Besides winning global titles as a heavyweight boxer, Oleksandr Usyk also writes poetry. His gifted way with words is evident as he sits in Kyiv and reflects on the electricity blackouts he and millions of other Ukrainians are living through, resulting from Russian strikes on power stations using missiles and drones.
“The Russians can turn out the lights in our cities but right now every person in Ukraine is a light,” Usyk tells i in a poignant video call. “We are like candles burning in the darkness.”
Speaking through a translator, he adds: “The people are freezing, they are experiencing all these power outages, but they are willing to fight and to endure.”
For patients in hospitals, including soldiers being treated for terrible wounds inflicted while fighting their country’s invaders on the frontline, blackouts can be deadly. “There have even been cases when medical professionals have had to perform surgery using flashlights,” says Usyk, 35.
As one of the biggest names in his sport – he holds the WBA, WBO, and IBF belts – Usyk is among six celebrity ambassadors for Ukraine’s United24 fundraising platform who are campaigning for donations to buy 1,000 power generators, which can help doctors in Ukraine continue saving lives when the grid goes down.
This week he met President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv to discuss the appeal and renew their call for donations, together with Ukraine’s former football captain and manager Andriy Shevchenko and the former US astronaut Scott Kelly. The campaign is also backed by the Ukrainian tennis player Elina Svitolina, the American actor Liev Schreiber, and the US historian Timothy Snyder.
Zelensky told them: “With the winter coming closer, we are facing new challenges in connection with Russia’s terrorist attacks on infrastructure, primarily in the energy sector… But I am 100 per cent sure that we will win.”
Zelensky is a “role model”, says Usyk. “He was really pleased to see us… The president motivated us to work even harder. When I look at Mr Zelensky, he is so charged with energy. Of course I understand how tired he must be, but still the atmosphere at his headquarters is so positive. We keep marching towards victory.”
Usyk has seen for himself the kinds of war injuries being treated in Ukraine’s hospitals. He recalls meeting wounded soldiers in the second month of the Russian invasion.
“Some of them had lost limbs,” he says. “When I look at these boys, I feel how motivated they are for us to defend our country – despite the terrible conditions they’re in. One of the soldiers said to me, ‘I’d rather live without my arm than live with neighbours like Russia’.”
Many world-famous sports stars with millionaire fortunes would have left a warzone long ago and not even considered going back while life there is so tough. But Usyk is a fighter both literally in his career and metaphorically in his approach to life.
He signed up with the Ukrainian Territorial Defence Forces in Kyiv days after the February invasion, posing with three comrades armed with assault rifles. But the injured men he met in hospital encouraged him to continue boxing instead of joining the military full time, he says.
“They convinced me that I could do much more good and bring in much more support for Ukraine if I continue my sporting career. I would be able to support my country financially and verbally, bringing more awareness to the world about what’s going on.”
He took 20 soldiers to Saudi Arabia to watch his fight with the British boxer Anthony Joshua in August. They watched in the crowd as Usyk won the “Rage on the Red Sea” with a split decision and held the Ukrainian blue and yellow flag aloft in a morale boost for his country, leading Zelensky to post online: “Ukraine has reclaimed what belongs to it!”
Although his parents are both from northern Ukraine, Usyk was born in the Crimean capital Simferopol and grew up in the city, which was annexed by Russia along with the rest of the peninsula after a proxy invasion in 2014. “Crimea remains my home,” he said in 2016.
As a Russian speaker with ties to the Russian Orthodox Church – who has reportedly called Ukrainians and Russians “one people” in the past – some in his homeland have considered him a controversial figure. But his allegiance to Ukraine, Zelensky and the war against Vladimir Putin surely cannot be doubted given his actions since the full-scale of invasion began on 24 February.
Usyk, his wife Yekaterina, and their three children were forced to abandon their home in the early days of the war. Situated on the outskirts of Kyiv, not far from Bucha, where Russian forces are accused of carrying out many war crimes, their house and its garden were trashed by Putin’s forces before they retreated.
“Invaders lived in my house, they caused a lot of damage,” he says. “They left a lot of trip wires for traps with improvised explosive devices. There is a tree in my yard and recently emergency workers discovered an F-class grenade inside, a type where its shrapnel has a radius of 250 metres.”
As well as repairing his own home, Usyk is helping the Rebuild Ukraine humanitarian project and hopes to take charge of organising and funding the restoration of a specific apartment block, one of many that have been hit by Russian attacks.
The power cuts are affecting people on a “daily” basis, he says, and some people are moving in with friends and relatives to get through the winter ahead.
“I know some families where two or three of them have joined together and moved to one house in the country,” he says. “The most important thing at this time of year is just to keep their house warm.
“The people who can afford them buy generators, however I know some people who have spent two or three days without electricity. One woman who has a one-year-old child had to spend three days without power. She has a job to do and had university exams too.”
The head of Ukraine’s biggest private energy firm has even said that Ukrainians should consider leaving the country for “three or four months” over the winter, as the reduction in demand for electricity would be “very helpful to the system”.
The other big name in UK boxing, Tyson Fury – who is defending his WBC title in a fight with British challenger Derek Chisora in London on Saturday – is hoping to set up a showdown with Usyk next year, which will make the winner the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world.
Fury’s co-promoter, Frank Warren, believes a fight could be agreed to go ahead as early as March. “Usyk is the fight we want,” he said this week.
“We are discussing this fight,” confirms Usyk. “We will have a meeting in December, after which we will decide where we will be boxing, if we will be boxing at all. We will agree all the details.
“Right now, I’m training, I’m practicing. However, I’m now spending more of my energy on my public duties, on all the things going on in my country and what people need from me.”
To donate to United 24’s campaign, visit donorbox.org/1000generators