Ahead of sharing a ring in Saudi Arabia, Tyson Fury and Oleksandr Usyk were meant to share the cover of Square Mile. We shot them both – separately, I should add – the day the fight was officially announced in London. Iman Amrani reunited with Fury for a typically candid and insightful view into a truly unique mind. However, time was tight that afternoon and Team Usyk requested the interview be conducted at a later date. No worries, Oleksandr. We’ll catch up soon.

Only we didn’t. Weeks passed and no interview could be arranged. Usyk had dedicated himself to his training camp. His mind was focused on the fight of his life and the ongoing war in Ukraine. Personal disappointment aside, who can begrudge him such priorities?

In the meantime, there were pages to fill. Usyk might be unattainable but I could draw on the knowledge of others – and few are more knowledgeable than Donald McRaeThe legendary journalist has interviewed Usyk on several occasions.

McRae spoke of a compelling and charismatic figure who still remains an enigma: “No one in the UK or US has quite got to the heart of his story, I think because of the difficulties of language. His past in Ukraine is fascinating and I’ve never seen anyone write in detail about his youth.”

Oleksandr Usyk

He was born in the city of Simferopol in 1987. His parents were not wealthy but they ensured Oleksandr received a good education and knew the value of work. He would often help his mother look after cattle on a local farm. She encouraged him to learn English but he didn’t see the point – why would he need English for the cows? But even as a child, Oleksandr believed he was destined for greatness and would one day bring wealth and fame to the family.

He was an accomplished footballer in his youth, but his parents couldn’t afford the money for training and the kit. He discovered boxing aged 15. His father revered the great boxers of the past – Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, Mike Tyson – and encouraged Oleksandr to pursue the sport. Usyk Senior used to boast to friends that his son would become Olympic champion one day. The friends laughed.

His father was very sick by the time of the London Olympics. He lived to see his son win the gold medal but passed away before Oleksandr returned home. Usyk placed the medal in his father’s hand as he lay in the coffin and walked out of the room. He has since said in several interviews that he often dreams of his father on the night before a fight. His father doesn’t say anything. He just smiles.

Usyk’s own smile became famous. A wide, gap-toothed grin that conveyed both mischief and menace. It was the smile of the devil when he comes to claim your soul. He charmed the media with his broken English – “I am very feel!” He posted videos where he juggled and danced in the gym. He dressed as Freddy Krueger before his fight against Derek Chisora. He dressed as the Joker before his first fight against Anthony Joshua. Everyone laughed.

McRae first interviewed Usyk before the war. “He was quite a jester, a joker. There was a lightness about him,” recalls McRae. The war took away that lightness. “He has spoken to me quite often about how he feels his personality has changed because of the gravity of the situation.” McRae will later note: “There has been a gravity to his personality since the war and he has adjusted to that and taken on that burden.”

Oleksandr Usyk

Usyk has become a figurehead for a proud and beleaguered nation. His triumphs are Ukraine’s triumphs. He is a symbol of defiance – and hope. McRae knows boxing history as well as anyone. “You could make a case that the most politically significant heavyweight since Muhammad Ali is Usyk. Not in global terms, but because of what he personifies in Ukraine. While this conflict is going on, he is a symbol for the whole country.”

My parents sheltered a Ukrainian family last year. “I was lucky to meet Oleksandr in mid summer 2018,” wrote Iryna over email. “At these times, he was already pretty popular among Ukrainians, I’d say each third person had known his name since he was one of the rising talents for some time already… With years, he became even more popular and I don’t think there’s anyone in Ukraine who doesn’t know his name now.” She shared a photo of herself with Usyk.

He has always been a singular personality. McRae spoke to Usyk before the first fight with Anthony Joshua – at that point, by far the biggest and most formidable bout of his career. There is nothing in sport quite as intense as the final hours before a fight – a boxer once told McRae it was like preparing to face the hangman. Yet Usyk insisted that he wouldn’t be nervous at all. He intended to pass the time by watching Peaky Blinders and reading the Bible.

He dominated the heavily favoured Joshua in a brilliant display of skill and nerve. The moment the judges confirmed his victory, Usyk raised his arms and began to sob. His close friend and promoter Alexander Krassyuk immediately embraced the new champion, who continued to weep in his arms. Long after midnight, McRae attended the post-fight press conference.

“He just said, ‘It’s so hard to be a boxer. I want to go home to my wife and my kids. I want to live. I want to sit under the apple tree and just have that tranquillity.’ He kept speaking about this apple tree that he wanted to sit beneath – this was before the war. It was kind of beautiful and not how you’d expect a boxer to normally talk.”

Oleksandr Usyk
Oleksandr Usyk

After the Russian invasion in February 2022, Usyk immediately returned home to his family. He told another great boxing journalist Steve Bunce that his was the only civilian car driving towards Kyiv – everyone else was heading the other direction. As the war progressed, he visited troops on the frontline, many of whom were old friends. His father had also been a military man.

Usyk wanted to stay in Ukraine but was persuaded he could serve his country better by fighting in the ring, spreading awareness of the conflict, and providing some much-needed inspiration. He wore a traditional Ukrainian Cossack outfit and haircut – a single lock of hair known as a oseledets – ahead of the Joshua rematch. President Zelensky sent a message of support last summer as Usyk defended his titles against Daniel Dubois.

He is 37. There is a rematch clause against Fury and further bouts to be made. However, his boxing journey is near its end. He has spoken of ambitions to be an actor. “If the war wasn’t a factor, I think he would just kick back and enjoy his life,” says McRae of Usyk’s post-boxing career. “He talks a lot about creativity, theatre, movies.”

But the war is not over. Not for Ukraine, nor Oleksandr Usyk. His victory over Fury has cemented his status as one of the greats but he has promised to fight on. Whatever lies ahead, he will leave the ring as he entered it: a champion, a hero, a man worthy of our admiration and our awe.