Tony Bellew would have beaten just about every cruiserweight in the world on Saturday other than Oleksandr Usyk. Heck, Bellew probably would have beaten most heavyweights.
Usyk, though, is a special fighter. And while only the hard-core boxing fans are celebrating what is going on with this special fighter, that may soon change.
Usyk, who knocked Bellew out in the eighth round Saturday in Manchester, England, to retain all four cruiserweight championship titles, will soon be a major player in the heavyweight division.
It’s hardly beyond one’s imagination that by this time next year, Usyk will have at least one heavyweight championship.
Usyk, who won an Olympic gold medal in London at the same Games in which IBF-WBA-WBO heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua won the super heavyweight gold, has the kind of footwork and the boxing skill to give the big men fits.
Usyk is 6-foot-3 with a 78-inch reach, so he has heavyweight dimensions. He’s almost certainly going to be the 2018 Fighter of the Year after going 3-0 in the year with wins over Mairis Breidis, Murat Gassiev and Bellew. Breidis and Gassiev were undefeated at the time they fought Usyk and with Bellew, they had a combined record of 79-2-1 at the time they met him.
It’s time to include Usyk in the conversation as the world’s best pound-for-pound fighter, along with Terence Crawford, Vasyl Lomachenko and Errol Spence Jr.
And when one projects him at heavyweight, he figures to be better. He punches plenty hard enough to make the giants like Joshua, WBC champion Deontay Wilder and linear champion Tyson Fury respect him. He has the kind of footwork and boxing skill to create mega-headaches for them.
This is quickly turning into a solid era for heavyweights. Wilder and Joshua have their share of flaws, but they’re compelling fighters who have the kind of power that separate them from the pack. Fury has elite boxing skills, though he has to prove he still has them against a high-end opponent after a long layoff in which he ballooned to over more than 400 pounds.
Gassiev, who looked bad against Usyk when they met in the finale of Season 1 of the World Boxing Super Series’ cruiserweight tournament, figures to become a heavyweight before long. He is only 25 and required surgery after the Usyk fight, which he probably should have had done prior to meeting such a highly regarded opponent.
Gassiev, though, is 6-foot-4 and is a big puncher and had been improving steadily prior to meeting Usyk. If he’s healthy and fighting at 230 or 235 instead of 200, he’s going to be dangerous.
There are others on the rise, like Daniel Dubois, Tony Yoka, Joe Joyce and others, who will make the division interesting over the next few years.
Usyk, though, is the guy ready to make an immediate impact at heavyweight. I believe he’d defeat Joshua now, if they met in Joshua’s next fight. Joshua is still improving, and time is on his side. But he has looked lost at times against opponents who can box, and he’s never faced anyone remotely as good as a boxer as Usyk.
Wilder, too, had great difficulty when Luis Ortiz used his boxing skills in their March fight.
It’s not fair to call it a golden age of heavyweights yet. We don’t know how good Wilder and Joshua really are at this point, but we should have a better idea over the next six months. Wilder’s Dec. 1 title defense with Fury in Los Angeles will, win or lose, say much about his overall skill set.
We’re nowhere close to where we were in the 1990s, when there were heavyweights like Lennox Lewis, Evander Holyfield, Mike Tyson, George Foreman, Ike Ibeabuchi, Tommy Morrison, Ray Mercer and others competing at a high-level.
But it’s the first time since then where there are multiple heavyweight fights which could be made that are legitimately interesting.
Usyk will have a big say in all of this. If he does to the heavyweights over the next 18 or 24 months what he’s done to the cruiserweights in the past year, he’s going to punch a ticket to the Hall of Fame and make himself one of the great fighters of this era.
He’s not terribly well known in the U.S. yet, given the low profile the cruiserweights have here.
You get the sense, though, that things are about to change in a major way.
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