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Usyk Gives the Heavyweight Division a New, Olden Look

Alexander Usyk, Anthony Joshua boxing photo and news image

By Rory Hickey: Oleksander Usyk was the undisputed champion in the cruiserweight division before vacating his championship and taking on a different challenge by moving up to the heavyweight division.

The former Olympic gold medalist believed that his boxing skill and smarts could make up for issues that facing naturally bigger fighters in the heavyweight division could pose. Usyk’s bet on himself paid off when he upset Anthony Joshua to claim the heavyweight championship in a unanimous decision victory. In a fight that most believed would be a quick pitstop on the road towards Joshua’s megafight against Tyson Fury, Usyk wouldn’t budge and made Johsua pay for his indecisiveness by collecting Joshua’s three belts. A previously uncluttered heavyweight championship picture got shaken up like a snowglobe in just twelve rounds.

Usyk was a relative unknown to the general public before his fight with Joshua. Even in his native Ukraine, he operated under the immense shadow of wunderkind Vasyl Lomachenko. Maybe his lack of showmanship kept him under the boxing media’s radar. His relatively late start to boxing at age 15 likely kept his profile and career expectations low. While he was dominant as a cruiserweight, plying his trade in arguably the least glamorous division in boxing did not make him a household name.

In boxing, the cruiserweight division has only existed since the early 1980s. With a weight limit of 175 pounds, the light-heavyweight division used to be the weight class directly below the heavyweight division. That was until the boxing commissions determined that matching a 200-210 pound fighter against a 180-185 pound fighter wasn’t the smartest or safest thing to do. Currently, the weight limit for the cruiserweight division is 200 pounds. The disparity in weight between the two divisions is so great that the WBC has recently introduced a “bridgerweight” division (which will have a weight limit of 224 pounds). Whether or not this new division gains any traction, its existence further illustrates how impressive earning a heavyweight championship after moving up from cruiserweight is. Usyk weighed in at a career-high 221 ¼ pounds against Joshua and still gave up nearly twenty pounds.

Alexander Usyk, Anthony Joshua boxing photo and news image

Though it is only one weight class, moving from cruiserweight to heavyweight seems more arduous than a typical jump in weight classes. Countless boxers have gone from junior lightweight to lightweight or welterweight to junior middleweight as examples. Moving up weight classes is part of the natural progression in a boxer’s career, as they get older and outgrow their original weight class. Recently Mikey Garcia and Kell Brook have each moved up two weight classes between bouts to take lucrative, albeit unsuccessful, championship fights against Errol Spence and Gennady Golovkin, respectively. Brook suffered a fracture to his orbital bone against Golovkin and hasn’t been the same since. Mikey Garcia had fought just once in the thirty months following his loss to Spence before losing to the previously anonymous Sandor Martin a few weeks ago in one of the bigger upsets in recent boxing history. These examples demonstrate the risk in moving up multiple weight classes, which is in some ways comparable to moving up from cruiserweight to heavyweight.

Usyk’s accomplishment of capturing the heavyweight crown has gotten lost in the larger discussion of where Anthony Joshua goes from here, as well as the scribbling of eulogies for the super fight between Joshua and Tyson Fury. For context, with his victory Usyk became just the third former cruiserweight champion to become champion in the heavyweight division, joining Evander Holyfield and David Haye.

Haye and Holyfield both had some success in the heavyweight division following their championship wins. About fifteen years ago, Ring Magazine recognized David Haye as their cruiserweight champion. He defeated the seven-foot Nikolai Valuev to capture a piece of the heavyweight crown in November 2009. After defending his belt twice, Haye lost by decision to Wladimir Klitschko in a match that saw all four heavyweight titles at stake. In 1988 Evander Holyfield became boxing’s first undisputed cruiserweight champion, and after he jumped up to heavyweight, “The Real Deal” only became more well-known and successful. Among his heavyweight exploits was his infamous rivalry with Mike Tyson plus his involvement in a legendary trilogy with Riddick Bowe.

Oleksander Usyk’s future at the heavyweight division will almost certainly include Tyson Fury, who himself just had a legendary end to a trilogy with Deontay Wilder. After a nearly three-year odyssey with no love lost or respect gained, Fury earned two victories and a draw in three fights with Wilder to cement his place atop the heavyweight division. Following the fight, Fury said: “Tonight was one of my greatest wins. I got off the floor to do it, and I’m the big dog in the division. I’m probably one of the heaviest heavyweight champions in history tonight. 277 pounds and I was fit, I was strong, and I felt good.” A 277-pound heavyweight champion is tough to fathom even as we watch Fury with our own eyes, and imagining it decades ago seems downright impossible.

During the most recent golden age of heavyweight boxing, from the end of the 1950s through the mid-1970s, top heavyweights weighed in on the lighter side of the sliding weight scale. Floyd Patterson and Sonny Liston both weighed in at roughly 215 pounds for most of their careers. Muhammad Ali weighed in at about 210 pounds early in his career, up to almost 225 by his final fights. Joe Frazier and George Foreman were 214 and 217.5 pounds respectively for their first bout in January 1973. Foreman, along with Ken Norton, gradually moved up to about 250 pounds by the latter stages of their careers– although Foreman was likely setting up his second career as a grill mogul.

These days, heavyweight champions are heavier than in past decades– Tyson Fury usually weighs roughly 270 pounds for fights. The Klitschko brothers, who ruled the heavyweight division in the early 2000s, weighed somewhere between 240 and 250 pounds. At the weigh-in before being defeated by Usyk, Anthony Joshua was a “light” 240 pounds. Joshua has received criticism for “training like a bodybuilder” leading up to fights (this criticism highlights the difference between being an elite athlete and a regular person).

Alexander Usyk, Anthony Joshua boxing photo and news image

Usyk and Fury are obviously at different ends of the scale, but the issue of weight is an interesting one in the current heavyweight division. If Deontay Wilder decides to continue his career, he would be one of several contenders in the division who have interesting questions about their fight weight. Wilder has spent most of his career around 220 pounds before bulking up to 238 pounds for his third bout against the colossal Fury. Andy Ruiz was 268 pounds before his career-defining upset of Anthony Joshua in Madison Square Garden only, to come in at 284 pounds for the rematch, which predictably did not go well. Dillian Whyte, the former kickboxer and Tyson Fury’s possible next opponent, has gone from the high-240’s to nearly 260 in recent bouts. In a sport where most weight classes have narrow ranges of eligibility, this is part of what makes the heavyweight division so intriguing. In the heavyweight division, bring some big gloves, and have a strong chin, and as long as you tip the scale at over 200 pounds, you can compete no matter what your body type is.

The question of who would win a fight between a good big man and a good little man is a debate as old as time. Given the weight disparity, Oleksander Usyk facing Tyson Fury would be size vs. speed on steroids, with the caveat that Fury is very agile for his size, and Usyk’s technique allows him to use his frame well. Though it doesn’t have the mainstream appeal of Anthony Joshua vs. Tyson Fury, Usyk vs. Fury would very much be a fight fan’s fight. As to who would win, maybe Tyson Fury would smash Usyk and continue his ascent up the all-time heavyweight rankings list. If recent history has taught us anything, though, it is to doubt Oleksandr Usyk at your own peril.

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