Saturday’s big heavyweight fight (DAZN, 1 PM EST) has some elements we haven’t seen a lot of.
Former undisputed cruiserweight king Oleksandr Usyk is only the eighth former champion of that class to challenge for one of the major heavyweight belts. Only two of those eight, Evander Holyfield and David Haye, found success and only Holyfield went on to join the pantheon of greats in boxing’s flagship class. Holyfield may be Usyk’s only real peer in cruiserweight history. An Usyk win would likely top Haye’s victory over Nicolay Valuev and keep in the hunt to stay compared to the “Real Deal.”
Even more rare, especially given three gold medals by Cuba’s legendary Felix Savon, we will see only the second clash of Olympic Gold medalists from the heavyweight and super heavyweight divisions in the pro ranks. Super heavyweight has only been an Olympic class since 1984 but that’s getting to be quite a lot of time passed. Usyk (heavyweight) and Joshua (super heavyweight) won their honors in 2012. The only other clash also featured men who won their Gold at the same Games when 1988 Gold medalists Ray Mercer (heavyweight) and Lennox Lewis (super heavyweight) squared off in a memorable 1996 clash.
Lewis won that one over ten grueling frames on his way back to heavyweight gold. That makes this one the first title fight ever between heavyweight and super heavyweight gold medalists. These are small things that add to the subtext of a compelling fight on its own. Throw in the third fight between lineal king Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder next month and we’ve got the best unofficial heavyweight final four since Lewis-Razor Ruddock preceded Riddick Bowe-Holyfield I.
Will this final four get a final?
Let’s get into it.
Stats and Stakes
Current Titles: IBF/WBA/WBO heavyweight (2019-Present, 1 Defense)
Previous Titles: IBF heavyweight (2016-19, 6 Defenses); WBA heavyweight (2017-19, 3 Defenses); WBO heavyweight (2018-19, 1 Defense)
Weight: 240 lbs.
Hails from: Watford, Hertfordshire, United Kingdom
Record: 24-1, 22 KO, 1 KOBY
Press Rankings: #1 (TBRB, Ring, BoxRec), #2 (ESPN)
Record in Major Title Fights: 9-1, 7 KO, 1 KOBY
Last Five Opponents: 151-4 (.974)
Notable Outcomes, TBRB and/or Ring Rated Foes: Charles Martin KO2; Dominic Breazeale TKO7; Wladimir Klitschko TKO11; Carlos Takam TKO10; Joseph Parker UD12; Alexander Povetkin TKO7; Andy Ruiz TKO by 7, UD12; Kubrat Pulev KO9
Additional Current/Former Titlists Faced: None
Previous Titles: WBO Cruiserweight (2016-19, 6 Defenses); WBC Cruiserweight (2018-19, 2 Defenses); Lineal/TBRB/Ring/WBA/IBF Cruiserweight (2018-19, 1 Defense)
Weight: 221 ¼ lbs.
Hails from: Shypyntsi, Ukraine
Record: 18-0, 13 KO (24-0, 15 KO including World Series of Boxing fights)
Press Rankings: #3 (BoxRec), #4 (ESPN), #10 (TBRB, Ring)
Record in Title Fights: 7-0, 3 KO
Last Five Opponents: 149-14-1 (.912)
Notable Outcomes, TBRB and/or Ring Rated Foes: Krzysztof Glowacki UD12; Marco Huck TKO10; Mairis Briedis MD12; Murat Gassiev UD12
Additional Current/Former Titlists Faced: Tony Bellew TKO8
The Case for Joshua: Joshua is taller, heavier, and longer than Usyk. He needs to make all those things work for him. While Joshua might have more pro fights, the experience gap between Joshua and his challenger is a chasm when factoring in Usyk’s amatuer background. Joshua has increasingly relied on his jab as his primary weapon in his last two fights and it’s the punch he needs to establish early and often here. Usyk will try to get in, out, and around him. Joshua has to meet him with the stick, blunt Usyk’s offense, and then make it physical when he can at closer quarters. Joshua can be underrated inside, with a nice left hook to the head and body. He threw it more confidently before the loss to Andy Ruiz but Usyk hasn’t been a consistent power puncher. Since moving to the title level, Usyk has scored four stoppages but none before the seventh round. Joshua needs to be consistent and active; letting rounds get away could haunt him against a man likely to play for a decision.
The Case for Usyk: There are fun stories about Usyk’s success in the gym against names like Wladimir Klitschko and the talent shined when the lights were brightest at Cruiserweight. The move to heavyweight has been a series of stuttering steps with Usyk working through some injuries before his debut and, like everyone, losing time to COVID. He hasn’t impressed in two starts, winning but not shining against Chazz Witherspoon and Dereck Chisora. Is it a case of miles, size blunting skills, or was Usyk less motivated for fighters who really couldn’t push him? We’re about to find out. Usyk is the older man and likely has more miles on him so it might be now or never for him. While both men won gold in 2012, Usyk’s advantage in deeper amatuer experience is palpable. Joshua came to the game late and turned pro after just more than 50 amatuer starts. Usyk had close to 350 recorded amatuer fights and because of that, at his best, he can be the more fluid and natural fighter in the ring. Joshua can be mechanical on occasion; if Usyk can be first, land in combination, and keep Joshua turning with his better footwork, keeping Joshua guessing at Usyk’s southpaw approach, Usyk doesn’t have to hurt Joshua to win.
The Pick: This is one of the more intriguing heavyweight fights of the last few years. Is Usyk the latest cruiserweight just not cut out for heavyweight? Is Joshua still carrying any baggage from the loss to Ruiz? It might not be a war but this has the elements of a quality thinking man’s affair. Joshua has learned on the fly, in the amatuer and professional ranks, in part because he is an outstanding athlete. He’s also notably lighter since the loss to Ruiz. Joshua got as high as 254 for his win over Carlos Takam and was carrying the weight in weightlifting bulk. He’s stayed closer to 240 since Ruiz and been visibly leaner. He’s looked sharper and quicker for it. He might not be quicker of hand or foot than Usyk but Joshua’s longer jab can erase some of that advantage. Joshua has knocked out or at least dropped almost everyone he’s ever fought and Usyk will have to be wary all night. If Joshua doesn’t have to be similarly concerned, he can impose his size as the fight progresses. This feels like a fight where we really can’t know what we’re going to see until we see it but it feels like Joshua controlling Usyk at the end of his left and hammering him with enough big shots to win a decision is the more likely outcome.
Rold Picks 2020: 33-10
Cliff Rold is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene, a founding member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, a member of the International Boxing Research Organization, and a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at email@example.com