Oleksandr Usyk has made a career breaking the hearts of the naysayers.
Since capturing a gold medal for Ukraine at the 2012 London Olympics and turning pro the following year, that has been Usyk’s modus operandi. From 2016-2018, the Ukrainian embarked on the “Usyk World Tour” en route to becoming the undisputed cruiserweight world champion.
Usyk (19-0, 13 KO’s), 35, of Ukraine, who won the heavyweight gold medal at the 2012 Olympic games in London, beat Krzysztof Glowacki—in Poland—to win the WBO 200-pound strap in just his 10th professional fight in September 2016. The victory broke the division record set by all-time great Evander Holyfield, who won the WBA cruiserweight title in just his 12th pro bout.
Following two successful defenses, Usyk won a majority decision over Mairis Briedis in his hometown of Rita, Latvia, to unify two belts and advance to the semifinal round of the World Boxing Super Series. He then traveled to Moscow, where he put on a clinic against then-two-belt titleholder Murat Gassiev to win the eight-man WBSS tournament and become the undisputed cruiserweight champion.
Prior to leaving the 200-pound division for good, Usyk defended his undisputed championship with an eighth-round knockout of former WBC titlist Tony Bellew in London. However, Usyk has fought just three times since. Although he hasn’t lost, some point to his inactivity as a reason some continue to underrate his abilities. It’s all rubbish, of course.
A right biceps injury delayed his heavyweight debut for 11 months before he eventually returned to stop Chazz Witherspoon in seven rounds in October 2019. His sophomore attempt at heavyweight against perennial contender Derek Chisora was also postponed for six months to nurse a left elbow injury. Nonetheless, Usyk defeated Chisora by unanimous decision on Halloween night in 2020.
As a result of recency bias, very few people gave Usyk a shot at defeating Joshua (24-2, 22 KOs), who had previously stated his interest in fighting Usyk as early as 2018. He wound up dominating Joshua to win a unanimous decision last September 25 in London. And while Usyk is a 2-1 favorite to repeat over Joshua, there are still people who somehow believe Usyk isn’t capable of winning again. So, how are we back here again?
Some say it’s because Usyk isn’t well-known. That’s ridiculous, considering he beat one of the most popular fighters in the world. Indeed everyone saw what happened last September. Another argument is that Usyk doesn’t speak the greatest English—again—a very poor defense.
Canelo Alvarez is just now starting to speak English more regularly, but he’s the biggest star in boxing. One explanation, which has some merit, is that cruiserweight has been historically ignored in the United States. While that’s somewhat true, Usyk was the unanimous pick for 2018 Fighter of the Year, and again, this is common knowledge.
Has anyone factored bias into the equation? The buildup for Usyk-Joshua II has been heavily swaying towards the possibility that Joshua will be a changed fighter under the tutelage of Robert Garcia and that Usyk doesn’t stand a chance against this new monster. But the question we aren’t hearing is whether Usyk could potentially improve from the first fight. Has anyone thought of that?
This is Canelo Alvarez-Dmitriy Bivol all over again. If you listened to a majority of Canelo’s fanbase, Bivol stood no chance. “Bivol is big with no power. He does nothing better than Canelo. Please explain why you feel he’s an elite professional?” asked a random Twitter user. Another one follows by stating, “Bivol got no power in comparison …. Lol! Adiós.”
Bivol scored the upset win over Canelo on May 7 in Las Vegas via unanimous decision, and albeit the judges all had it 115-113, it was a one-sided affair. The fact that Bivol had an immaculate amateur record and won a world title by his ninth professional bout was virtually ignored, including his prior, dominant wins over Sullivan Barrera, Jean Pascal, and Joe Smith Jr., who landed 19 punches in 12 rounds.
Usyk finds himself in familiar territory. The 2012 Olympic gold medalist is being asked to prove to the doubters once more that he is not only one of the greatest fighters of his era but also the man of the sport’s glamor division. He shouldn’t have to, but we live in a “Rematch Clause Era.”
Usyk’s subtle footwork kept him out of trouble in the first fight, while his pinpoint jab and fast combinations piled on the points and never allowed Joshua to set up his best shots. Usyk hurt Joshua in the third and seventh rounds and nearly knocked out Joshua in the waning seconds of the fight.
But as the great Larry Merchant once eloquently stated, boxing is “the theater of the unexpected.” Joshua is one of the hardest punchers of this era. And while he has gone 2-2 in his last four fights, you can never count out a heavy puncher, especially in the heavyweight division. But if Joshua gets reckless, he may be in for a long night. If Joshua continues to eat jabs and get carved counters and shots to the body, he may not make it to the end of the fight. And if that happens, the haters will have to recognize Usyk as the best in the heavyweight division.
Psst…he already is.