RIYADH – Oleksandr Usyk’s former trainer believes the “phenomenal” Usyk can defeat the “ordinary” Tyson Fury if on Saturday he can win the opening rounds.

James Ali Bashir guided Usyk, 37, from his second professional fight – the stoppage of Epifanio Mendoza in December 2013 – to winning the WBO cruiserweight title with victory over Krzysztof Glowacki and then making his first title defence against Thabiso Mchunu in December 2016. 

He had previously assisted the late, great Emanuel Steward for 17 years out of the Kronk in Detroit when, among others, he also worked alongside the revered trainer with Lennox Lewis and Usyk’s fellow Ukrainian Wladimir Klitschko.

Klitschko was dethroned by Fury as the world’s leading heavyweight long after Steward had identified Fury’s considerable potential. Ahead of Saturday’s undisputed heavyweight title fight at the Kingdom Arena in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, however, Bashir believes a Ukrainian is about to take his place at the top of the boxing world.

In addition to overseeing 10 of Usyk’s fights, Bashir was in the corner of Daniel Dubois when in August 2023 Usyk last defended his IBF, WBA and WBO titles. Usyk-Dubois, which Usyk won via stoppage, was the first time Bashir had seen him perform in the flesh as a heavyweight, and even in the context of a fight against a more natural heavyweight – the 35-year-old Fury – he saw little to dissuade him that Usyk will win.

“Throughout his training camp I would have told him, ‘Whoever wins the first four rounds will secure the victory’,” said Bashir, observing how important it has long been to the success of the adaptable Usyk and Fury to establish their favoured rhythms. 

“I expect Oleksandr Usyk to utilise the overhand left. Tyson seemed susceptible to that particular punch fighting Otto Wallin, so I would employ that strategy – a lot of overhand lefts off of Usyk’s jab. 

“He should jab to Tyson’s chest, and immediately following that jab go over the top with the left hand. If he can open one of those cuts it’ll be a good thing for him, because it’ll slow Tyson down some – not to mention if he opens up a couple of those cuts.

“If Usyk can put those rounds in the bank I’m sure he can secure the title. He can secure the win based on those four or five rounds. The one that wins those first four or five rounds most likely will win the fight.

“He’s a phenomenal fighter. He’s very educated; he’s very dedicated. He stands a very, very good possibility of pulling this thing off and winning the fight.

“If ever there was a guy that was born to box, Oleksandr Usyk is that guy. He’s a dedicated guy; he’s a focused guy; he’s a hands-on guy. He exemplifies courage; stamina; willingness. He’s just a game guy. Overall, he’s very, very, very concentrated inside the ring. To box – especially when it’s a big challenge for him, and Tyson Fury is a big challenge to him – this is the kind of fight Oleksandr will get up for because he loves a challenge.

“[His footwork and reflexes] will come into play in this fight. Reflexes; timing; footwork; speed; durability, and his ability to take a punch. Oleksandr Usyk is a very strong individual; very, very strong. To be a very, very small heavyweight like he is – he’s very durable. He takes a good punch, and he can deliver a good punch. I expect for him to open up one of the many cuts that Tyson Fury has had on him – that he’ll open one or more of those many cuts. He gives a lot of angles; not to mention, he’s boxing him from the southpaw stance. Fury switches a lot, but I don’t think that’s ever helped him.”

Emanuel Steward had first admired Fury’s abilities in his first years as a professional, when he visited the revered Kronk gym after a recommendation by then-professional middleweight Andy Lee.

For Fury’s rematch with Deontay Wilder in 2020, long after Emanuel Steward’s death, he recruited SugaHill Steward as his trainer and Lee as his assistant, and evolved into a fighter – one more focused on his considerable range, and, increasingly, punch power – in the mould of so many who have excelled at the Kronk.

“I’ve never been one to put a lot of stock into the Kronk ‘mythology’, if you will,” Bashir regardless said. “Fighters are fighters, and certain things you can’t change at a certain point in a fighter’s career. Tyson Fury’s gonna fight like Tyson Fury. I don’t think that the Kronk philosophy is going to play into this fight. I’ve never bought into that Kronk philosophy. I think it’s the trainer himself, not the gym; it’s the fighters that fight that makes the gym. In fact, I think Tommy Hearns is the sole beneficiary, if you will, of making the Kronk stand out as a gym with a great reputation. I just don’t buy into that idea. 

“SugaHill Steward did a good job [with Fury], but when it comes down to the nitty gritty; when it comes down to fight facts, this is gonna be a really tough fight. I expect Usyk to perform at the highest level, and I expect Tyson Fury to perform at his highest level, and I just don’t think that the Kronk mythology is going to play into this at all.

“[Emanuel Steward] took a liking to Tyson because he was a boxing enthusiast, so he recognised the talent that Tyson had. But, honestly speaking, I said to Emanuel some time ago, ‘If Tyson Fury wasn’t so big and wasn’t so tall, we wouldn’t be having this conversation; if he was 6ft 3ins; 250[lbs]; he’d be an ordinary fighter to me’. He has some talent, but his girth; his height; his reach allows him to get away with certain things that he ordinarily wouldn’t be able to get away with if he was just 6ft 3ins; 6ft 4ins. Somebody could catch up to him and get him out of there. 

“You saw in the fights where he failed – Otto Wallin [in 2019] and the last fight that he had [against Francis Ngannou in 2023; both were unconvincing victories]. He’s just an ordinary guy. He’s a little tricky, but his height; his weight; his girth allows him to get away with things he wouldn’t be able to in any other circumstances. That height; that weight, is difficult to overcome for any fighter, because he’s just so big. Plus, he has talent; he’s just not a big, lumbering guy. He’s a tricky guy; he’s a gifted guy, so it’s very difficult to overcome his physical attributes.

“[With Fury] I would use the strategy that I would use against any southpaw. To back him up; to make Usyk fight him while Usyk is always in retreat. Make him fight; constantly move him back; never let Usyk settle; never let him rest; never leave him alone in the ring, because if he leaves him alone then he has time to calculate what he wants to do to Tyson. Tyson will have to cut the ring, push him back and rough him up; take him out of his element; down a street he’s not used to going down. [Throw] lots of body punches. 

“[Against Dubois, Usyk] did, relatively, what I expected him to do. But I think that Daniel let himself down in that fight; Daniel could have fought better. I don’t know what his reasoning was for him not fighting on the level that I expected him to fight on. But I think if he’d applied himself – if he was more concentrated; more focused – he could have put a better fight up. He got upset when they didn’t call the fight in his favour with the body punch [ruled a low blow]. It was a very good body punch – the same body punch that Andre Ward landed [on Sergey Kovalev]. 

“This is going to wind up being a boxing match. I don’t think neither one of them is going to dominate; this is going to turn into a chess match. I think Fury really respects Usyk, and likewise, but if I were Fury I would try to impose my will on him. He’s the smaller guy – Fury needs to march forward; take what he’s gotta take; eat what he’s gotta eat, but go forward and try to takeover. Rough him up, but push him back to the ropes; lay on him; maul him; brawl him; he shouldn’t go out there and try to box because if he goes out to try and box, I’ll tell you right now, he’ll lose the decision.

“I’m almost certain that SugarHill’s gonna push Tyson Fury to try and get the KO. That’s just the kind of guy he is. That’s the kind of guy Emanuel was. He likes the KO. They’re prone to trying to get KOs. In doing so he might push Tyson Fury into taking punches he doesn’t really need to take. I would just tell him to go forward behind his jab, and look to land a right hand anywhere he can land it. Oleksandr Usyk is a very slippery customer. You don’t wanna try to look for no particular spots. Just land the punch above the waist. Throw the punches; land on the shoulder; on the chest; even on the glove. You’ve gotta hit him; keep your hands on him; stay in motion where you’ve got Oleksandr Usyk backing up, because if they allow Oleksandr Usyk to come forward he’ll create problems from that southpaw stance.”

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