Monday, May 23, 2022

Why Oleksandr Usyk could be the wild card to derail Anthony Joshua and the heavyweight superfights

Had the best-laid plans of boxing’s heavyweight division come to fruition this summer, unified champion Anthony Joshua would have already faced lineal and WBC beltholder Tyson Fury to declare the first undisputed champion of the four-belt era.  

This is boxing, however, where nothing ever quite goes to plan. The good news, however, is that the consolation prize offered to fans over the next two weeks in the form of an unofficial four-man tournament to hopefully declare the undisputed best heavyweight of this era early next year appears to be in motion.  

On Saturday, Joshua (24-1, 22 KOs) will put his WBA, WBO and IBF titles on the line in a mandatory defense against former undisputed cruiserweight champion Oleksandr Usyk (18-0, 13 KOs) in a massive event at England’s Tottenham Hotspur Stadium (1 p.m. ET, DAZN). Two weeks later on Oct. 9, Las Vegas will be home for a trilogy fight pairing Fury (30-0-1, 21 KOs) against former WBC champion Deontay Wilder (42-1-1, 41 KOs).  

Yet for all of the talk regarding who might be the one boxer of the four with the best shot at being the last one standing when all is said and done, most of said discussions have circled around the trio of incumbent giants.  

The biggest wildcard of the four, without question, is Usyk, a 6-foot-3 southpaw who won heavyweight gold at the 2012 London Olympics for Ukraine during the same games that this weekend’s opponent, the 31-year-old Joshua, took home gold at super heavyweight.  

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Usyk, 34, brings a skill set to heavyweight that is as unique to the division as what the 6-foot-9 Fury brings with his speed, length and elusiveness. Usyk might not be as tall as Fury, and the jury remains out after just two appearances at heavyweight throughout an injury plagued last three years whether he truly has the punch resistance and power to be an elite threat. Yet it’s just as equally hard to overlook his combination of creativity, sublime technical skill and fearlessness when it comes to determining just how much of a live dog he is expected to be against Joshua.  

A master of using comedy as a front for his attempts a pre-fight mental warfare, Usyk showed up to Thursday’s final press conference dressed in a wild three-piece suit that looked straight out of the late actor Heath Ledger’s closet for his reprisal of the Joker character in Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” series about Batman. While the humorous and nostalgic reference by Usyk isn’t by accident, his antics only hide just how great of a pure boxer he actually is.  

A product of the same Ukrainian amateur team that produced multi-division champion Vasiliy Lomachenko, Usyk is very much the “Lomachenko” of the upper weight classes. His footwork, timing and vast array of punches from different angles have made him legitimate enough of a threat to the more robotic Joshua that Caesars Sportsbook has Usyk as just a +220 underdog.  

After a long and decorated amateur career, Usyk turned pro at age 26 and quickly began in just his 10th pro fight an unmatched cleaning out of the cruiserweight division that featured seven straight victories against elite fighters Krzysztof Glowacki, Thabiso Mchunu, Michael Hunter, Marco Huck, Mairis Briedis, Murat Gassiev and Tony Bellew.  

Usyk’s cruiserweight run was not only impressive because he became just the fifth male boxer to unity all four titles in a single division during the modern era, he exited the division alongside Evander Holyfield in a debate for greatest of all-time at the weight class. He also completed a breakout campaign in 2018 by winning the World Boxing Super Series tournament.  

The WBSS proved to be the perfect testing ground for Usyk’s ambitious plans to one day test the water at heavyweight. He was paired up against back-to-back unbeaten sluggers in the final two rounds — Briedis and Gassiev — which tested everything from his chin and adaptability to his resolve and elusiveness.  

Usyk passed every test possible at cruiserweight and appeared poised to make an immediate splash at heavyweight, but a series of bad luck and misfortunes left him with canceled fights, injury setbacks and potential opponents failing drug tests. Some 11 months after he retired Bellew in England, Usyk finally made his heavyweight debut in a ho-hum sleeper against overmatched late replacement Chazz Witherspoon.  

Luckily for Usyk, however, he was able to truly test himself within the division before getting his chance at a heavyweight world title. That matchup came last October against rugged veteran Dereck Chisora in a close decision win for Usyk that seemed to do two contrasting things at the same time: give fuel to those who doubted whether he could have the same success against physically tough heavyweights while proving his supporters right for believing that he could still win after doing so.  

The reality is that Usyk’s daring nature saw him willing to endure big shots in order to leave no doubt on the scorecards in the championship rounds. It was a performance similar to the one he had against Gassiev in their 2018 thriller that went far to cement Usyk as more than just a technical boxer and, instead, someone who can rise to the occasion and do the hard things required to win a big fight.  

The obvious rebuttal to all of the success Usyk has had up to this point is that he has yet to face someone exactly like the hulking, 6-foot-6 Joshua — a natural finisher with both hands who is built like an NFL linebacker and yet is quick enough to box on his toes. A quick comparison of the two would make it hard for a distant observer not to predict Joshua is simply too big and strong not to eventually catch Usyk. And that’s exactly what “The Joker” would want you to think. 

Usyk’s subtle brilliance is most evident in how well he studies his opponent’s patterns and setups early in a fight so he can pour it on late in the second half. Given Joshua’s history of fatiguing for key stretches in the midst of big fights while carrying around all that muscle on his 245-pound frame, this could be a problem for the defending champion late provided Usyk gets there.  

Joshua’s history of having a vulnerable chin is also potentially worrisome in this matchup in the later rounds, as well. For whatever Usyk appears to lack in true heavyweight power, he makes up for in precision.  

From the standpoint of marketability and bringing the most eyeballs to the sport for a single night, it would be hard to argue that the best thing to happen to the division would be a Fury-Joshua superfight in 2022. The only thing better than that would probably be an immediate rematch between the two, which seems likely given talks of a two-fight deal should both prove victorious over the next two weeks.  

Yet Joshua’s toughest matchup to date could very well be Usyk, which is why the oddsmakers aren’t taking any chances. And why boxings fans shouldn’t make plans just yet for an all-U.K. showdown for all four world titles next year.  

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