Moment of Clarity: Oleksandr Usyk is Heavyweight Champion

Boxing has a new undisputed heavyweight champion, and with him, a return to normalcy, to the kind of certainty our sport often resists, a bit of the obvious in the realm of perpetual debate. Oleksandr Usyk is the heavyweight king, a feat he accomplished, fittingly, in Kingdom Arena in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where he won a split decision over Tyson Fury. Those scores serve as a reminder that what the former undisputed cruiserweight champion is doing in a division without weight limits, catchweights, rehydration clauses, without any of the physical restrictions that impose competitive balance—or strategically undermine it—is all he is capable of. Usyk has found his ceiling as a fighter by fighting the best. What more can we ask of a fighter than that?

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The heavyweight champion—a title determined by a jumble of acronyms but above all of them—is now the division’s best fighter. Such a distinction seems nonsense, a useless tautology, at least when applied to welterweight or super bantamweight. But the heavyweight division has lacked such clarity since the reign of Lennox Lewis (Remember: there were first two Klitschkos and then one, and that one ruled a division so moribund he could hold territory in retreat). What Usyk has done in scalping Anthony Joshua and Fury is put those fighters who owe their success primarily to winning a genetic lottery in their place. The super heavyweights, men so enormous as to prompt discussion about adding a division exclusive to such monsters, are finally looking up—at a six-foot-three 230-pound former cruiserweight with only fourteen knockouts in twenty-two fights.

This is not to say that Joshua is unskilled: he has an impressive punch arsenal and has refurbished himself after multiple derailing defeats. Fury has the edge of a born fighter—a point his father might emphasize with a headbutt—and a quickness impossible to reconcile with his melted wax physique. Deontay Wilder, who was part of the tournament of hypothetical wins and losses that decided the division for years, has always been a mess technically but remains a generational puncher with tricks enough to send men to the shadow realm before they capitalize on his flaws. And yet none of them are Usyk; none can profess the same blend of craft, resilience, and toughness. If they could, they would have proven it by now. And in the case of Joshua and Fury, proven it against Usyk.

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Saturday served as a reminder of our desire to witness greatness, to share history with it, and make it ours—and to refashion reality to do so. His brutal trilogy with Wilder did more for Fury than establish his dominance over a current fighter—it made him historically great. The search for past heavyweights who could overcome the unique problems presented by Fury far too often returned—unsurprisingly—empty. . . . Because Wilder couldn’t beat him?

There is no need to counter hypotheticals in kind. When Fury was humiliated by Francis Ngannou, an MMA fighter engaging in his first professional boxing match, the idea that Fury was an all-time challenge, if not an all-time great, was shown for what it was. Granted, he was especially fat and unserious against Ngannou and mocked for his struggles. But his supporters warned all those laughing at Fury’s expense that their fighter would be prepared for Usyk—that a focused “Gypsy King” is a different animal. Whatever breed of animal it is, Usyk tamed it.

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Reevaluating this era of heavyweights need not diminish what Usyk has achieved. Watching Usyk, one does not perceive an obvious greatness. Consider by way of example, Roman Gonzalez’s superhuman performance in the twelfth round of his first fight with Srisaket Sor Rungivsai, the way Floyd Mayweather Jr., was twice buckled by Shane Mosley but established complete control before the round’s end, the right hand Juan Manuel Marquez used to stiffen Manny Pacquiao and silence the world. Yet that is Usyk’s charm, what makes him so remarkable: he pursues greatness with a margin for error shrunk by the size of his opponents—and he is just good enough to win.

Usyk is made vulnerable by his style, the demand it makes on his stamina, and the opportunities it presents to opponents who could wipe him out; because he lacks the power to end fights quickly, those opportunities are available for twelve rounds (something confirmed by Usyk’s face after fights). At the highest level, the only level he is interested in, it is not unusual for Usyk to look across the ring at someone who gives and takes better than he does. And yet, no one has capitalized fully on these advantages. Again, this is the crucial point: what Usyk lacks, the arresting attributes distinguishing fellow undisputed champions, Terence Crawford and Naoya Inoue, makes what he does all the more impressive. The degree of difficulty (reflected in the margins of victory) elevates Usyk.

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He came straight for Fury from the opening bell, working the body, looping his punches to find a towering chin. Fury’s histrionics, the tongue-wagging, and other gestures may have produced cheers, but Usyk ignored utterly Fury’s efforts to win the crowd and unnerve him. He could not ignore the uppercuts Fury landed or the body shots, but Usyk’s response to being hurt was almost invariably to come forward, to force Fury to do for three minutes what he preferred to do for half that at most.

The effect of that relentlessness produced the most dramatic moment of the fight. In the ninth round, Usyk scored a knockdown with a pair of counter hooks that had Fury out on his feet, surprise and fatigue conspiring to shrink this massive man to barely three feet tall. Size saved Fury in these harrowing seconds: the added pounds he carries around his waist augment his chin. Yet once more, a man who hit the jackpot was put in his place, this time bent over, leaning woozily into the ropes, saved by the knockdown that precluded a knockout only one punch away.

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Fury saw conspiracy in the scores but was complimentary of the man who handed him his first defeat. So we will echo his well-wishing here: Happy New Year to the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world.

 

About Jimmy Tobin 107 Articles
Jimmy Tobin is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. His work has appeared in The Cruelest Sport, 15 Rounds, Undisputed Champion Network, Esquina Boxeo, El Malpensante, The Queensbury Rules, and The Fight Network. Jimmy is the author of Killed in Brazil? The Mysterious Death of Arturo “Thunder” Gatti, published by Hamilcar Publications. Connect with Jimmy on Twitter.