Ukrainians divided over Usyk, the world boxing champion facing Tyson Fury

<span>Oleksandr Usyk’s success in the ring is a matter of considerable national pride in Ukraine.</span><span>Photograph: Andrew Couldridge/Action Images/Reuters</span>
Oleksandr Usyk’s success in the ring is a matter of considerable national pride in Ukraine.Photograph: Andrew Couldridge/Action Images/Reuters

On the streets of Kyiv this week, the name of the Ukrainian heavyweight boxer Oleksandr Usyk prompted a few eye-rolls, alongside expressions of admiration for his sporting prowess.

The former cruiserweight, who fights the Briton Tyson Fury for the undisputed heavyweight championship in Saudi Arabia on Saturday night, has been an active fundraiser for the Ukrainian military and humanitarian causes since the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion. His success in the ring is a matter of considerable national pride.

But he has also drawn criticism in the past for seemingly Russia-leaning sympathies – mostly relating to his attachment to the Ukrainian Orthodox church, a branch of the Orthodox communion loyal to the Moscow patriarchate.

Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox church, is one of Vladimir Putin’s most strident cheerleaders, and the notion of shared faith is key to the Russian president’s claim that Ukraine and Russia are indivisible.

“I don’t have any expectations for boxers if they just do what they do and don’t go to politics,” said Maria Hlazunova, 32, who works in the film industry.

“But before the full-scale invasion Usyk said and did some things to underline his friendship with Russia and it was disappointing. Even if I don’t expect anything, he has a huge fanbase and he should feel responsibility for his words and actions in a country partly occupied by Russia.”

In 2021, Usyk, who grew up in Crimea, was criticised for appearing in a documentary about the Pechersk Lavra, the ancient Kyiv monastery then inhabited by monks loyal to the Moscow patriarchate. The series was presented by Oksana Marchenko, the wife of the pro-Kremlin Ukrainian politician Viktor Medvedchuk. The couple, who are friends of Putin, were placed under sanctions in Ukraine in 2021 for allegedly financing terrorism. They now live in Russia.

Nevertheless, added Hlazunova, since February 2024 “he has shown support for our country and our army – and that is what matters most for me. He is a champion and a good citizen and I wish him luck.”

Usyk was in London when Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began on 24 February 2022. Ukrainian airports were immediately closed, so he flew to Warsaw and drove on to Kyiv. Two days later, he posted an emotional appeal to the Russians to call off the invasion “if you consider us brotherly people” – employing a rhetoric of fraternity between the two nations much favoured by Putin, but considered inappropriate by many Ukrainians.

Usyk quickly joined his local territorial defence group in Kyiv, while the city was bombarded and threatened by encirclement. The following month, he received permission to leave Ukraine and train for his match with Anthony Joshua in August 2022 – for which he wore a traditional Cossack hairstyle, and afterwards raised the Ukrainian blue-and-yellow flag in victory.

His charity, the Usyk foundation, has raised $740,000 for the Ukrainian armed forces, according to its website.

In Shevchenko Park, in the centre of Kyiv, opinions on the boxer were mixed. “I wish there were more guys like him,” said a municipal park worker, Oleksandr Hrom, 76. “He fights for the honour of Ukraine.”

Daria Sliepova, 30, who works in marketing, was walking her dog in the park. “Of course I’ll be watching the match,” she said. “I’m sure he’s going to win. I don’t think he supports Russia: he’s a Ukrainian boy. There are some moments about religion – it’s a difficult question in general – but I’m sure he supports Ukraine.”

“He’s a very cool boxer at the peak of his powers,” said Mark Babich, 23, who works in IT, “much more technical than the Klitschko brothers. But I disrespect him for challenging Tyson, because he’s really too old. Fury was much more technical when he was younger.”

On Usyk’s sometimes controversial reputation, he said, “Many people have similar views, and this has come up because he is so famous. Not that I support such views, but he has a right to express his religious opinions … I don’t want to say he has been brainwashed, but I think he could be under influence.”

Kateryna Rolovska, 24, a writer and bookseller, said: “I don’t think he’s a good person. But now he tries not to be friendly to Russia and tries to represent Ukraine, and knows that he is Ukrainian. I try not to find enemies in our country because we have one big enemy – Russia.” She would not be watching the match, she said. Personally, she was more into Eurovision than boxing.