By John J. Raspanti
A year ago he was the reigning cruiserweight world champion. He was undefeated in 14 fights, with 10 knockouts. Though highly regarded when he began his career, due to winning the gold medal at the 2012 Olympic Games, some said he was overrated, due to his unremarkable victory over Michael Hunter, and stopping an over-the-hill Marco Huck.
It would have seemed unfathomable at that point, to imagine Oleksandr Usyk as Maxboxing’s 2018 Fighter of the Year.
All one needed to do was check Usyk’s performance when he won his first world title two years ago. He traveled to Gdańsk, Poland, his undefeated opponent’s home country, something that would become routine in 2018, and impressed.
As it turned out, competition was what Usyk needed to bring out his A game. Last January, he unified the cruiserweight division by edging Mairis Briedis in the semifinal of the World Boxing Super Series tournament.
In the final, he faced Russian Murrat Gassiev, (in Moscow) a fighter who had starched 10 of his last 12 opponents. Usyk, a native of Ukraine, boxed beautifully, playing olay- en route to winning all 12 rounds. He walked away from the tournament with all four belts (the first in the cruiserweight division to do so) and the Muhammad Ali trophy.
Usyk, 31, could have rested on his laurels and prepared for 2019, but former champion Tony Bellew issued a challenge. Usyk accepted. This time the bout would be in London, where thousands of Bellew’s fans came out to support their man.
In the early rounds they had a lot to cheer about. Bellew was more than holding his own, but in the middle rounds, Usyk, like a scientist studying a bug under a hot light, began to slowly take over. In round eight, Usyk stunned Bellew with a right, and put him to sleep with a beautiful left to the jaw.
Said Bellew after the fight, “He’s the greatest man I have shared a ring with.”
It will be intriguing to see what Usyk does in 2019. He’s stated he’d love to fight retired two-division champion Andre Ward. Ward hasn’t said anything as of yet, but it’s easy to imagine the ultra-competitive Ward mulling over a fight with Usyk.
Will Usyk move up to the heavyweight division and challenge giants Anthony Joshua, Tyson Fury, and Deontay Wilder?
Though the six-foot-three-inch Usyk will be giving up inches in height, and probably 30-40 pounds in weight to at least two of the heavyweights, his boxing brain and moxie will make up the difference.
Summing up, in a year from now, if Usyk is again in the running for Fighter of the Year, unlike in the past, I don’t believe anyone will be surprised.