Sunday, June 16, 2024

Oleksandr Usyk vs. Tyson Fury takeaways: Usyk writing his own history; expect a different Fury in rematch

For the first time in the four-belt era, the undisputed heavyweight boxing championship was at stake on Saturday as Oleksandr Usyk and Tyson Fury put on an instant classic in Saudi Arabia. 

Usyk (22-0, 14 KOs) rallied in the second half to floor Fury (34-1-1, 24 KOs) and nearly stop him in Round 9 before hanging on for a split-decision victory to add the WBC and lineal titles to his WBA, WBO and IBF belts. 

Elsewhere on the card, Jai Opetaia regained the cruiserweight title he never lost in the ring against a familiar face. Opetaia battered Mairis Briedis before surviving a late onslaught to capture the IBF title at 200 pounds. The native of Australia is undefeated at 25-0 with 19 knockouts on his resume. Plus, Anthony Cacace pulled off one of the biggest upsets of the year in stopping Joe Cordina to claim the IBF super featherweight title. The 35-year-old badly hurt Cordina early in the fight as the referee was stepping in to break up a clinch and Cordina never fully recovered as Cacace poured on the pressure before the fight was waved off.

As we await the contractually mandated rematch that will likely take place this fall, let’s take a closer look at the biggest takeaways from an incredible “Ring of Fire” pay-per-view card from Kingdom Arena in Riyadh. 

1. Despite “Fight of the Century” tag, this somehow exceeded expectations

Talk about the right fight at the right time. Boxing was already trending upwards in an aggressive way following an incredible 2023. But that momentum has only continued into the new year in a big way thanks, in large part, to the continued financial investment from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which has made so many fantasy matchups possible. When it’s done right, there is nothing else in professional sports quite like heavyweight championship boxing. It’s just different. It can create boxing fans for life, almost instantaneously, by captivating the viewer with a courageous display of controlled violence. And Usyk joined Fury in combining to co-author a thrilling spectacle that not only will demand the attention of the sporting world when they meet again later this year, it showcased just about everything that’s great about this disorganized and unpredictable sport. The adjustments made by both future Hall of Famers were brilliant as the momentum changed hands multiple times in a fight which, from a scoring standpoint, literally could have gone either way. Everything about this fight triggered nothing but exciting and nostalgic feelings about the way things used to be. Don’t look now but boxing is back. In a big way. 

2. Usyk never fought like the smaller man

Most experts predicted a 12-round chess match between these highly skilled big men while others thought Fury’s size and power would be too much. The mid-fight adjustments made by the 6-foot-9 “Gypsy King” seemed to suggest the latter was inevitable as Fury repeatedly hurt Usyk with right hands, body shots and an uppercut from deep that couldn’t miss. But despite giving up six inches in height, seven inches in reach and nearly 40 pounds on the scales to Fury, few could’ve predicted just how gutsy the second-half surge from Usyk would truly be. Usyk repeatedly pushed the pace and cornered Fury with ease, but it wasn’t until Round 9 that the true breakthrough moment of the fight truly took place. Even though he’s not known for having big power, the investment of outworking Fury and repeatedly targeting the body helped him fatigue his opponent just enough to uncork a series of clean power shots that placed Fury on the verge of peril. Referee Mark Nelson was generous in letting Fury wobble from pillar to post as Usyk went for the finish. And Fury was saved by the bell after the ropes held him up (which was rightfully ruled a knockdown) but Usyk simply ran out of time to close the round. Usyk fought bigger throughout and constantly backed his much larger opponent up. He may have gotten to this point on footwork and sublime skill, but it took the true heart of a champion for Usyk to nearly slay the division’s true giant.

3. Expect a heavier (and dirtier) Tyson Fury in the rematch

Fury, who came in at his lowest weight in five years at 262 pounds, found out the hard way the same thing that Anthony Joshua previously learned twice: there isn’t another heavyweight out there who can outbox Uysk over the 12-round distance. Fury certainly came close, of course, in this meeting between the two, clear-cut best heavyweights of this renaissance era. But Fury and his team will no doubt be kicking themselves upon rewatching the fight for how easily the smaller Usyk was able to repeatedly corner and back Fury up while relying on constant output to tire him and lower his volume. Usyk both attempted and landed more punches than Fury in each of the last five rounds to take home the disputed decision (while landing the most punches of any Fury opponent, 170, in fights tracked by CompuBox). At 35, Fury may be two years younger than Usyk but the physical toll accrued upon him as a professional has been much more considering Usyk’s defensive style and the fact that he turned pro late after a long (and successful) amateur career that culminated in a 2012 Olympic gold medal. That’s not to say that Fury is washed or over the hill. But given the scare he survived against former UFC champion Francis Ngannou last fall, Fury appears closer to the end than he does his absolute prime. And Fury’s father, former heavyweight boxer “Gypsy” John Fury, has also long maintained that his son is a better and more dangerous fighter the heavier he is. Look for Fury to bulk up and adopt a more bullying style in the rematch aimed at leaning on and mauling Usyk in the clinch to tire his quicker-footed opponent out. Fury is also at his best when he’s flirting with breaking the rules as his overly competitive and survival instincts tend to take over. The more Fury can lean on his physical advantages and force Usyk into more of a fight than a boxing match, the results could be different the second time around. 

4. Usyk’s undisputed reign won’t last more than a few weeks

No, sadly, that isn’t a typo. For all the great things boxing has done of late, including staging an undisputed heavyweight title fight for the first time in 25 years, there’s still enough politics and bureaucracy within the sport to cause more than a few headaches. Both boxing and Usyk can enjoy the fact that the sport’s most important division finally has one name and one face as its champion, but the multiple delays that caused this fight to take so long to happen also came at a price. Filip Hrgovic, the mandatory opponent for Usyk’s IBF title, has already twice accepted step-aside money to prolong his right to cash in on the title shot. But the unbeaten native of Croatia has decided he will wait no longer. With Usyk and Fury likely headed toward a contractually obligated rematch, Usyk will be stripped of his title on June 1 when Hrgovic returns in Saudi Arabia to face Daniel Dubois for the vacant title. The winner is expected to fight Anthony Joshua later this year, which means an all-new run toward fully unifying the four titles will need to take place. This may feel like a one step forward, two steps back scenario for the sport after the high of Usyk’s win (mostly, because it is). But it will raise the stakes once the winner of Usyk-Fury II, in theory, takes on the winner of Hrgovic/Dubois-Joshua in 2025 for the newly undisputed crown. 

5. Usyk is on his way to writing his own chapter in boxing history

The native of Ukraine will likely need a second victory over Fury to truly stand out on his own as the face of this resurgent heavyweight era. But considering everything else he has accomplished to get to this point — from Olympic gold to becoming the first four-belt undisputed cruiserweight champion in boxing history six years ago, it’s safe to say Usyk is on his way to authoring quite a unique legacy. As the smallest of the elite competitors in this super heavyweight era, Usyk has proven to be a giant among giant men. And considering many already see him as the greatest cruiserweight the sport has ever seen, after running through the division’s deepest pool in decades to capture the World Boxing Super Series tournament, adding the title of best heavyweight of this century (alongside countryman Wladimir Klitshcko) is no small task. Usyk is as mentally tough as any boxer in years and fights for much more than money or fame as he proudly represents his home country at every turn. He even paused his career for a full year beginning in late 2022 to join soldiers on the frontlines in Ukraine during the ongoing war with Russia. Usyk is both wholesome and hilarious in how he carries himself and remains an incredible ambassador to the sport at large. And even though history will likely point to names like Floyd Mayweather, Manny Pacquiao and Canelo Alvarez as the faces of the sport over the past two decades, Uysk’s pound-for-pound accomplishments belong right up there with any of them. 

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