Oleksandr Usyk will make his heavyweight debut on October 12 against someone named Tyrone Spong, a 34-year-old former kickboxer who will be an easy mark for the 2018 Fighter of the Year. The real tests will follow shortly. And I, for one, won’t be surprised if Usyk ultimately struggles.
Nothing against the Ukrainian star. He was a terrific cruiserweight, having unified all four major titles. And he obviously is gifted. The problem could be a size disadvantage against natural heavyweights.
The first person who pops into my mind when I think of Usyk is David Haye, a dominating cruiserweight who was 21-1 (with 20 knockouts) before he made the move to heavyweight full time in 2008. Usyk was 16-0 (with 12 KOs) at 200 pounds. Haye and Usyk also share two key dimensions: Both are 6 feet, 3 inches (190 cm) tall and have a 78-inch (198 cm) reach.
And Haye was no better than a pretty good heavyweight. He won a major title, the WBA version, but he did it by beating profoundly limited giant Nikolay Valuev by a majority decision. He had two successful defenses (against John Ruiz and Audley Harrison) before facing a bigger man with ability that matched his, Wladimir Klitschko.
It didn’t go well. Haye had no idea how to get inside Klitschko’s long jab and lost a wide, boring decision. He blamed the setback on a broken toe but, more likely, a good big man simply beat a good not-as-big man. Haye never again fought for a major title.
I also think of Evander Holyfield when I think of Usyk. The Hall of Famer has long been considered the greatest cruiserweight ever, having gone 18-0 (with 14 KOs) when the limit was 190 pounds and reigning as champion from 1986 until he vacated to become a heavyweight in 1988. Holyfield and Usyk also had similar dimensions, as Holyfield was 6-2½ (189 cm) and had the same reach.
Of course, Holyfield had a lot more success than Haye at heavyweight. The fiery boxer-puncher beat a long list of top big men – including Mike Tyson – en route to becoming the only fighter to win a portion of the heavyweight championship four times.
At the same time, I’ve always believed that Holyfield struggled in his three-fight series against Riddick Bowe and two meetings with Lennox Lewis in part because they were both unusually talented and naturally much bigger than he was. He had a record of 1-3-1 against those two rivals, which is eye-catching given his ability.
I think Usyk is comparable to Haye – better boxer, not as powerful – but nowhere near as good as Holyfield, who I consider one of the best fighters pound-for-pound of the past half century. The advantage Usyk has over Holyfield is that the current crop of top heavyweights is inferior to that of the last generation, which increases his chances of success. There are no Bowes or Lewises on the scene today, although Tyson Fury could’ve boxed with them.
Usyk is ranked No. 1 by the WBO, meaning he’ll be in line to face the winner of the Andy Ruiz-Anthony Joshua rematch. I think Usyk would have a difficult time against either fighter at their best, again with the size disadvantage in mind. And if he is able to get past Ruiz or Joshua, Deontay Wilder and Fury could lie ahead.
It’s difficult to predict how Usyk would do against the four top heavyweights but here are some thoughts and questions:
Ruiz isn’t as skillful as Usyk but he’s a good boxer as a result of a solid amateur career, quick for his size and much more powerful than Usyk. Is Usyk good enough to keep a strong, solid technician like Ruiz at bay for 12 rounds? And how would Usyk handle Ruiz’s solid heavyweight punching power and constant pressure from a bigger man, which can wear down a smaller fighter?
Joshua’s future is up in the air after he was dominated by Ruiz in June. If he demonstrates that he has regained his form and beats Ruiz in the rematch, he would pose a daunting challenge for Usyk. Joshua doesn’t have the skill set of Usyk but he’s much bigger than him and has the punching power to match. How would Usyk’s chin hold up against him? If Usyk can take a punch from the likes of Joshua or Wilder, he could prove to be a formidable heavyweight.
Usyk is much more skillful than Wilder but the American would tower over the Ukrainian and can end any fight with one shot. Plus, Wilder is athletic for his height. The same question we asked about Joshua goes here: What happens when Wilder lands a big punch?
Usyk would not have the same advantage over Fury that he would have against the others because Fury is an unusually good boxer. And while the Englishman isn’t a big puncher, he still has around 260 pounds behind his power shots. How can Usyk outbox a good boxer who is six inches taller than he is?
Cruiserweight-turned-heavyweight Steve Cunningham once put Fury down but he got up and scored a knockout. He also got up from Wilder’s hellish 12-round punch. Could Usyk possibly hurt him?
In the end, Usyk is a special fighter. He proved that at 200 pounds. I suspect he could beat most heavyweights, even those ranked by the sanctioning bodies. The question is how would he do against the best in the business, those who have one strength or another that might offset Usyk’s skillset?
A lot of people can’t wait to find out how he fares, which makes his move to heavyweight one of the most-intriguing stories in boxing. Who knows? Maybe he IS the second coming of Holyfield.
Michael Rosenthal was the 2018 winner of the Boxing Writers Association of America’s Nat Fleischer Award for excellence in boxing journalism. He has covered boxing in Los Angeles and beyond for almost three decades. Follow him at @mrosenthal_box.