KIEV, Ukraine — Ukrainian boxer Oleksandr Usyk is a man fighting both inside and outside the ring.
Usyk is the reigning Olympic heavyweight gold medallist and is now trying to challenge for top pro titles, but his career has become tangled up in Ukraine’s political turmoil.
Since turning pro in 2013, Usyk has won all his six fights by knockout and is now gearing up for the biggest fight of his pro career on Saturday against Russia’s Andrei Knyazev in the Ukrainian capital.
An exuberant Ukrainian patriot who celebrates victories by performing folk dances in the ring, Usyk is a native of Crimea, the peninsula annexed by Russia last year. Even though his public persona strongly contrasts with the Russian identity pushed by the new Crimean authorities, he refuses to leave his home city of Simferopol or to take Russian citizenship.
"What I do and what I love, I don’t betray that," he told The Associated Press. "Sometimes people say you have to tolerate it. No, you have to do what you think necessary, what your heart tells you and go where the almighty leads you."
Despite living in a land now ruled from Moscow, Usyk is unmistakably Ukrainian, even sporting a patriotic haircut – shaved on the sides, with a long lock on top. It’s a modern twist on Ukrainian cossacks’ traditional topknots, known as "khokhly," a word also used by many Russians as an anti-Ukrainian jibe.
At an open training session for a crowd of mostly teenage fans in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, he ducked and weaved to a dance remix of Ukrainian folk music, sporting a T-shirt with a map of Ukraine picked out in the country’s yellow-and-blue colours – a map which, of course, included Crimea.
Over the last year of tension between Ukraine and Russia, many of Crimea’s transport links have been cut off. Usyk’s youngest son was born in January, but because of Usyk’s difficulties travelling home to Crimea from his altitude training camp in western Ukraine, three-month-old Misha has rarely seen his father.
"I miss them. When I leave they’re small and when I come back they’re a bit bigger," Usyk says of his three children. "I really want to be there with them, close to them, see how they’re growing and talking and doing everything else."
While he admits a Ukraine-Russia fight helps to sell tickets to patriotically-minded fans in Kyiv, Usyk doesn’t want the bout to become a nationalist rally. The Ukrainian government accuses Russia of invading its territory by sending troops to aid pro-Russian fighters in eastern Ukraine.
"I don’t want my fans to shout any insults at my opponent. Why? Because he’s come here to box," he says. "I think they’ll be respectful."
Knyazev, who goes by the nickname "the Russian knight" and holds a WBO regional belt, also says he doesn’t want to turn a boxing match into a political contest. Usyk, the Russian says, is "a patriot," even if Ukrainian and Russian political views often differ.
With Usyk already ranked the No. 3 contender at cruiserweight by the WBO and holder of its intercontinental title, a win against Knyazev would strengthen his hopes of becoming the future mandatory challenger to longtime world champion Marco Huck of Germany. Usyk’s New Jersey-based trainer James Ali Bashir, who has previously worked with another Ukrainian star in heavyweight champ Wladimir Klitschko, tips him for the big time.
"In the next two years, I see him dominating the division," Bashir says. "He’s literally like a son to me and I’m very close to him. It goes beyond, it transcends boxing."
Usyk’s promoter Alexander Krasyuk makes grand comparisons to a boxing legend. "He was born the same day as Muhammad Ali in January. I think this is a matter of astrology."
Usyk, 28, is reluctant to make predictions about his own career, but says one thing is for certain – his exuberant Ukrainian persona is here to stay.
He dismisses any suggestion that it’s all an act to exploit patriotic feeling over the political crisis, pointing out that he had the same approach when he won heavyweight gold at the London Olympics in 2012. The haircut and the dances haven’t changed, but the political context has.
"I do it all with a pure heart. It’s not some kind of gimmick, as some people say, it’s not some kind of PR project – ‘Let’s do that and it’ll bring us success.’ No, I do it because that’s how I live," he says.
"Some people think a boxer is a gloomy guy with this heavy brow who always has to be serious." At this he screws up his face into a Neanderthal impression. "But why can’t you laugh a bit, make a joke?"