Thursday, May 30, 2024

Tyson Fury vs. Oleksandr Usyk fight: Five biggest storylines to watch in the undisputed heavyweight battle

For the first time since 1999, the undisputed heavyweight championship will be at stake in the sport of boxing on Saturday in a historic, four-belt unification between unbeaten champions Tyson Fury and Oleksandr Usyk. 

The pair of future Hall-of-Fame heavyweights will square off in the main event of a pay-per-view card from Kingdom Arena in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The fight is the first of two expected meetings this calendar year between Fury (34-0-1, 24 KOs), the lineal and WBC champion, and Usyk (21-0, 14 KOs), who holds the WBO, WBA and IBF titles. 

As we draw closer to big event this weekend, let’s take a closer look at the biggest storylines. 

1. Eight years later, it’s (finally) one name, one face and one division

Fury’s upset victory over Wladimir Klitschko in 2015 created a changing of the guard atop the division, sparking the potential for a renaissance era at heavyweight that fans continue to enjoy to this day. The long held belief by historians that “as the heavyweight division goes, so does boxing” could not have become more true in recent years as a steady stream of marquee fights involving everyone from Fury and Usyk to former champions Anthony Joshua and Deontay Wilder, has helped the sport elevate itself to new heights. But make no mistake about it, Saturday’s fight marks the true culmination point of the promise that began some eight years ago when Fury first wrangled away the control of the division in such a masterful way. 

Boxing may be hot right now, thanks in large part to the massive financial commitment of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. But nothing quite truly represents the idea of boxing, a sport known more this century for its disorganization and splintered power control, having its stuff together like a singular champion in possession of all of the belts. Not since Lennox Lewis defeated Evander Holyfield in their rematch during the final year of the previous century, has boxing had a singular recognized face atop its marquee division before the mass proliferation of watered-down titles. It may have taken some time to get here, but the last two remaining unbeaten champions have been left standing with only each other awaiting as the final test toward crowning the singular face of this exciting new era. 

2. At 35, is Tyson Fury still the same guy from the Deontay Wilder trilogy?

That’s the biggest question surrounding the handicapping of this classic matchup. For years, as the idea of this fight continued to come into focus, it was believed by most that, for as great as Usyk is as a former cruiserweight champion moving up in weight, the 6-foot-9 Fury will always be too tall, too long and too skilled to succumb to the thrilling technical skill of the former Olympic gold medalist from Ukraine. But ever since Usyk finished off a pair of upset wins over Joshua to claim a trio of titles in 2022, thus making the undisputed fight with Fury the next logical choice, the “Gypsy King” hasn’t quite looked or sounded the same. Fury, who polished off Dillian Whyte with a single punch just four months before Usyk edged Joshua in their rematch, has never quite made it seem like he even wanted the Usyk fight. In fact, he was soundly criticized for inexplicably delaying the fight an additional year-plus by erroneously claiming publicly that Usyk was demanding too much money. Fury then closed 2022 with an unnecessary trilogy fight with Derek Chisora, only to sit out an additional 11 months before returning, not against Usyk, but in a throwaway fight with boxing novice and former UFC champion Francis Ngannou, which saw an overweight Fury knocked down and lucky to survive with a disputed, split-decision win. Fury may be two years younger than the 37-year-old Usyk, but questions remain about his hard lifestyle outside the ring and the fact that some believe he has never quite looked the same inside the ring since rising from the canvas twice to finish Wilder in their 2021 trilogy. While Fury is still the rightful betting favorite this weekend, it’s no longer by much as oddsmakers have listed the bout as a virtual pick ’em. 

3. Good luck trying to play mind games against Oleksandr Usyk 

While Fury has benefitted for years from an ability to psyche out his opponents due to outlandish behavior and constant unpredictability on the microphone, it has been fascinating watching just how little effect any of those same tactics have had on Usyk. A mental savant, both in terms of his analytical ability to break down his opponents and his stoic demeanor, Usyk has always seemed to hold the wild card when it comes to being so difficult to read. Usyk has also unleashed his own bit of mental warfare upon the master, himself, by calling out Fury for years over social media with hilarious videos poking fun at Fury’s belly fat and immediate avoidance of signing the contract for this fight to take place. When you add the fact that Usyk took a full year off after the Joshua fights to join the frontlines of his home nation’s war with Russia, only to return last August to score an emotional knockout of Daniel Dubois, you quickly realize just how different the mindset of Usyk is compared to those who have been outwitted by Fury in the past. 


Fury will do all he can to try and get into Usyk’s head. Getty Images

4. Tyson Fury’s recent weight loss begs an interesting question

Shortly after Fury weighed in at just over 254 pounds for his 2019 title defense against Otto Wallin (his lightest since 2013), a major change to both his weight and fighting style has taken place. Wallin badly cut Fury over his eye, forcing the champion to rely on leaning against and bullying his challenger en route to a decision win. The unlikely scare caused Fury to rethink some key parts to his game. He sacked trainer Ben Davison immediately after and hired Javan “SugarHill” Steward, a disciple and nephew of Kronk Gym founder and Hall-of-Fame trainer Emanuel Steward, to teach him how to become a more devastating puncher. He also committed to a new body style and more bulk around his midsection as Fury weighed in at an average of 271 pounds for his next five bouts, including the second scare last October against Ngannou, where Fury was visibly obese. But photos and videos from training camp for the Usyk fight have seen Fury recommitted to his fitness and even a return of visible abdominal muscles. All of this does ask an interesting question regarding what style he might use to try and win the fight. Given his advantages in both height and overall size, most assumed Fury would try to use his size to corner and slow down the quicker Usyk. But the pictures of Fury’s body suggest the real potential for something different. With sizeable advantages in both reach (seven inches) and height (six inches) over Usyk, Fury’s reshaped body might suggest he’s more likely to try and box from the outside, similar to how he bamboozled Klitschko behind an active guard and constant feints. Either way, for a fighter who has so often played up or down to his level of competition, it’s good to see the respect Fury has for Usyk’s game and that he has seemingly left no stone unturned when it comes to preparation. 

5. History beckons from an individual standpoint, too

For all of the talk about this being the first four-belt, undisputed fight in heavyweight history, it’s hard not to look at what a victory might mean to the resume and legacies of both fighters, as well. Whether or you love him or hate him, it’s hard to argue just how historically relevant Fury has become to heavyweight history. Given his incredible size, fighting spirit and the skillful footwork he brings to the division, Fury is already a matchup problem for any of history’s great heavyweight kings from the standpoint of mythical matchmaking. But adding a victory over the unbeaten Usyk, along with the inevitably that a money fight against Joshua still remains for next year, Fury truly has an outside chance at finishing his career as a top-10 heavyweight. He will likely need to retire unbeaten to do so, of course, Yet, given the resume of Usyk and the history at stake in this fight, it might go without saying that this is the most important fight of Fury’s career when it comes to just how much a victory would impact his longterm, historical placement. Usyk, meanwhile, already has a resume so unique that it has become hard to even imagine what adding a victory over Fury might mean to how we remember him for years to come. 

Usyk was already 26 when he turned pro following a run to Olympic gold at heavyweight in 2012. But even if he lacks the global fanfare that surrounds Fury, he may end up with an even better resume when all is said and done. Usyk’s run to becoming the first four-belt, undisputed champion in cruiserweight history left him, upon exiting in 2018, as possibly the greatest fighter already (with respect to Holyfield) in the division’s history. Usyk captured the World Boxing Super Series tournament title in his run to four cruiserweight belts by defeating, quite literally, every single big name in the division, including then-unbeaten champions Mairis Breidis and Murat Gassiev. After then knocking out former world champion Tony Bellew in his final cruiserweight bout later that year, Usyk began his assault upon heavyweight amid whispers he was too small and lacked both the power and chin to compete with the big boys. But only five years later, following defeats of Chisora, Joshua (twice) and Dubois, Usyk has a shot at adding two more wins over Fury (thanks to the contractually obligated rematch), which could give historians headaches by trying to figure out exactly what to do with a career that special and unique. Should he get the victory, Usyk would join current pound-for-pound contemporaries Terence Crawford and Naoya Inoue as the only men to earn four-belt, undisputed status in multiple divisions. 

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