This Saturday (DAZN, 1 PM EST), former undisputed cruiserweight champion Oleksandr Usyk (18-0, 13 KO) will make his third straight start at heavyweight and try to take all three of WBA/IBF/WBO/IBO heavyweight titlist Anthony Joshua belts with him. It’s one of the most intriguing fights on the fall calendar.
Usyk earned acclaim as arguably at least the best cruiserweight since Evander Holyfield made the division genuinely matter in the 1980s. Holyfield went on to win the lineal heavyweight crown twice in the 1990s. A win over Joshua (24-1, 22 KO) on Saturday would make Usyk at least the most belted cruiserweight since Holyfield and make him the most deserving challenger for the winner of October’s scheduled clash between lineal and WBC champion Tyson Fury (30-0-1, 21 KO) and Deontay Wilder (42-1-1, 41 KO).
Born in 1979 to about as much fanfare as bridgerweight, cruiserweight has battled its way to respect over the last forty years as a necessary bridge between light heavyweight’s 175 lb. limit and a heavyweight division full of heavier men than was the case once upon a time. Cruiserweight has built a solid history of its own and been one of the more competitive and dependable action classes of the last twenty years as the division expanded its limit from 190 lbs (initially different bodies couldn’t even settle on that) to a 200 lb. standard.
Relatively few cruiserweights have competed for heavyweight titles.
Since its birth, approximately seventy fighters have won a WBA, WBC, IBF, or WBO belt at cruiserweight. Usyk will be the eighth of their ranks to challenge in the unlimited division, excluding an Ossie Ocasio who won a cruiserweight belt after challenging at heavyweight.
Part of it could be that cruiserweight has struggled at times in terms of marketability, making its best fighters unattractive heavyweight challengers.
Part of it could be that when and where it was marketable, there was enough money to make staying at cruiserweight with a title profitable enough to avoid heavyweight.
Part of it could be that when the heavyweight champions were Lennox Lewis, Vitali Klitschko, or Wladimir Klitschko, it was simply wiser not to try to jump up more than forty pounds.
Still, it’s a marked difference, percentage wise, compared to how many light heavyweight champions challenged for the heavyweight title before cruiserweight existed.
Not including the great Bob Fitzsimmons, one of the first champions in early light heavyweight history after already capturing the middleweight and heavyweight crowns, it was fairly common through a good chunk of the twentieth century to see light heavyweight champions chase the heavyweight crown. Some were reigning when they did it, some were not, but all were marked by failure until Michael Spinks broke through in 1985.
Jack Root, Philadelphia Jack O’Brien, Georges Carpentier, Tommy Loughran, John Henry Lewis, Billy Conn, Gus Lesnevich, Joey Maxim, Archie Moore, and Bob Foster all came up short. They represented more than a third of the universally recognized light heavyweight champions (excluding contested recognitions on occasion from the NYSAC and NBA...yes, split titles were a thing then too) covering almost seventy years.
Some, like Carpentier and Foster, were run over by offensive juggernauts in Jack Dempsey and Joe Frazier, respectively. Billy Conn came close enough to make his effort versus Joe Louis an enduring part of boxing’s mythology. Talented light heavyweights like Floyd Patterson and Ezzard Charles won the heavyweight crown without ever competing for the light heavyweight honors.
There was a considerable drop off in attempts after Foster and even Foster was the first to challenge in years. Since Foster’s loss to Frazier, the seemingly permanent fracturing of the sport’s title scene, already underway in the early 1970s, grew in volume. Even with more belts to be won, at heavyweight and light heavyweight, only four reigning or former light heavyweight titlists have challenged for one of the major heavyweight belts since 1979: Michael Spinks, Michael Moorer, Roy Jones, and Tomasz Adamek.
All but Adamek won belts at heavyweight; Spinks and Moorer captured the lineal heavyweight throne while skipping cruiserweight altogether. Jones leapfrogged it as well to challenge John Ruiz. Spinks was the only man to be the lineal king of both classes.
Compare that to the eight cruiserweights. After Holyfield, we have Juan Carlos Gomez, James Toney, Jean Marc Mormeck, David Haye, Marco Huck, and Adamek. As was the case with Charles and Patterson, some men who could have been successful cruiserweights simply chased heavyweight honors instead. Chris Byrd was likely the best of them. Other prominent former cruiserweight champions like Steve Cunningham and Vasily Jirov simply couldn’t get the wins at heavyweight to get in position for a title shot.
There were some close calls. Toney won a belt against John Ruiz in the ring only to see the win voided after a failed PED test; he drew in a challenge of Hasim Rahman after that. Huck gave a hell of an effort against Alexander Povetkin but the judges didn’t see it his way.
Haye was the only one who broke through, winning the WBA belt from the giant Nicolay Valuev and parlaying that into one of the biggest fights of the 2010’s, losing a unification clash with Wladimir Klitschko. The others were all knocked out in their attempts with Adamek being the only man to win titles at light heavyweight and cruiserweight to challenge for a major heavyweight belt.
Interestingly, if Toney’s win over Ruiz had stuck, he and Jones, having been former middleweight titlists, would make 160 lb. success almost as indicative as success at light heavyweight or cruiserweight. At such small numbers for all of them, it speaks to just how hard it is and always has been to rise from the lower ranks to compete at the highest levels in boxing’s flagship class.
For now though, it is slight advantage light heavyweight in terms of success in the heavyweight title picture versus cruiserweights. An Usyk win this weekend would create a tie with three winners apiece. Holyfield would remain the only man to capture history’s throne at cruiserweight and heavyweight but Usyk would perfectly be positioned to try to join him.
Anthony Joshua will be waiting to keep history right where it is.
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.