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Oleksandr Usyk: Fabio Wardley on the 'mental battle' of sparring the unified world heavyweight champ

British and commonwealth heavyweight champion Fabio Wardley sparred with Oleksandr Usyk to help him prepare for his undisputed cruiserweight title clash with Tony Bellew in 2018; watch Tyson Fury vs Oleksandr Usyk live on Sky Sports Boxing Office on Saturday, May 18

Ukrainian heavyweight boxing champion Oleksandr Usyk, poses for a photo during an interview with The Associated Press, in Valencia, Spain, Thursday, Nov. 9, 2023.  The heavyweight title fight between Oleksandr Usyk and Tyson Fury now appears likely for February. Though Usyk isn...t convinced. The Ukrainian has his doubts because the fight had been planned for Dec. 23 in Saudi Arabia. (AP Photo/Jose Breton)

Autumn 2018. A 23-year-old Fabio Wardley has just stepped off a plane in Kyiv after being summoned to spar a then-cruiserweight by the name of Oleksandr Usyk ahead of his upcoming undisputed world title showdown with Tony Bellew that November.

From there, he will be picked up by Usyk's friend and ferried to his hotel, in a car ride where the language barrier prevents nearly any conversation, where he will wait to be picked up the next morning to begin eight weeks in camp with the 2012 Olympic gold medallist.

Six years down the line, Wardley is the reigning British and commonwealth heavyweight champion, retaining his belts after an epic split draw with Frazer Clarke in March, and Usyk is preparing for another undisputed clash - this time with Tyson Fury for the richest prize in sport, the world heavyweight championship, live on Sky Sports Box Office on Saturday, May 18.

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Oleksandr Usyk's promoter Alexander Krassyuk responded to Frank Warren's claim that his fighter is a 'cry baby' and says that discipline is the main thing that separates Usyk and Tyson Fury

Those two months spent in Ukraine helping Usyk prepare for what would turn out to be an eighth-round stoppage of Bellew continue to serve Wardley, who had only had four professional contests at the time, well and he knows just what the WBO, WBA and IBF champion's partners will be facing in sparring as he gets ready to tackle WBC king Fury.

"Sparring him was just like a mental battle even probably more than a physical battle," Wardley told Sky Sports.

"Because he does so many small little things to keep you agitated, keep you on the edge, keep you thinking, keep you guessing, keep you wondering about what his next move is, what his next plan is, how he's going to look to approach you?

"Is he going to go through the same things? Is he going do something different? It just constantly keeps you under pressure, almost like realising it as well. So, there were a lot of just little nuances while sparring…that I picked up over time.

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"Once I actually met him, his team for sparring and everything, they were so hospitable - so good, genuine warming people. I was quite young and fresh and green at that point, and I was well looked after entirely all the way through, but in terms of the camp, there are no fancy tricks, fancy lights, just no fancy anything - it's pure grit, hard work and bare bones."

For Wardley, the stripped-back nature of Usyk's training camp underlines his approach to life in general, not being concerned with the trappings of fame or material goods even with the significant paydays amassed from his high-profile championship bouts.

Fury, too, has stated he will keep shopping at budget supermarket chain Aldi if he becomes the first undisputed heavyweight champion since fellow Brit Lennox Lewis defeated Evander Holyfield in 1999, and Wardley believes Usyk's single-minded attitude is a big part of his success.

"I think you can see with him that he's not interested in this stuff," Wardley said. "There's no part of him where you see him roll up in a Rolls Royce or he's got a big old gold chain on or anything like that.

Sparring him was just like a mental battle more than a physical battle
Fabio Wardley on sparring Oleksandr Usyk

"So, he's not fussed about those kinds of aspects of things and then I think that transfers over into his training as well. He knows that having a fancy gold bag isn't going to make him a better boxer at all.

"It's just going look better aesthetically but has no actual bearing on making him a better fighter or anything like that at all. So, I think he's very, like everyone knows, well-grounded and that carries through into the way he fights and into the way he trains."

Usyk (21-0 (14)) goes into the undisputed showdown in Riyadh on the back of stopping Daniel Dubois last August, while Fury's (34-0-1 (24)) most recent bout saw him edge out former UFC heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou via split decision in their crossover bout in Saudi Arabia back in November.

Wardley expects the biggest challenge Usyk to face against Fury to be the height and reach advantage his 6ft 9in opponent will carry into the bout, but sees areas he can exploit as well even though he believes the win over Dubois produced plenty of questions.

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Oleksandr Usyk says the rescheduling of his clash from February to May with Tyson Fury has not fazed him, and believes he could 'easily take three Tyson Furys'

"Fury can have a tendency to become relaxed and comfortable with how the flow of the fight is," Wardley said. "If it's moving at a comfortable pace, and he feels like he's getting his jab off and he's boxing relatively well, he can quite happily just settle into a very repetitive rhythm.

"Someone like Usyk can recognise that and snap very quickly and change the pace and change the frame of the situation, and he can change the way the fight looks entirely by again, being sharp, being switched on and acting very differently.

"I think both of them are coming off questionable performances previously, which have raised a lot of doubts on either side, so who's the favourite? Really, I don't know.

"I think in terms of favourite, I think in terms of people that I've spoken to, within the industry, I think a lot of people are edging towards Usyk. More so mentality-based; I think he's more focused on the task at hand, focused on the job and is more dedicated towards the task at hand."

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A look back at the best of Tyson Fury's memorable press conference ahead of his huge undisputed heavyweight clash with Oleksandr Usyk on May 18, live on Sky Sports Box Office

How to book Fury vs Usyk on Sky Sports Box Office

It's one of the biggest sporting events in a generation. Tyson Fury and Oleksandr Usyk collide for the undisputed world heavyweight championship on Saturday May 18, live on Sky Sports Box Office. Book the fight now.

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