Oleksandr Usyk a future heavyweight king but Anthony Joshua test comes too soon

Having conquered boxing’s cruiserweight division, there was only one place left for Oleksandr Usyk to go.

The 2012 Olympic gold medallist turned professional with the intention of breaking Evander Holyfield’s record of winning a world title after just 12 professional fights. He did it in 10, beating Krzysztof Glowacki in 2016 for the WBO title.

What followed was complete and utter domination of the cruiserweight division, collecting the WBC, WBA and IBF belts on the road over the next two years to become one of only five men to unify his division in boxing’s four-belt era.

Having exceeded Holyfield’s accomplishment at 200lbs, the focus has now shifted to replicating that in boxing’s blue riband division – starting off against Anthony Joshua on Saturday.

Usyk’s savvy ringcraft, elusive movement and dazzling footwork have seen him recognised as the one the best technical fighters of his generation. But heavyweight boxing is a different game.

Usyk made his debut in the division against Chazz Witherspoon in October 2019, easing to a decision win.

A greater test came in November last year when he took on the battle-hardened Dereck Chisora, a veteran of heavyweight wars over the years. The decision was unanimous on the judges’ scorecards, all in favour of the Ukrainian.

Another former cruiserweight world champion Johnny Nelson was among the many backing Usyk to eventually move up, blown away by the work he did in a sparring session with former heavyweight ruler Wladimir Klitschko in 2015. ‘He was bossing him,’ Nelson recalled.

But as is always the case when a fighter moves up a division, questions remain over whether he can still be that unstoppable force against the giants of the sport.

‘I’ve been underwhelmed rather than overwhelmed,’ Nelson said on Usyk’s fights at heavyweight so far.

‘I thought he was the heir apparent to the heavyweight division. I watched him when he was Klitschko’s sparring partner and I saw how effective he was then, he gave him real problems. You have got some heavyweights who can really hold their own against the giants of the division. Based on what we’ve seen, he [Usyk] can’t. He’s been technically better and more astute than most other fighters he will come up against, but he is yet to show he can dominate.’

Usyk’s ability to outbox and outthink others is not in doubt and Tony Bellew, another former cruiserweight king, believes he is the best technical boxer in the division, destined for more titles.  But against the true, physical giants of heavyweight boxing in Joshua and Tyson Fury, a gap could remain.

‘I don’t think he is a true heavyweight but I do think he is the greatest cruiserweight that ever lived,’ Bellew said. ‘He’s unbelievable. But at heavyweight it is a completely different story. He is coming up against giants and he has got to learn to compete. He is without a doubt the best boxer in the division by a country mile, his technical ability and his skillset outweigh him far above the others.

‘But it also comes down to size. Weight divisions exist in boxing for a reason. The reason they exist is so that fights are fair. The only thing that beats Oleksandr Usyk in my opinion is size and strength and on 25 September those two things are going to catch up with him at some point.

‘I think Usyk beats everybody else in the division apart from Joshua and Fury.’

Bellew has his own experience of making the move from cruiserweight to heavyweight, albeit against David Haye whose own physical dimensions were similar to his. Joshua is an entirely different proposition, believes Bellew, who insists the IBF, WBO and WBA champion’s blend of speed, size and power makes him a puzzle Usyk is unlikely to solve.

‘David was one of the fastest heavyweights ever but he was still slow compared to the light heavyweights and cruiserweights,’ Bellew explained.

‘What I would say about Oleksandr Usyk, the difference is that Joshua is the best athlete he has ever faced. Purely as an athlete, bearing in mind his speed, his explosiveness, his combinations, his punch output and the speed he can do it at.

‘Oleksandr Usyk has never seen anyone this quick in front of him who weighs this much. This will be a massive factor. AJ is the only person in the world who is big enough but also quick enough to get close enough to Usyk and stay close to him. That’s why I think he gets him.’

Usyk’s camp are understandably confident their man now looks and feels like a traditional heavyweight and with Joshua seemingly slimming down ahead of their showdown, the difference in size between the two may not be as vast as some would have predicted six months ago.

The challenger’s title shot is certainly on merit. Usyk was named the WBO’s mandatory challenger the moment he moved up having served as the organisation’s champion at cruiserweight for almost three years. While the possibility of Joshua vs Fury threatened to delay his plans, he was at the front of the queue when talks for the all-British unification showdown collapsed.

Usyk is just two fights into his heavyweight journey and Nelson, the longest-reigning cruiserweight champion in history, believes the Ukrainian will be a force in the division whatever happens at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium this weekend. But with Chisora the only major name on his CV, he questions whether the Joshua fight comes too soon.

‘Timing is everything,’ Nelson continued. ‘If he feels he can be competitive at heavyweight, so be it. This fight will tell that story. Personally, I think maybe half a dozen fights at heavyweight are needed. But you have got to think about what he is doing in training, who he is working with. He hasn’t boxed any big heavyweights, in terms of people where he’s given away height and reach to. Now he is giving away height, reach and weight against AJ – he will have to box smarter than ever before.’

Usyk’s record of 13 knockouts from his 18 fights – including the devastating stoppage win over Bellew in his final cruiserweight bout – demonstrates that one-punch finish is in his repertoire. Whether that power is enough to floor Joshua and the other giants of the division remains to be seen, but if he is to become a two-weight world champion this weekend, it will ultimately be Usyk’s intelligence that is Joshua’s undoing.

‘That is what we have got to look out for [Usyk’s power] and that’s what he has got to try and find,’ Nelson said. ‘Whether he can establish himself and that punch power and whether it can make a difference. He can wear and tear fighters, he can box them and break them down, but I don’t think he is going to have that one-punch knockout power at this weight.

‘His pace isn’t particular high but he is making you work at a pace you are not comfortable at – case in point the Tony Bellew fight. He made Tony work out of his comfort zone. And all of a sudden, Tony ran out of steam and Usyk turned the screw and put the pressure on.

‘It is his ring intelligence that will serve him best, it ticks the box for him.

‘I know he can do it, I saw some of that when he was sparring with Klitschko, but now he is working at the top tier against Joshua, potentially against Tyson Fury, Dillian Whyte, Deontay Wilder. He is in with big boys who can punch. And they can manhandle him.

‘He has got to adapt his style to make sure he can navigate his way through this division. The fight against AJ, has to be his coming out party, he has to come out and show he is the dominant force.’

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