By T. R. Lewison
A Halloween night victory over heavyweight gate keeper Dereck Chisora substantiated Ukranian Oleksandr Usyk’s claim to a place in the division’s top 10. Many observers remain confident Usyk can depose the belt holders above him despite greater than expected problems overcoming the veteran Brit. 2020 has been a frustrating one for Usyk. In his career this far, he has been eager to progress and boasts an appetite for challenges and a willingness to say “Yes”, too few of his contemporaries can match.
The kudos accrued in beating Chazz Witherspoon and Chisora represent a below par annual return for Usyk. Having carved through the entire Cruiserweight division in sixteen bouts to become undisputed king, he has become accustomed to faster progress. Within a complex heavyweight title picture, he may need to develop the virtue of patience in 2021 too. At 33 years old, 34 in January, despite the division traditionally extending a fighter’s prime a little longer, Usyk may prove to be past his own peak when his opportunity finally arrives.
History is against his quest too. Precious few fighters have left the Cruiserweight division and conquered the blue ribbon weight class above. Since it’s inception in the late 70s and early 80s, only David Haye, who won the WBA belt by overcoming the giant Russian Nicolay Valuev, and Evander Holyfield, who became undisputed champion in the 1990s, have become world champion as a heavyweight.
In the modern age, where heavyweights routinely weigh between 230-260 pounds and loom large at a lofty 6 feet 4 minimum, the challenge has grown too big for all but the most gifted. It was just such a problem that the Cruiserweight division was meant to overcome. As heavyweights grew bigger, from Foreman, to Holmes, to Lewis, Klitschko et al, the kings of the historic 175 pound Light-Heavyweights were unable to compete and a ‘no-man’s’ land between the two developed. Cruiserweight filled that gap. But the money has stayed with the heavyweights and the temptation to venture in to the cash rich division always remains.
However, such is the Amateur pedigree of the Ukrainian, he won Gold a the London Olympics, and the aggressiveness of his match making, there are many who feel he could make the leap. This despite the consensus champion, Tyson Fury, and his deputy, Anthony Joshua, being exactly the type of behemoths that proved too much for many of Usyk’s predecessors.
Fury and Joshua the targets, but vacant WBO title may come first
The former undisputed Cruiserweight champion is well placed in the chasing pack to secure a world title in 2021. Alongside veteran Russian Alexander Povetkin, Dillian Whyte, who rematch in the New Year, and emerging rivals Joe Joyce, Tony Yoka and Filip Hrgovic, Usyk has a legitimate claim to be the next in line for a shot. Ideally, Usyk would prefer a face off with either Tyson Fury, the acknowledged number 1 after his knockout victory over Deontay Wilder, or Anthony Joshua, who holds the WBA, IBF and WBO belts if he is successful in defending them against Bulgarian Kubrat Pulev later this month. Joshua is heavily favoured in the boxing betting to win the bout.
The WBA, IBF and WBO champion has suffered just one defeat in his professional career so far, losing his American debut by knockout to Andy Ruiz Jr. in one of heavyweight boxing’s biggest upsets. He did make up for that loss in his next appearance in the ring, defeating the American on points in the rematch to regain those belts.
Joshua will be aware of how dangerous Usyk is. Although he does not have the power of Deontay Wilder or the other big hitters in the division, it is speed and technical ability that pose the problems. The obstacle to Usyk’s preferred fights is the money available in Fury and Joshua facing each other and potentially rematching too. In a post pandemic marketplace, the two giants will fill any outdoor stadium in the UK and prove a smash hit on PPV both sides of the Atlantic. As with all things in the boxing ecosystem. Money talks.
However, that contest may have to go ahead without the WBO title on the line. That organisation has Usyk as its number one contender and may seek to insist on that bout. If Joshua faces Fury instead, which would be the lucrative and popular move, he would have to relinquish the WBO in the process.
In that scenario, Usyk may find himself fighting Joe Joyce, who moved up the WBO rankings by stopping Daniel Dubois, in a rerun of their WBSS fight as Amateurs in 2013.