Exclusive Interview With James Ali Bashir, Oleksandr Usyk’s Former Trainer (2013-2017)

“When I Trained Usyk, I Told Anyone Who Would Listen He Was Going To Be Heavyweight Champ”

On Saturday, August 20, former Heavyweight champion Anthony “AJ” Joshua (24-2-0, 22 KOs) enters the Jeddah Superdome in Saudi Arabia against current IBF/WBO/WBA/IBO Heavyweight champion Oleksandr “The Cat” Usyk (19-0-0, 13 KOs) in a highly anticipated rematch of their September 2021 bout at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. Widely regarded as one of the greatest Ukrainian boxers of all time, Usyk became one of only three boxers to have unified the cruiserweight world titles and become a world heavyweight champion (joining Evander Holyfield and David Haye) after beating Joshua.

In their first match, the 6’3” Ukrainian southpaw Usyk outpointed the orthodox 6’5” Joshua in a unanimous decision that rendered the heavy-handed Brit unable to rise from his stool following the twelfth round to embrace Usyk. CompuBox stats showed Usyk connected more total punches than Joshua (148 to 123) and was the more accurate of the two, landing 28% of punches thrown compared to Joshua’s 19.2%. Usyk’s landed punches were the most by any Joshua opponent, with Usyk sealing the decision by landing 29 punches in round 12—the most ever by a Joshua opponent. After the fight, Usyk performed a Cossack dance in the ring to celebrate his victory.

Commentators were universal in their praise following Usyk’s victory over Joshua last year. Lennox Lewis called it “a great tactical performance,” while Roy Jones, Jr. (also a multi-division champion) stated that “Usyk didn’t beat [Joshua, he] dominated him.” Coral Barry of BBC Sport was effusive with his admiration, calling it a “masterclass” performance by Usyk and “a strange, almost hapless display from Joshua [that left] his legacy as one of the heavyweight greats in ruins.” After the fight, Anthony Joshua’s team immediately exercised the rematch clause, with promoter Eddie Hearn warning that Joshua would be more aggressive in the rematch: “You’ll see a different Anthony Joshua in this fight. [T]his plan is to go in and hurt Usyk.”

James Ali Bashir is Usyk’s former trainer (2013-2017) who guided his charge to the pinnacle of the Cruiserweight Division. Bashir is an iconic American trainer who trained and served as an assistant to another renowned trainer—Emanuel Steward—for 17 years out of the famous Kronk Gym in Detroit, Michigan. A short list of Bashir’s former trainees: heavyweight champions Wladimir Klitschko, Lennox Lewis, Shannon Briggs and current highly regarded Ukrainian heavyweight prospect Vladyslav Sirenko. Mr. Bashir was kind enough to share his opinion on the upcoming bout and his thoughts on the state of the Heavyweight Division.

Q. James, in the 2018 Cruiserweight bout against Anthony Bellew to retain his champion belts, a commentator noticed the absence of “trash talking” on the part of Usyk. According to Usyk, this was because “Bellew knew I was crazier than him.” What did Usyk mean by this?

A. Usyk didn’t mean it literally. His amateur record is phenomenal [335-15] and you don’t get to where Usyk is now without going through hell and back. Usyk’s faced the best his whole life and excelled at a high level. He had no reason to trash talk because of his background, his training, his pedigree. Usyk was a trainer’s dream: came prepared every day, dedicated, in shape all year round and tough as hell mentally.

Q. What did you think of the first Usyk-Joshua fight?

A. I told any/everyone that would listen to me six or seven years ago when I trained Usyk that he was going be world heavyweight champ. But everyone shrugged it off as me being just an ordinary trainer blowing steam and kissing his fighter’s ass to gain favoritism. I was confident Usyk would beat AJ.

Q. Were you surprised that there were no knockdowns in the first bout?

A. A little. I think Usyk’s trainers were holding him back in the seventh and twelfth rounds, he had AJ in trouble, but they played conservative. Too conservative. Usyk’s corner wouldn’t let him go. If he kept his foot on the pedal Usyk could have knocked Joshua out.

Bashir is by his own admission an old-school type of trainer who emphasizes and demands discipline from his fighters. Bashir pointed to Bernard Hopkins and Floyd Mayweather, Jr. as prime examples of disciplined fighters.

Q. James, give me an example of a disciplined boxer who always stayed cool and showed discipline under extreme pressure.

A. B-Hop and Floyd were always disciplined. The all-time greats always know discipline is the key to boxing, never get away from boxing shape. live a Spartan life, always be in shape to box. As a teacher, more than a trainer, I enjoy the teaching, the art. When I say 5pm, I mean be prepared at 5pm—don’t walk into the gym at 5. Archie Moore had desire, he wanted to shine when he showed up. Show the world what he had. You don’t see that as much anymore.

Q. How so?

A. From observing the sport from what it has morphed into my perspective will not change. Way too much pomp and glitter and not enough teaching. Showmanship has taken center stage and it ain’t gonna change in my opinion.

According to Bashir, Joshua has the tools to beat Usyk in the rematch but faces an uphill battle—especially with Joshua’s choice of trainer, Robert Garcia.

Q: James, what is your prediction of Usyk-Joshua II? How do you see that fight panning out?

A: I see the rematch 60-40 in favor of Usyk. I think AJ made the wrong choice in trainer Robert Garcia because Garcia never trained heavyweights! Robert Garcia will do it recklessly, instead of cutting the ring off and working off a good constant patient jab. Joshua can win of course; with that strength it only takes one punch in the heavyweight division. Joshua needs to work behind the jab, anywhere above the waist, hit Usyk in the arms, the body, the midsection, the chest. The problem with many fighters is they get too excited when they got a guy in trouble, and they don’t have the faith in the body punches. A boxer needs to invest in the faith, everything above the waist.

The Joshua camp approached Bashir several months ago for advice against Usyk in the rematch. Bashir was brutally honest with Joshua’s team.

Q. Can you share what happened when the Joshua camp approached you?

A. I was flown into Joshua’s camp for one week a couple of months ago for what I never quite understood. But anyway, I shared my outlook on what he needed to do to beat the enigmatic Usyk. I think this fight boils down to a crap shoot with Usyk having the upper hand. First off, I do not believe that Robert Garcia is right for the task at hand as he has never trained a heavyweight at this level. Joshua is taking a huge risk on his choice, I believe it does make a difference, and it will show in the fight.

Q. James, there are those will give little credence to what you say considering Anthony Joshua’s obvious strength and size advantage. What’s your response to that?

A. People thinks that AJ’s size, power, and strength will ultimately take over and win the fight. But I trained Usyk for three years, and I know and understand him, who he is, and what makes him tick. And believe me: AJ’s obvious attributes will not bother Usyk as much as one might think as he’s used to fighting uphill from those three hundred amateur bouts.

Bashir favors Usyk but is conscious that anything can and has happened in the marquee Heavyweight division, and (not surprisingly) believes it may come down to which fighter receives the best advice during the bout. And (surprisingly), Bashir quotes the wisdom of a late country music singer to make his point.

A. When I see myself at the fight, in those corners, guiding either guy through the fight, in my mind my man Kenny Rogers comes to mind: “You Gotta Know When To Hold ‘Em, Know When To Fold ‘Em.“ In order to win this fight, I really don’t put a lot of stock in the level of knowledge in either corner especially Usyk’s because they had a KO in their first outing , and they let it slip through!

Q. Okay, James. How do you see this fight develop?

A. Most likely Usyk wins. Joshua probably only wins on cuts. Joshua needs to do body work early. The longer the fight goes, that favors Usyk; he will explode late because of the way he trains. Usyk’s a mental guy, when other guys start blowing and huffing, he’ll sense a victory. Usyk should’ve rolled the dice last fight because Joshua was toast.

But Joshua can win for sure. He needs to pull a Sonny Liston on Usyk—calculated pressure. Work behind his jab and work the hooks off the jab. Left hook to the body is Kryptonite to open the driveway for the right hand! Old-school teaching opens the right hand, classic old school training to combat the right hand.

No matter what, Bashir predicts a knockout victory in this rematch.

A. I don’t think this fight will go the distance. Too much emotion. Joshua has his back to the wall. can’t go back, has to go forward. He remembers thinking, “I like the way the way this belt feels.” Joshua can win the title back if he’s mentally and physically prepared. But Usyk is a heavyweight version of Lomachenko. Uses his legs. Never where a fighter anticipates he’s going to be.

It’s often believed that, in a rematch, the fighter who wins the first bout will win in the rematch. Obviously, that is not always the case (Ali-Frazier, for example among others). Whichever man shows more discipline and ring intelligence and seizes the opportunity when it arises and doesn’t play it too safe, will win in Saudi Arabia on August 20.

Usyk likely wins the rematch by TKO in the mid-to late rounds.

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