If I were to ask each of you which prospects are going to have a big impact on 2016, which ones would be on your list? British heavyweight Anthony Joshua would no doubt be mentioned, as would Joseph Parker, the heavyweight from New Zealand who many expect to cross paths with Joshua at some point. How about Luke Campbell? Maybe Artur Beterbiev? Jeff Horn, the hard-hitting welterweight from Australia who is rapidly climbing the rankings, may also feature. Good fighters all, and there are many others. Yet, there is one boxer who remains notably absent from many people’s lists. His name is Oleksandr Usyk, he’s a cruiserweight and the iron is just about hot enough for him to strike out at the division’s front runners and claim that weight class for himself.
It’s a little surprising how the wider boxing community hasn’t paid proper attention to the 28-year-old’s vast potential. The aforementioned Joshua, Campbell and Beterbiev (whom Usyk beat twice in the amateurs) have received far greater acclaim and worldwide recognition than the Ukranian. That may be because they compete in more ‘marketable’ divisions, which is unfortunately part of the sport, but Usyk can feel legitimately aggrieved in not receiving at least a fair share of the media’s limelight. And with good reason; he certainly has the CV to warrant it. Firstly, he had a glittering amateur career. Like his featherweight countryman Vasyl Lomachenko, he has won gold medals at every high-profile amateur competition, including the Europeans, the Worlds, and the 2012 Olympic games, and those successes have translated well into the pro game in the form of a well-drilled and busy southpaw style.
That style, combined with a big punch in both hands, has earned him a 9-0 (9) record against decent opposition. He fought Felipe Romero and Epifanio Mendoza in only his first two fights (who between them have fought the division’s best) and won the WBO Inter-Continental title in his 6th, and there have been noticeable improvements with each opponent he has faced. In earlier contests, Oleksandr’s footwork was at times a little clumsy, but by the time he was knocking out Pedro Rodriguez in his 9th match he was moving slickly around the ring, darting in and out of reach and peppering his opponent with sharp, powerful shots.
James Ali Bashir, the respected trainer who worked at the famous Kronk Gym alongside Emanuel Steward, is responsible for training Usyk, and he sees his potential too. “I think he stands [alongside] anyone in the world right now… we would not shy away from any challenge.” So confident is he of Usyk’s abilities, he believes he is ready to fight for the WBO title early this year. “I assume that we will fight for the world championship in the next fight… March or April. Assuming that we’re going to win the fight, we’ll come back August or September for the first defence”. Oleksandr himself shares that ambition. “I have a dream of breaking Evander Holyfield‘s record of winning the world title after just twelve [pro] fights… I aim to win the world title after eleven fights or less!”
Although momentum is clearly gathering pace behind him, becoming one of boxing’s next superstars may be more elusive for Usyk than he believes. If he is preparing for a title shot in his 10th or 11th fight, that is without doubt an incredible achievement. However, campaigning at cruiserweight doesn’t always prove to be the greatest showcase for talent. One of boxing’s youngest weight classes, there’s something about the 200lbs category that just doesn’t seem to capture the imagination of boxing fans, or the general public for that matter. Arguably without a truly dynamic champion since David Haye (who moved to heavyweight soon after unifying) and rarely featuring as a main event on a televised show, cruiserweight is often dismissed by many boxing fans as simply being “not heavyweight”.
Usyk acknowledges this, however: “I know that the US is the mecca of boxing…[but] my problem is, the cruiserweight division isn’t very popular in America and there are no big names for me to fight there. All the cruiserweight champions are European”. However, he doesn’t plan to move up or down any time soon: “…right now, I am a cruiserweight and my goals are to first win a world title at cruiserweight, then to unify the titles at cruiserweight.”
If the above is to believed, this year could be huge for the man from Simferopol. According to James Ali Bashir, early 2016 might see them in line to take on Krzysztof Glowacki, who took the WBO belt from Marco Huck in August of last year. This is a little premature – we need to see him in the ring with someone else in the top 10 or top 15 before we get too carried away with his abilities – but keep very close tabs on Oleksandr Usyk, because he could suddenly be dominating an entire division without any of us knowing it has happened.