous for his exploits in the ring, Usyk, who married his childhood sweetheart Yekaterina in 2009, showed he does have a more playful side too.
In 2018 he lent his voice to The Stolen Princess – a Ukrainian animated movie that became a box office hit earning £50m around the world.
He appeared alongside Vasyl Virastyuk, a former strongman competitor, as a Russian gangster in a tale about a princess being kidnapped by an evil sorcerer.
Should Usyk continue his ascent, you can imagine more film roles may come for the theatrical sportsman.
First, though, is the blockbuster with Joshua.