By Lem Satterfield
Evander Holyfield offered a scouting report of his first glimpse of southpaw Oleksander Usyk, an impromptu review of a Youtube video on his cell phone of the 31-year-old Ukrainian undisputed cruiserweight champion overcoming a former world titleholder for the fourth time in a row.
Trailing on two of the three judges’ cards, Usyk dropped and stopped former titleholder Tony Bellew for an eighth-round knockout in Manchester, England. “The Cat’s” sixth defense retained his status as IBF/WBA/WBC/WBO champion against Bellew, who was coming off back-to-back 11th- and fifth-round stoppages of former heavyweight titleholder David Haye in March and May.
“It’s hard from the one fight to say I know everything about the guy, but [Usyk] finished real strong, and fights with sort of a laid back style whereas I was more aggressive. He’s going 12 rounds, but I was conditioned to 15. Looking at their fight, Usyk throws short punches, but not so many combinations, and I think my hands are faster than Usyk’s,” said Holyfield, 56, to BoxingScene.com.
“I thought both of them fought flat-footed, didn’t throw a lot of combinations or fight at a real fast pace. My thing is I’m a gladiator who is gonna bring it, looking to apply pressure and throw a lot of hard combinations. I would be trying to blast either one of them outta there. I’m going to be going body, head, and the body again, also hitting you from different angles to make the guy uncomfortable. And if you missed me, I was gonna make you pay.”
Holyfield (44-10-2 with 29 KO) was considered the greatest cruiserweight of all time before retiring at age 52 in June 2014 as a five-time heavyweight champion and bronze medal winner in the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. As a cruiserweight (weighing between 180-and-190 pounds) from July 1985 through April 1988, Holyfield dominated the opposition, going 14-0 (12 KOs). The run includes being 6-0 with five stoppages in title fights, his fifth and final defense being an eighth-round TKO of Carlos DeLeon.
All but one of the 14 wins were scheduled 15-rounders, the last a fourth-round stoppage and fourth defense against former champion Dwight Muhammad Qawi in a December 1987 rematch of Holyfield’s title-winning split-decision in July 1986.
In addition to Qawi and DeLeon, Holyfield had four stoppages against reigning or former titleholders as cruiserweight champion. They included a seventh-round stoppage of Olympic gold medalist teammate Henry Tillman, a third-round TKO to add Ricky Parkey's IBF crown to his WBA version, and an 11th-round TKO of former titleholder Ossie Ocasio.
“As a cruiserweight, I was very strong, aggressive and in shape to go 15 rounds, but my mindset was that I’m just gonna blow these people out, so I fought to get you outta there. At the time I fought cruiserweight, I had a conditioning specialist, lifted weights, had stretching and ballet classes for the flexibility to throw a lot of punches and recover,” said Holyfield of a division established as 190 pounds in the early 1980s and changed in 2004 to a 200-pound limit.
“Not saying I would be stronger than [Usyk,] but at 180 or so pounds, nobody else was doing was I was able to do or executing the way I was able to execute. I would bring it every time I fought, and not run or hide. My whole thing was to win every round, getting better as I go. So if the first round was hard, the next one and the one after that were gonna be even harder. I felt that I was gonna be stronger, throw more punches and flat out out-work everybody.”
A similarly dominant Usyk (16-0, 12 KOs) is 7-0 with three knockouts as champion since September 2016, including 5-0 with two knockouts against reigning or former titleholders. A 2012 Ukrainian gold medalist in the London Olympics, Usyk dethroned previously unbeaten left-handed WBO titleholder Krzysztof Glowack (31-1, 19 KOs) of Poland by unanimous decision in Gdansk, Poland.
On the way to winning last year’s World Boxing Super Series tournament, Usyk stopped former titleholder Marco Huck in the 10th-round and won decisions over Mairis Breidis (25-1, 18 KOs) of Latvia, and Murat Gassiev (26-1, 19 KOS) of Russia, the latter in the tournament final.
Breidis lost his WBC crown by majority decision in January to Usyk, and Gassiev, his IBF/WBA crowns in July. Usyk also decisioned previously unbeaten Michael Hunter (15-1, 10 KOs) of Las Vegas in April 2017. Hunter's since earned three straight heavyweight victories, culminating with last month's 10th-round TKO of 6-foot-6, 256-pound Martin Bakole (11-1, 8 KOs).
Holyfield was 12-0 with eight knockouts after dethroning Qawi compared to Usyk’s 10-0 with nine stoppages after defeating Glowacki. But Holyfield’s title-winning debut is more substantial than Usyk’s against Glowacki, coming in a war against Qawi, a more accomplished, fellow Hall of Famer.
At the time, Qawi was a former light heavyweight champion who owned sixth- and 10th-round stoppage wins over former 175-pound champion Matthew Saad Muhammad and those in the seventh and sixth rounds over ex-light heavyweight titlist Mike Rossman and 1976 Olympic gold medalist Leon Spinks, the latter of whom already had split heavyweight title bouts with Muhammad Ali.
“I was a good outside fighter, but also a good inside fighter. I had to prove that against Dwight Qawi,” said Holyfield. “You put your shoulder on the guy, slip in a shot and get around him to mess with his head. That’s how you hit a guy with that short shot. That six-inch shot’s the one he don’t see coming.”
Ranked No. 5, pound-for-pound, Usyk’s considering a rise into the heavyweight division. The weight class is dominated by 6-foot-6, 245-pound Anthony Joshua (22-0, 21 KOs), an Olympic gold medalist and IBF/WBA/WBO champion, and 6-foot-7 Deontay Wilder (40-0, 39 KOs), an Olympic bronze medalist and WBC titleholder.
On December 1 at The Staples Center in Los Angeles, Wilder meets 6-foot-9 lineal champion Tyson Fury (27-0, 19 KOs), who has weighed as much as 276 pounds.
“Fighting the bigger guys I always went for the body shot to break them down, because there is so much of them there, and the body’s never going to move. So if I’m shooting at the head, I’m gonna hit the body, too,” said Holyfield.
“And when I hit you to the body, it’s gonna hurt you the entire fight, not for just two or three seconds. I didn’t see a lot of that out of Usyk, and if he’s going to heavyweight, I think that’s a part of his game he’s gonna need. But that’s not to devalue Usyk as a fighter.”
An undersized Holyfield debuted as a heavyweight in July 1988 with a fifth-round TKO of title challenger James "Quick" Tillis. Holyfield's heavyweight highlights include going 1-2 in his trilogy with 6-foot-5 champion Riddick Bowe.
Bowe out-weighed the 6-foot-3 Holyfield, 235-to-205, in their initial clash of unbeatens, a unanimous decision loss that dethroned Holyfield as IBF, WBA and WBC titleholder in November 1992. Holyfield won their rematch by majority decision in November '93, with Bowe scoring an eighth-round stoppage in their third bout in November ’95.
Holyfield went 0-1 1 against 6-foot-5 former undisputed champion Lennox Lewis of England, being out-weighed by as much as 215-to-245 in their first bout. Holyfield’s pair of victories over former undisputed champion Mike Tyson were by 11th-round KO and disqualification in the infamous “Bite Fight.”
“The Real Deal” split title fights with southpaw Michael Moorer, stopping him once, and owns a third-round KO that dethroned James Douglass after "Buster's" dramatic 10th-round KO upset handed Tyson his first career loss.
Champions Michael Dokes, Pinklon Thomas and Bobby Czyz also suffered stoppage losses to Holyfield, who earned decisions over titlists Larry Holmes, George Foreman, Ray Mercer, John Ruiz and Hasim Rahman.
“We’re just talking about two different eras, and this is his era. This guy [Usyk] is the best of his time,” said Holyfield. “I’m not going to disrespect somebody buy saying ‘I would have done this or that to you,’ because, let’s face it, that's reality something that's never gonna happen.”