Ask Oleksandr Usyk how the war impacts on him and Ukraine’s world heavyweight champion takes a long pause for deep thought, peering intently into your eyes to instil mutual focus.
When he speaks the images of the conflict are graphic, the pain of family separation piercing, the devotion to his homeland profound.
Saturday is Ukraine’s National Independence Day, making the emotions all the more powerful. The motivation to strike another mighty blow for his country’s prestige is more relevant than ever.
This Saturday night tens of thousands of his fellow patriots will cram into a stadium in Wroclaw to watch him defend his three belts against the young London giant Daniel Dubois. All roaring Slava Ukraine.
Glory to Ukraine.
Oleksandr Usyk (above) will face Daniel Dubois on Ukraine’s National Independence Day
Usyk (centre) enlisted with the Kyiv Territorial Defence after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine
That guttural refrain in Poland will find echo across the border some 500 miles distant. When the fight in the ring is over the telephone calls Usyk most hopes to hear in his dressing room will come from not only his family in their safe haven but also from those of his friends on the front line ‘who are still alive.’
Usyk confronts the reality of Russia the big bear ravaging his country. Just as he copes when, as a former undisputed cruiserweight champion, he has to defeat men larger than himself. Rivals like Anthony Joshua, twice.
‘After my fights with AJ,’ he says, ‘I went home to the front line. I lived with the troops. I was there for them. Through binoculars from 900 metres I saw my enemies running, tanks exploding, houses broken.
‘I saw people with no arms or legs. I saw those who could still walk looking like the walking dead. Everything, everywhere, dead. I went by car around a city. A dead city. Zero energy. We went past a kids playground. The toys are lying in that place but no children playing. It was dead.
‘Some of the men I was with on the front line did not understand me wanting to be with them. They asked me this: ‘Why are you here? What are you doing? Even some of the generals don’t come to this place.’
‘I told them I was no general. Just a regular Ukrainian guy, like them. I spent a lot of time with these people. Few of them are professional soldiers. They are not ready to be in a war.
‘One was a banker. One a baker. Another a businessman. There are some real soldiers but most of those on the front line are not. They are only there to fight for freedom. And we are going to win that freedom.’
Usyk was a given a dispensation by President Zelensky to leave Ukraine after countless regular soldiers and conscripts urged him to leave them and go wave the flag by defeating Joshua to become world champion. Slava Ukraine.
Usyk was a given a dispensation by President Zelensky to leave Ukraine and go wave the flag by defeating Anthony Joshua (right) to become world champion
Facing Dubois on Ukraine’s National Independence Day makes the emotions more powerful
He will go toe-to-toe with Dubois (right) after negotiations with Tyson Fury over a historic four-belt undisputed clash broke down
By so doing he has become a permanent standard bearer for those men and women at war. An emblem of Ukraine’s defiance. A national hero and as a consequence a target. Him, his wife Yekaterina and their three young children. There is a personal price to pay.
He says: ‘For the last 18 months my family have been separated. My kids cannot live in Ukraine. They are elsewhere. I have seen people change. My family and people have changed in different ways. Not always for the best. I know I have changed.’
When Putin’s invasion began Usyk, whose wife was born Russian and whose first language was Russian, trod a tightrope of loyalties. Having witnessed the hell of the front line and seen his home on the outskirts of Kyiv destroyed he is absolute in declaring all the occupied territories as belonging to Ukraine. Including the Crimean Peninsula where he was born 36 years ago.
He says: ‘War is a big experiment with life. I know that the strong and honest will survive. As will those who can understand war.’ A devout Christian, he adds: ‘I pray every day to the Lord to give me more understanding of what is going on in Ukraine. I don’t want to be angry with anyone. I want to love this world as it is. Already my mind has changed. I understand now why God has taken something away from us, why he takes us onto a hard road.
‘I repeat, we will win our freedom. But before God gives you something big he must take something small away from you. It tells you never to give up. That you have to fight to the end.’
Such powerful driving forces amplify the threat to Dubois of Usyk’s technical boxing genius and formidable strength of will. The man himself explains: ‘Everything that is happening to us makes me stronger.
‘I get a lot of texts from my fans and my friends on the front-line. Of course that gives me motivation in the ring. Sometimes when I speak to those friends on the phone I hear missiles exploding in the background. Bombs dropping. As our calls end they say: “Brother, I will call you back. If I am still alive”.
When the fight in the ring is over the telephone calls Usyk most hopes to hear in his dressing room will come from his family in their safe haven and those on the front line ‘who are still alive’
‘Thankfully, mostly, so far. that call still comes. If I can bring them just a little enjoyment by winning fights then I would fight every day. Because of where they are they have nothing else to do or look at, other than fighting for freedom.’
Through it all, Usyk has never lost his delightfully quirky sense of humour. When asked, as he usually is, about withstanding massive punches from natural-born heavyweights such as Joshua first, now Dubois, perhaps the 6ft 9in Tyson Fury next, he says: ‘They have to catch me first.’ As for President Putin, Russia’s invader stands only 5ft 7in tall.
Happy Independence Day, Mister Usyk.
Usyk v Dubois for the WBA, IBF, WBO and Ring Magazine world heavyweight titles will be broadcast live this Saturday night on TNT Sports Box Office at £19.95.