The trainer who inspired Oleksandr Usyk’s greatest test has revealed the tactics that threatened to inflict the Ukrainian’s first defeat.
Usyk defends his IBF, WBA and WBO heavyweight titles in a rematch with the dethroned Anthony Joshua on August 20 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and does so in the knowledge Joshua has vowed to be a fighter transformed.
The 35-year-old eased to victory over Joshua at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in September, and to the extent that Joshua has since replaced his then-trainer Rob McCracken with American Robert Garcia and spoken of his desire to force the champion into a significantly more attritional affair.
Usyk remains undefeated in 19 fights as a professional, but will not have forgotten that another British fighter, the retired Tony Bellew, came closest to changing that. Applying his trainer Dave Coldwell’s tactics, Bellew’s timing and intelligence meant he was deservedly leading on the judges’ scorecards when they fought in 2018, forcing Usyk to produce the stunning eighth-round knockout that concluded his career as a cruiserweight.
Joshua not only fought a vastly different fight when by his own admission he wrongly attempted to outbox Usyk, but he increasingly speaks of going ‘back to basics and for the knockout’, but Coldwell told talkSPORT: “Normally, with a lot of fighters, there’s always something. But when you look at Usyk you don’t see any weaknesses, which makes you focus on every minor detail.
“I spent hours and hours watching him. The majority of his career, everyone’s come at him – that’s what he’s used to; he’s comfortable with that and that’s what his style’s built for. If Bellew went at him we’d walk into traps. It’s different to AJ, because he’s got the height, the reach, the physicality; the one-punch danger.
“I came across the Michael Hunter fight. It was the first [Usyk] fight I thought, ‘He can be outboxed’, because the first few rounds Hunter was in a negative style that gave him a lot of difficulty. It can’t just be negative, because mentally Usyk will tire you out, so you’ve still got to put a thumbprint on him as well. So, I almost wanted to mirror what Usyk does to his opponents.
“Bellew’s very, very disciplined, so I knew he was capable, and I also wanted him to land body shots, because I came across something in the amateurs, which nobody talks about – Usyk went down with a body shot. When I saw that I thought, ‘There’s the chink’. But he’s very good with his defence, so if you just try and bludgeon him he knows how to cover.
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“Marco Huck; Mairis Briedis; these good fighters couldn’t get to grips with him. Bellew’s smart, and hits hard enough to drain you at the same time. The game plan was to set traps for Usyk, because he’s more comfortable going backwards.
“With AJ it’s different, because of his physical attributes. If he catches you he’s going to at least knock you off-balance and wear you down – if he uses those physical attributes, which he didn’t really do in that first fight.
“[But] it’s [also] the effort, and the concentration it takes in those first six rounds to stay with him. You’re working so hard to stay with him you’re f*****, and then mistakes creep in because you’re fatiguing. It’s not that he’s going up in gears. It’s that that’s his game – to outlast you, mentally.”
Coldwell regardless recognises that Garcia – who is expected to be joined in Joshua’s corner by Angel Fernandez and Joby Clayton – is also in the unenviable position of attempting to reinvent his fighter’s approach while working with him for the first time.
“It takes a level of trust, and respect” says Coldwell, who led Bellew to revenge over Nathan Cleverly before the WBC cruiserweight title, two victories over David Haye and more until the night their winning run ended against Usyk.
“There was a massive element of trust which allowed him to have conviction in his actions [when following instructions fighting Usyk].
“A big plus for AJ is he’s proven to himself he can get destroyed in a fight – the [Andy] Ruiz loss was far more devastating than getting outboxed by Usyk – go away, reset, come back and convincingly win in a completely different rematch.
“Is Usyk going to clean AJ out with one shot? No. [But] did he clean Bellew out with one shot? No, he didn’t. It was the wear, and the fatigue, and what Usyk was doing before that broke down Bellew’s resistance bit by bit. Usyk’s capable of stopping AJ; AJ’s also going to have to let his hands go more, which is going to leave him more vulnerable to counter-punching, so [Usyk will] have more opportunity to land clean shots.
“I expect AJ to box in a different way, so Usyk will take a couple more rounds to get a read on it. But if AJ goes more orthodox and conventional in trying to walk him down, and be a front-foot fighter, [Usyk’s] dealt with that all his career.”
A further challenge for Garcia surrounds Joshua’s corner on fight night. Joshua, 32, has since been critical of the instructions he was getting from his corner on a chaotic evening when McCracken, Fernandez and Clayton vied to be heard, and having contributed to a similarly respected team when David Haye fought Wladimir Klitschko in 2011, Coldwell has explained the only way that that can work.
Coldwell was present in Germany, where Adam Booth was joined in the corner on fight night by Paddy Fitzpatrick. Coldwell also worked alongside Booth in the corner of George Groves, and he said: “It was [Adam’s] corner. That’s the presence you have to have as a coach.
“Me and Adam would always discuss things, but Adam was always the coach, and I was just there to assist and help out. If I spotted things I’d speak to Adam, not to the fighter. You should have one voice in the corner – especially when s*** is going wrong. There should be one focal point where you can look straight in front of you, and into the eyes of your coach, and you listen to him.”