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How Oleksandr Usyk built a legendary resume comparable to Hall of Famer Evander Holyfield

Boxing is a sport constantly battling against its own worst instincts. Even so, there have been few periods in recent memory where boxing has been in a better place from a competitive standpoint. There are multiple great fighters, several with legitimate claims to the No. 1 spot on pound-for-pound lists, and high-quality fights are coming at a far more regular pace than in recent years. Oleksandr Usyk has taken advantage of this new normal to establish himself as a historically great fighter.

Usyk capped off his rise to greatness this past Saturday when he pulled off a thrilling victory over Tyson Fury to remain undefeated and become the first undisputed heavyweight champion of the four-belt era. Usyk joined Naoya Inoue and Terence Crawford as the only male fighters in the era to have become undisputed in two different weight classes, having also won all four belts at cruiserweight in 2018.

Before turning professional, Usyk had already accomplished a list of impressive feats. He won the 2008 European Championships at light heavyweight, the 2011 World Boxing Amateur Championships at heavyweight, competed in the 2008 Olympic Games and won gold at the 2012 Olympics. Usyk held a 335-15 as an amateur before joining the professional ranks.

Looking at any boxer’s place historically always includes a considerable amount of personal opinion. There is, however, one direct comparison to another legendary fighter and Hall of Famer that can be made.

Evander Holyfield was also an undisputed champion at cruiserweight and heavyweight in his career at a time when the WBC, WBA and IBF titles were the recognized world championships.

Similar to Usyk, Holyfield also had a tremendous amateur career. In fact, Holyfield may have won gold at the 1984 Olympics were it not for a bizarre situation that saw Holyfield land a punch that led to the referee counting out Kevin Barry before disqualifying Holyfield, claiming he punched on the break despite the referee being nowhere near the fighters when the punch landed. Holyfield had to settle for the bronze at the games but gold medalist Anton Josipovic, who won the tournament when Barry was not allowed to compete in the finals, chose to share the top podium with Holyfield.

Holyfield started his professional career with a brief light heavyweight stint before a move to the cruiserweight division. Holyfield ripped through the competition before defeating Hall of Fame member Dwight Muhammad Qawi by split decision in Holyfield’s 12th career fight to win the WBA cruiserweight title. Four fights later, and having added the IBF title to his collection, Holyfield faced Qawi again and got a fourth-round stoppage before an eight-round stoppage of another Hall of Famer, Carlos De Leon, to win the WBC title and go undisputed.

Usyk’s notable wins

Year Opponent Titles

2017

Marco Huck

WBO cruiserweight

2018

Mairis Briedis

WBO, WBC cruiserweight

2018

Murat Gassiev

WBO, WBA, WBC cruiserweight

2021, 2022

Anthony Joshua (twice)

WBA, IBF, WBO heavyweight

2024

Tyson Fury

WBA, IBF, WBO, WBC heavyweight

Usyk’s run at cruiserweight had already created a Holyfield-centric debate, with the two clearly standing as the two greatest cruiserweights of all time, even as De Leon had four reigns as world champion in the division.

Usyk defeated Krzysztof Głowacki in his 10th professional bout to win the WBO title. After two defenses of the belt, Usyk took a big risk and joined the World Boxing Super Series, an eight-man tournament that included all four cruiserweight world champions. In the tournament, Usyk beat Marco Huck (a former world champion with 13 successful title defenses), WBC champion Mairis Briedis and WBA and IBF champion Murat Gassiev to emerge from a deep and dangerous field as undisputed cruiserweight champion.

Usyk would add one final cruiserweight win, a stoppage of Tony Bellew, before jumping to heavyweight.

At heavyweight, Usyk now holds three combined wins over two of the best fighters of the era in Anthony Joshua and Fury, defeating Joshua to win the WBA, IBF and WBO titles, retaining in the rematch and going undisputed with his win over Fury. Usyk has also done his work in recent years while dealing with the ongoing Russian invasion of his native Ukraine, a conflict in which Usyk briefly took up arms to defend his homeland.

Speaking of Ukraine, Usyk has been the consummate road warrior, having not fought in Ukraine since his ninth professional fight. Usyk has never fought for a world title in his home country. In fact, in most of his biggest fights, Usyk had to travel to his opponent’s home country, which was the case when he defeated Glowacki, Huck, Briedis, Gassiev, Bellew and Joshua. The Fury fight, which was fought in Saudi Arabia, was the only time Usyk won a world title in a country that was not his opponent’s home turf.

The modern heavyweight field isn’t as deep as that which Holyfield had to navigate. But Usyk’s skills and proving he can overcome much larger, more powerful men like Joshua and Fury show that he could have competed in those same deep waters in which Holyfield had to swim.

Putting Usyk in mythical matchups with men Holyfield faced at heavyweight is an intriguing thought experiment.

Could Usyk have hung in against faded versions of George Foreman (three years before Foreman shockingly won the WBA and IBF titles at 45 years old) and Larry Holmes? How would he have fared against Riddick Bowe, who gave Holyfield hell across their trilogy of fights? How about Michael Moorer, who split a pair of fights with Holyfield? How would Usyk vs. Mike Tyson have played out in the era of the “Bite Fight?” And would Usyk’s success against taller, stronger men have produced similar success against Lennox Lewis?

After what we’ve seen Usyk do over the past few years, it’s hard to make the case that those were all mountains he could not have climbed. This is true even if boxing fans tend to always look at fighters from previous eras as better and tougher than the current crop.

At 37, time is not on Usyk’s side to build a lengthy heavyweight resume that stands alongside the likes of heavyweight’s all-time greats. But it’s what a fighter has accomplished that truly matters. And Usyk has already done enough to cement him as an all-time great fighter, arguably the pound-for-pound best in the world in this moment, and a sure-fire first-ballot Hall of Famer.

Everything Usyk does from here on out is icing on the cake. And that icing starts with a likely rematch with Fury and the chance to further Usyk’s legacy.

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