Oleksandr Usyk hasn’t been a big name in boxing since he turned professional in 2013 after winning a gold medal for Ukraine at the 2012 London Olympics.
Part of it has been language. Usyk is a personable man who has a great sense of humor and impeccable comedic timing, but he speaks very little English. For most of his pro career, he fought at cruiserweight, a division that has historically been ignored in the US
To top it off, he hasn’t been all that active. Saturday’s bout in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, against Anthony Joshua will be his 20th in roughly nine full years as a pro.
That, though, is about to change. Because if Usyk is able to defend his unified heavyweight titles against Joshua, and he’s a 2-1 favorite to do so at BetMGM, he’ll become the man in the sport’s glamor division.
Usyk has been badly underrated for years. For starters, the 2012 Olympics produced a bumper crop of pros, including Joshua, Vasiliy Lomachenko, Errol Spence Jr., Oleksandr Gvozdyk, Jose Ramirez, Zou Shming and Ryota Murata.
Usyk also didn’t get a lot of television time in the US for his cruiserweight fights and so he wasn’t able to grow a fan base like Lomachenko, his close friend and countryman, was able to do.
But when the history of the professional careers of the 2012 Olympians is written, it well may turn out to be that Usyk is the biggest name.
Going into his first fight with Joshua, the only question surrounding the 6-foot-3 Usyk was size. Joshua is an NBA-sized heavyweight who looked like a power forward in a boxing ring. He has been one of the hardest punchers of this generation, as he scored knockouts in his first 20 fights.
And even now, after losing two of his last four, he’s 24-2 with 22 knockouts.
Usyk made his heavyweight debut on Oct. 12, 2019, in Chicago against the unheralded Chazz Witherspoon. Witherspoon was long past his prime in that fight and it would turn out to be his final bout of him.
But at 6-5, 242, he created issues for Usyk with his size and Usyk looked pedestrian even though he stopped Witherspoon after seven rounds. He faced a lot of pressure in his next outing, a year later against Derek Chisora, and was better though not great in putting together a unanimous decision victory.
So when Usyk signed to fight Joshua on Sept. 25, 2021, in Tottenham, England, it didn’t get a lot of people excited.
But Usyk had learned in the fights with Witherspoon and Chisora what he needed to learn, and he was a full-fledged heavyweight by the time he met Joshua. He boxed brilliantly, as he’d done throughout his amateur career and for most of his time as a professional.
I have disrupted Joshua’s timing, dictated the pace of the fight and never allowed the champion’s vaunted power game to click.
Usyk won the fight going away, taking a unanimous decision.
Now, in the rematch, he’s a 2-1 favorite but Joshua has a new trainer and a supposed new attitude.
But the style Joshua employs may well work against him if he tries a heavy-pressure game. Joshua hasn’t shown he could go 12 hard rounds at the kind of pace he’ll need to if he’s pressing Usyk the entire way. And Usyk is brilliant at playing the matador versus the bull game he may be forced to play. The more pressure Joshua puts on will create more opportunities for Usyk to hit him with clean counters.
Joshua isn’t going to be able to keep buzzing forward if he’s getting hit by those counters, and one has to wonder if he’ll even be able to take them. The shots that hurt most, particularly coming from a heavyweight, are always the ones a fighter doesn’t see. And Usyk is brilliant at landing those short hooks on the inside and those counter straight lefts over the top.
He’ll be underrated no more if he lands enough of those counters and is able to finish Joshua. And a win would either put him into position for a mega-payday for the undisputed title against Tyson Fury, if Fury commits to fighting again.
But even if Fury doesn’t come back and Usyk doesn’t get a chance to fight for his vacant WBC title, he’d clearly be the man at heavyweight.
This is a guy who very well could be the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world. He doesn’t get the notoriety and he hasn’t gotten a lot of credit, but all he does is win.
If he wins this one, though, it will be about time to recognize him as one of the greatest fighters of his era.
He’ll have earned that.