Just How Great Is Oleksandr Usyk?



Just How Great Is Oleksandr Usyk?
Photo Credit: Mark Robinson/Matchroom Boxing

He’s not supposed to be here, is he? Oleksandr Usyk, a puffed-up cruiserweight who, by today’s massive extra plate of carbs standards, is a tiny fella. Yet here he is, suddenly (or at least arguably) the best heavyweight boxer in the preeminent division in the sport. How can this be, one might ask? Let’s start with the weight class itself.

The heavyweight division is not very good. Sure, it’s better than it’s been for some time, but “better” than the dreadful double-Klitschko era is faint praise.

Tyson Fury is a very big man who knows how to win, but anyone who thinks he’d be able to run with the big dogs during the Tyson/Holyfield/Lewis/Bowe era should be forced to take a field trip to each member of that foursome’s home and apologize like their puppy’s life depends upon it.

Deontay Wilder is a one-trick pony. And look, that big right hand is one mean, filthy trick, but the fact that he’s gotten this far in boxing without having anything else in his top hat speaks to the condition of the division.

And then there’s poor Anthony Joshua. The guy with all the talent, power, and athleticism in the world, but who is clearly lacking that certain something that would make him more than the relative disappointment he has become.

You could see some of what holds Joshua back in his second fight with Usyk. While Joshua did commit more to the body, he was still way too conservative against a superior boxer (which Usyk surely is). Joshua could get away with playing it safe against Andy Ruiz because not only is Ruiz far less talented than Usyk, I think he ate the whole buffet at the Golden Corral before entering the ring. The more polite way to put it is he wasn’t in shape. And that’s very polite.

Against a well-prepared and very fit Usyk, Joshua’s greater natural gifts (size, speed, strength) could not come to the fore because he lacked the ability to enforce his will. And that, as we have learned, is Joshua’s greatest weakness—lack of will. That being said, I don’t want to diminish Usyk’s accomplishment. He looked so much smaller in the ring than Joshua, but he controlled said ring throughout (please dismiss the one ridiculous card that found the fight 116-112 for Joshua).

Again, Usyk isn’t supposed to be here. You could look at his body last Saturday and tell that it is hard for this man to gain the necessary weight to avoid getting pushed around the ring by the physical giants (Wilder excepted) who roam the division now. Not only that, but Usyk lacks the sort of KO power in this division that would make his life easier. It’s not that he’s light-fisted—he can buzz anyone’s tower—but he’s not going to score a one-punch stoppage any time soon.

To win in the heavyweight division, Usyk needs to either wear down (Chazz Witherspoon) or outlast (Chisora, Joshua x2) his opponents. That’s a hard road to travel against such big men. And let’s not forget, the pride of Ukraine is now thirty-five years old—a fact that makes you wonder how much further he can go in this division.

Photo Credit: Mark Robinson/Matchroom Boxing

A fight against Wilder makes a lot of sense for Usyk. Wilder isn’t that much bigger, and he’s not much of a boxer. I suspect Usyk would frustrate the hell out of Wilder and probably test that suspect chin of the bronze bomber sometime around round eight.

Tyson Fury is a much bigger challenge in every way. He’s awkward, hits hard enough, has a good beard, and, most significantly, he really knows how to use his weight. Just look at the way he exhausted the much smaller Wilder in all three of their fights. Were it not for that huge right hand of Wilder’s (a thing Usyk lacks), none of those bouts would have been remotely close.

I don’t doubt that Usyk could outbox the Gipsy King (assuming we are all in agreement that Fury is not really retired), but I don’t see how he could do it for twelve rounds with that massive body leaning into him. The thing Usyk most needs against Fury is the thing he can’t get, which is to say, in Jaws parlance, “a bigger boat.” I don’t care if Usyk lays waste to every hamburger joint he passes; he can’t get big enough to be a super heavyweight, which is really what most of the fighters in the division are now. That fact, I think would doom him against Fury.

There can be no question that Usyk was a great cruiserweight. I would go so far as to say, one of the greatest. And, after four fights in the division, he’s clearly a good (if comparatively malnourished) heavyweight. Size matters, as they say, and Usyk’s lack of it will likely be his undoing. Or, at least, it should be if the division were up to legendary levels. The fact that it isn’t (and who knows, maybe this time Fury stays retired and Usyk never has to face him) could mean a fairly lengthy (three-four year) reign for Usyk. He’s the best true boxer in the division, and there’s no reason for him to be genuinely scared of anyone.

And that, friends, is why it’s so hard to evaluate just how great Usyk is. He may be willing to fight the best there is in the division, but the best of this division is not worthy of long memory. Unless that changes, we will likely never know just how great Usyk is.  That’s not Usyk’s fault, of course. He has no time machine to take him back to fight Ali or Holyfield, and the next great heavyweight class (whenever the hell that might be) probably isn’t going to get here fast enough for him to test himself against it.

Is Usyk great? Yes. Is he going to the hall of fame? Yes. Can we say much more beyond that? No. But hey, there are worse things in life than being better than everyone of your era, even if that era is slack. For all the mystery that may surround the question of Usyk’s level of greatness, he is anything but slack.