“That’s him,” you tell your friend, “the tank with the military haircut, the gap between his front teeth, a touch of the unhinged in his gaze.” Tapping the screen, you make the pixels swirl with your emphasis. “That’s him. That’s the man.”
In boxing, a sport where straight answers are as difficult to give as to get and consensus eludes under the cacophony of opinion, there are still some unassailable facts. Numbering among them are these: Oleksandr Usyk, only fifteen fights into his professional career, is the undisputed cruiserweight champion of the world and without question one of the finest fighters in the sport. His coronation came in the final of the World Boxing Super Series at the Olimpiyskiy in Moscow on Saturday, where Usyk tamed Murat Gassiev over twelve rounds that, while short on drama, removed doubt about Usyk’s superiority and room for hometown scoring alike. The division is his and should remain so far as long as he cares to possess it.
If these facts were confirmed on Saturday, the conditions that delivered them were set in place when the WBSS was launched last year (with Usyk the favorite). While a tenth-round stoppage of pre-pulped Marco Huck in the tournament’s first round was little more than a foregone conclusion—one that, considering Usyk’s preference for control over chaos, was refreshing in its malice—it marked the beginning of a pattern that would augment the Ukrainian’s accomplishments. Usyk met every opponent in the tournament on his home turf: stopping Huck in Germany, before decisioning the undefeated Mairis Briedis in Latvia, and the undefeated Gassiev in Russia. He is not the first such invader, but you need only remember Andre Ward’s refusal to stamp his passport in the process of winning the Super Six to appreciate the perils of tempting the home-canvas advantage, especially for a fighter who cannot turn a fight with one punch.
All of this is to say that Usyk, 15-0 (11), became the King of Cruisers the right way. He can thank the WBSS for that. A tournament of ample compensation—especially for what has predominantly been a stepchild division—set on an appropriate timeline provided Usyk the opportunity needed to prove himself. He can thank his fellow cruiserweights too, those men short on leverage and long on ambition who agreed to fight any combination of the best required to establish their own supremacy (and profit thereby). How silly our preoccupation with the brouhaha born of negotiations for this or that fight, the latest social media beef between fighters allowed to do anything but sign a contract that would force them to make good on their lip when there are serious fighters conducting serious business. Yes, Usyk did it the right way because seven other men were willing to take the same path—so tilt a glass to them too.
For some, there may remain room for criticism in the manner Usyk won his fights, the still somewhat amateurish style he employs and its dearth of damage. He is forever scoring out a moat around his opponents, one “jab-and-circle-right” at a time. Still, it is one thing to embrace self-preservation against a middling threat, preferring the judges confer in their tallies the dominance best wrought by your fists; another to remain composed and controlling in the face of real danger, to commit fully to diffusing the man wired to bring your end. The first strategy is one unbecoming of Saturday’s stakes; Usyk employed the second.
The left hook Gassiev augered into Usyk’s body in the second, the right hook to the jaw he crashed home a few rounds later—these confirmed even for viewers that Gassiev would remain dangerous so long as he believed he was. Usyk would have to fight his fight for twelve rounds to win. And so he did. Gassiev’s left hook to the body? He struggled to land it ever after. His right hook? All it struck for the remainder of the fight was Usyk’s guard as the Ukrainian pivoted away. And thus, to the rhythm of Usyk’s tireless jab, went Gassiev’s belief in himself, taking with it his weapons, holstered, inert.
If it is fair to say the fight failed to meet expectations, it is only fair to give Usyk credit for that. He will be exciting when imperiled, when fighting from behind or with his daylights near departure; when he will have to rescue rather than preserve a victory. Gassiev could rightly be expected to bring Usyk as close to such a moment as any man weighing 200 pounds or less. That he did not is unfortunate not only for the fight that resulted but also because it denied Usyk the type of crucible that stablemate Vasyl Lomachenko experienced against Jorge Linares, who spilled Lomachenko with a right hand and was summarily eviscerated for his success. Usyk has proven himself as a boxer time and again throughout his precocious career, but what there is of the fighter in him remains in question. This is not to assume he is deficient in this regard, only to note that questions still remain for Usyk; but they are of the type reserved for the very best fighters in the world, the type that preserve intrigue and beget curiosity.
They are also the type of questions that only heavyweights can ask of him. One could not watch him so completely disarm Gassiev and not wonder how Usyk might fare against men who could compensate for their inevitable deficit in skill with size and its attendant power and durability. To send a mind wandering in this way—what a compliment, the type reserved for Lomachenko, for Terence Crawford, for Mikey Garcia. And Usyk may already be more accomplished than all of them.
Usyk is targeting Tony Bellew, a fighter on his own impressive run who will raise Usyk’s profile and add to his bank account but ask little of him in the ring. If anyone has earned a “gimmie” it is Usyk, so let a fighter who has so earnestly pursued glory profit by his pursuit. Before year’s end. Because heavyweight is waiting. And so are we.