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Oleksander Usyk, Ukraine's controversial boxing champion

Roman Goncharenko
October 4, 2021

Ukrainian boxer Oleksander Usyk has followed in the footsteps of the Klitschko brothers by winning several world championship belts. At home, though, his attitude toward Russia has made him a controversial figure.

Olexander Usyk
Olexander Usyk has followed in the footsteps of Ukraine's Klitschko brothersImage: Frank Augstein/AP/dpa/picture alliance

Outside of his own country, nobody doubts the fact that Oleksander Usyk is Ukrainian. That's how all the media describe the new heavyweight boxing champion of the world.

By beating Britain's Anthony Joshua in London on September 26, Usyk secured the WBA, WBO, IBF and IBO heavyweight championship titles, just like Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko did years ago.

"The belts are going home," Usyk said in a video posted on Instagram after the fight.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy cheered the victory on Facebook, saying: "Ukraine has reclaimed what belongs to it!"

But, back home, the bout was not broadcast by any Ukrainian TV channel, highly unusual for a fight of this magnitude. Those who wanted to see it live had to tune in to Russian television or pay TV. A dispute raged on social media about the character of the new king of boxing. While some congratulated Usyk on his victory, others attacked him.

He must be one of the few, if not the only, world boxing champions not to be universally congratulated at home but to also face hostility from some particularly patriotic Ukrainians. The reason for this is ambivalent statements Usyk has made in the past on Russia and the annexed Crimea, his home region. The case is anything but clear cut.

Taking world heavyweight belts to Crimea

The Russian-speaking Usyk fought Joshua in boxing gloves with the name of his hometown, "Simferopol," and "Ukraine" written on them. After the fight, he waved the blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flag in front of the cameras. But after returning to Kyiv, Usyk poured fueled controversy when he announced that he wanted to bring the world championship belts to Crimea to show them to his coach. He's planning to face Joshua in the rematch in Kyiv in 2022.    

Oleksander Usyk
Oleksander Usyk is happy to drape himself in the Ukrainian flag after a victoryImage: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Stache

Usyk, who moved from Simferopol to Kyiv after 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea, regularly travels to the peninsula. He still trains there and calls Crimea home. For years he's been criticized in Ukraine for referring to Russians and Ukrainians as "one people" — just like Russian President Vladimir Putin does.

In addition, his ties to the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate and his participation in a Russian film about Orthodoxy are a thorn in the side for some. And whenever a journalist has asked him whether Crimea now belongs to Russia or Ukraine, he dodges the question. 

It is also a fact that Usyk traveled to the front lines in eastern Ukraine and taught boxing to Ukrainian army soldiers. However, some fighters have criticized him for statements he has made that they saw as being pro-Russia. 

What to do with Ukrainians like Usyk? 

Ukrainian film director Oleg Sentsov, who like Usyk is from Crimea, was imprisoned in Russia for years after the annexation. He articulated the Ukrainian dilemma on Facebook: How should you deal with prominent Ukrainians who do not call Russia an "aggressor" and maintain ties? Should you try to persuade them to move to Russia, or should you try to change their views? 

Oleg Sentsov
Ukrainian film director Oleg SentsovImage: picture-alliance/dpa/T. Weller

In Russia, Usyk would probably be welcomed with open arms. Prominent television host Vladimir Solovyov raved about Usyk as "the greatest." A well-known singer suggested inviting Usyk to Russia and supporting him financially. 

Sentsov has described Usyk's remarks as "Putin's propaganda stamps," but suggested "not pushing him away but explaining what it means to feel Ukrainian and why that cannot coexist with the 'Russian world,'" a vision of a cross-border Russian community propagated by Moscow. This would take time and "help from those who had already grasped their identity," Sentsov said.

Iryna Medushevska from Odessa is one of the few influential pro-Ukrainian bloggers who publicly expressed joy at Usyk's victory. As a result, she lost about 100 of her more than 40,000 subscribers, the blogger told DW.

"Sentsov is right in this case. With citizens like Usyk, whose ties to Russia include the Orthodox church," Ukraine will require a lot of patience, Medushevska said: "It's a very long process, he's a church person." 

High jumpers Mariya Lasitskene (left) of Russia and Yaroslava Mahuchikh (right) of Russia
High jumpers Mariya Lasitskene (left) of Russia and Yaroslava Mahuchikh (right) of RussiaImage: David J. Phillip/AP Photo/picture alliance

This is far from the first time that sports and politics have been hotly debated in Ukraine. After having won bronze at the Tokyo Olympics back In August, high jumper Yaroslava Mahuchikh came under fire for having her photo taken with the Russian gold medalist. Both were carrying flags — those of Ukraine and the Russian Olympic Committee. After she returned home, Mahuchikh was called up on the carpet by a deputy defense minister. 

German publicist Christoph Brumme, who lives in Ukraine, told DW that he understands both the criticism of Usyk and Mahuchikh and the expression of "spontaneous joy in Tokyo." He thinks that the two sides need to "calm down" and get beyond "thinking about politics in terms of black and white." 

"Usyk is fighting for Ukraine to improve its image — that's the bottom line," Brumme said. Those who "still can't distinguish friend from foe" after seven years of war are to be pitied. According to Brumme, one should also be able to have reasonable discussions "with such people."