Oleksandr Usyk wrapped up his dominance at cruiserweight with a devastating eighth-round knockout of Tony Bellew in Manchester in England in 2018.

Bellew was coming off two wins over David Haye, and Usyk — who had recently become the undisputed cruiserweight champion — wanted to face the Liverpool hero for all of the marbles at 200 pounds. Never one to shirk a challenge, Bellew accepted. In hindsight, Bellew admits he was swimming in boxing’s deepest waters just to try to stay afloat, before it all came apart for him.

Bellew was undoubtedly impressed with Usyk. Years later, he is favoring the Ukrainian ahead of his undisputed heavyweight championship fight with Tyson Fury in Saudi Arabia on Saturday night.

“I’ve tried to balance it down the middle, but even in a jabbing match Usyk does different things and he figures you out,” explains Bellew. “He figures the problem out while he’s on the job. And that’s what’s so impressive. He never expected me, when I fought him, to box him. He 100 percent thought I was coming in for the kill and I was going to try and take him out. And by me boxing him, it took him back a little bit, and he didn’t know what to do at the time. 

“But he figured it out after seven rounds. I was ahead on the cards (68-65, 67-66 and 67-67) and in that seventh round he figured me out. Okay, it took him seven rounds, but he did. And then he turned the screw. Fury can’t change what he does. It’s not like he creates a completely different style. When I fought Usyk, I created a completely different style to counterpunch the counterpuncher. I have got a good boxing brain, and he is the only fucker to figure me out.” 

Bellew was a good amateur and he found his best form at cruiserweight after boiling himself down to 175 pounds for much of his career. The stars aligned for him in 2016 when, at Goodison Park — home of his beloved Everton Football Club — he climbed off the deck to beat South African Ilunga Makabu to win the WBC belt. While he’d had hard fights and hard nights, Bellew admits he’d never had to toil against anyone the way he did against Usyk.

“I was at my best of my career, I was boxing really well and doing okay, but he figured me out,” Bellew added. “He knew the moves. There’s nothing Fury can do [that] Usyk hasn’t seen him do. We’ve seen him [Fury] be big and awkward against the likes of Klitschko. We’ve seen him press on and push people into a fight with Wilder. We’ve seen so many different things from Fury, and I just think we’re at that stage where there’s nothing left that he can show us.

“I just think, when it gets to Saturday night, you’re going to see the best of Oleksandr Usyk and the best of Tyson Fury, but I believe the best Usyk will beat the best Fury, regardless of the size.”

Bellew had noted following the Usyk fight how taxing the experience had been. He was not just physically drained. He was also mentally spent, having had to concentrate for every second of every round in his efforts to stay with Usyk.

“One hundred percent,” he said, reflecting on that mental fatigue. “The thing that will send Fury off and he won’t understand is the judgment of distance that Oleksandr Usyk has. This is what got me. I was absolutely exhausted after seven rounds. I have never been that tired in my whole entire life. Me and AJ [Anthony Joshua] were talking about it recently, and he also said he’s never been as tired as he was after those fights in his life. And it’s like Usyk wasn’t even blowing. And that’s how you are. He’s made you tired. 

“He’s the one who exhausts you to the brink when you can barely breathe. And when I look back at it now, it’s purely his judgment of distance and his feet remain so close to you. It sounds like such a little thing: His front foot is never more than four to five inches away from you, but you think he’s in range and he’s actually not. He’s in and out and in and out, but you feel like he’s constantly there and it’s so mentally taxing, it’s unbelievable. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but it is when someone’s doing it and controlling it.”

And that is how Usyk fights, how he trains and how he makes his opponent suffer to the brink of collapse.  

“‘Cos it’s second nature for him, he will never tire from that,” Bellew added. “It doesn’t even faze him, but when it’s getting done to you, oh mate. It’s the most exhausting thing I’ve ever had happen to me. I can’t put it into words how tired I was at the end of that seventh round. I was exhausted.”   

Ahead of the fight for the undisputed heavyweight championship between Usyk and Fury — another man Bellew is well-familiar with — Bellew said Usyk is the best boxer that England’s WBC heavyweight titleholder will have faced.

“I think Usyk’s best way of having success is to stay at mid-range, don’t go too far, don’t go too close. Stay at mid-range, pick your shots and pepper him, and I believe he’s good enough to do that,” said Bellew. “He’s good enough to bounce in and out of range consistently. He has the engine, he has the tools, and he has the output. This is the best boxer Tyson Fury will have faced in his whole entire life. 

“Remember when he [Fury] said he’s the better boxer, he’s the more awkward, he’s the guy with the really different skill set, well, for once in his whole career, he’s facing a better boxer than him, someone who has more moves and more tricks up his sleeve than he does, and I just think he will really struggle with that. Fury is known to struggle with guys who go on the back foot. Oleksandr Usyk is not going to go looking for Tyson Fury, and if Tyson Fury goes looking for Oleksandr Usyk, then believe me he’s going to fall short.

“I know he’s big. I know he’s huge, he’s 6 foot 9 inches and 20-stone. The only reason this is close — and let’s be honest about this — is if these two were the same size, this fight wouldn’t even be close. It really wouldn’t. If they were the same size, Oleksandr Usyk wouldn’t lose a round never mind the fight. But we have to play to our own attributes and Oleksandr Usyk is 6 foot 3 inches, 16-stone ringing wet, so he [Fury]’s got to use his attributes to his best advantage.” 

And even though Fury is so much larger, Bellew says there is only so much size and strength will do for him against Usyk. Fury is 34-0-1 (24 KOs), but Bellew does not think the big man from Morecambe punches with the weight you’d imagine.

“Don’t get me wrong: Tyson Fury could work out to be too strong, but I’ve never had him down as a big puncher, I’ve never had him down as a wrecking machine,” Bellew went on. “And although people want to go on about Oleksandr Usyk’s body, and ‘Oh, he’s weak to the body,’ he’s not weak to the body because no one’s ever stopped him to the body, and in the professional ranks no one’s ever dropped him to the body. 

“He’s been hit on the protector and been put over. If that would have counted as a punch [against Daniel Dubois], I guarantee he would have got up and maybe it would have been worse for Daniel Dubois, but the fact is he got hit on something called the protector. It’s called the protector for a reason. You can’t hit the protector. Whether it’s high or low is irrelevant. Because when you hit the protector at the top end of it, it’s the worst place to get hit. I’d rather get hit directly in the bollocks than the top of the protector, because getting hit on that sends your bollocks into your throat.”

Many believe Fury has improved over the years, having made his comeback with Ben Davison training him and then moving to SugarHill Steward. While some think the Francis Ngannou fight indicated a possible decline for Fury, Bellew thinks perhaps Fury might be better served going back to being the version from his first world title win over Klitschko in 2015.

“I would have given Fury a much better chance if he was with his Uncle Peter,” Bellew said. “When he was with Peter Fury he was big, awkward, effective. He was a nightmare to face. 

“He was a proper problem and he was 6 foot 9 inches, used his height and reach advantage to bamboozle and confuse you and he had no intentions of pressing and hurting ya, but since he’s gone to SugarHill Steward — who’s a fantastic coach, I’m not taking anything away from him — but he’s now an aggressive counterpuncher, he likes to draw you in and then fight you.

“Styles make fights. I don’t think he’ll approach [Usyk] like he did the Wilder fights.

“The fact that with Fury, we’ve seen him struggle with the likes of Otto Wallin, we’ve seen him struggle really badly with certain styles, like Steve Cunningham. Anyone smaller and accurate, he struggles — and that’s just the way it is.”