Jordan Thompson revisited the “experience of a lifetime” sparring Oleksandr Usyk when he was a young professional in the first years of his career.

On Saturday in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Usyk – the IBF, WBA and WBO heavyweight champion – fights Tyson Fury for the undisputed title, in an occasion that will finally determine the finest heavyweight in the world.

The Ukrainian emerged as Fury’s biggest threat with his successive victories over Anthony Joshua in 2021 and 2022, but he enters Saturday’s fight with the experience of fighting for, and winning, the undisputed cruiserweight title in 2018. 

On that July night in the Russian capital of Moscow he produced perhaps his finest performance – the victories over, if not performance against, Joshua were even more impressive – to convincingly outbox Russia’s Murat Gassiev and add the WBA and IBF titles to those he already had from the WBO and WBC. 

The then-little-known Thompson was among Usyk’s sparring partners in the build-up to the most intimidating fight of Usyk’s career – Russia was yet to launch its murderous invasion of Ukraine but tensions between the two countries were escalating – and having also sparred Fury, 35 years old and the WBC champion, the cruiserweight knows more than almost any other about what Saturday will bring.

“He’s unbelievable,” Thompson said of the Ukrainian. “I’ve never been in the ring against someone who has been that relaxed. He is so relaxed – so relaxed. Super, super, super relaxed. I’ve not seen anything yet that triggers him, or knocks him out of his comfort zone, or draws him out of that relaxed state of mind. Composure – that’s the word for me. That’s what I took away from it – his composure. Whether it was mental; physical; a very, very composed individual. 

“[He’s] very intelligent – he knew what I was doing way before I was doing it. Looking back then at the fighter I was, I was probably telegraphing from a mile off. Just, very, very calculated; composed; and a smart, smart boxer. Very smart boxer. He’s all about the hit; not get hit; he don’t really engage in any unnecessary dust-ups. Footwork for a guy of that size is very, very special. He’s a special fighter.

“It’s interesting – I see him do some bag work after as well. People say he’s not really known as a puncher. Going off his record he’s probably not, but if he wanted to sit down and let his hands go, he can really sit down and let his hands go, which I’ve not seen him do yet [in a professional ring]. He’s primarily a hit-and-not-get-hit, so he’s not gonna put himself in that situation and leave himself vulnerable. But when he needs to, he can definitely light them up – that’s a fact.

“I was 22; 23. I was with [respected matchmaker] Jason McClory in them times – he hooked it up. I had a bit of an injury, because I was umming and ahing about a fight I had coming up. I got a phone call talking about potential sparring with Usyk, and I didn’t even think twice. ‘Yep – no problem. One hundred per cent. Experience of a lifetime.’ I’ve always been that guy that’s been chasing experience. It’s something you can’t buy – you can’t really turn down sparring like that. I went out there; I was on my own. I didn’t have anyone with me – I didn’t think of that on my way there. I was staying bang in the middle of Kiev. It felt like we were going into the middle of nowhere for the sparring. It was out in the countryside and they just had three little huts. It was proper secluded – a real mysterious kind of place. 

“It was an interesting experience – Kiev was interesting. I didn’t really get to see a lot of it, but from what I did see, it was an interesting place.”

Thompson expects to return to the ring later in the summer, having recorded his first defeat in September by Jai Opetaia, whose IBF cruiserweight title fight with Mairis Breidis is on the undercard of the 37-year-old Usyk’s fight with Fury. 

“The first ever spar, I’d gone into a little backroom, and I remember going in there and the ring was tiny,” continued Thompson. “‘Flipping heck – this is gonna be fun.’ The first time, I went in and did two rounds with him. This was for the Gassiev fight. They were interesting. The first round of the first spar, things were going on in there, and I’m doing my thing, being myself; trying not to get a pasting from Usyk; give as good as I’ve got. Got some good work in. Then we moved over to where they prepared for the Olympics – I remember seeing Johnathon Banks out there. He’s a class act. 

“I got in some really good rounds with [Usyk] – he had about four of us there, in and out. [Oleksandr] Gvozdyk; another super heavyweight, and a guy who was a bit heavier than me as well. So there was a light-heavyweight; cruiserweight; heavyweight; super heavyweight. I was getting the rounds in. Tough rounds; learning rounds nonetheless. It was just a learning experience – I took it for what I could. Learned loads from it, come back, and gone from there. 

“The first time I sparred him it was just me. But as we went over to the other place with the bigger ring, the facilities were a lot better there. He’d do three rounds with the light heavyweight, three rounds with me, three rounds with the heavyweight, then three rounds with the super heavyweight. Then it got on to four rounds each. The super heavyweight – I think he was actually doing five-minute rounds with him at one point. He’s off his head. I’ve heard stories of him doing six-minute rounds; seven-minute rounds. He’s a phenomenal boxer, that’s for sure. A phenomenal athlete – he definitely lives the life. He goes about his business very serious. 

“Before sparring one of the times I’m there shadowboxing; getting my groove on; trying to do my thing; warming up. He’s just stood there juggling balls. I’m thinking, ‘Flipping heck – this guy’s juggling balls to warm up’, and then he’s been doing breathing exercises and stuff to warm up. What he puts out on his social media is pretty much how he goes about his business. He’s a bit of a joker. As soon as he gets in the ring though, it’s game time. He switches on. He’s not someone to be played with.

“I didn’t really get to spend a lot of time with him [outside of the gym]. There was a bit of a language barrier; it was very – go to the gym, spar, and go home. That’s what it was. There was no more to it than that. I was staying at a hotel not too far from where we were sparring. That’s where I ate as well. Interesting trip. They looked after me – they did their best.”

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