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Can Oleksandr Usyk replicate cruiser glory at heavyweight? 6 who tried before

Derek Bonnett lists 6 cruiserweight champs who, like Oleksandr Usyk is about to do, moved up to heavyweight, with wildly varying degrees of success

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Oleksandr Usyk cleaned out the cruiserweight division
Oleksandr Usyk cleaned out the cruiserweight division

Ukraine’s Oleksandr Usyk has edited cruiserweight history in a very short time. In just 16 bouts, Usyk has unified the division and won the World Boxing Super Series tournament. He’s faced the utmost elites of his time in seven consecutive bouts and left little doubt that he belongs among the division’s best of all time. Usyk, arguably, sits at number two right behind Evander Holyfield, but there are those who would take the debate one step further and say he’s the new king. With nothing left to prove, Usyk now eyes the heavyweight division for the next chapter of his illustrious career. With rated heavyweight Tyrone Spong on deck for Usyk’s October 12 arrival, the winner of the Andy Ruiz vs Anthony Joshua rematch will then be mandated to give him a shot in 2020.

The cruiserweight division has existed since the late 1970s, first as regional championships, but became more tangible once the major alphabet organizations started sanctioning title fights. Yet, the division was often referred to as a “bastard” class and its titles as “spurious”. In all fairness, the division sports a wonderful history and has produced several solid eras of competitors at least. Regardless, the money never fell to the ‘almost heavyweights’ even as the division limit grew from 190 to 200lbs. By this standard, some of history’s all-time great heavyweight icons wouldn’t have surpassed the cruiserweight limit. Most of Joe Louis’ career was contested right around the current divisional limit of 200lbs. Floyd Patterson typically weighed closer to the original limit of 190lbs nd Rocky Marciano was almost always below it. The recorded weights of Sam Langford also saw him consistently making weight under the lighter divisional limit. With the exception of Langford, these ‘Big Men’ were heroes of their time and treated as such because they carried the label of ‘heavyweights’.

Usyk’s mission is not new as suggested earlier. However, his chances are being viewed more favourably than many of those to come before him. His blend of honed boxing technique, athleticism, power, mobility and stamina build a complete package. Seemingly, he is bringing more to the table than some, but Usyk is also competing in an era of giant heavyweights and his tasks may literally be taller than his predecessors.

The following are some notable cruiserweight belt-holders who stepped up in weight in search of greater glory and paydays. Their success, as you will see, was a mixed bag.

Steve Cunningham
“USS” Cunningham scored many top wins as a cruiserweight, but he lacked the sustained success of others. While his greatest wins at cruiserweight included Marco Huck, Guillermo Jones and Troy Ross, Cunningham was more of a tough test in the heavyweight ranks. Cunningham dropped Tyson Fury in round two of their bout, but the latter’s size and weight proved insurmountable and he folded in seven rounds. Fury leaned and hit behind the head to gain an advantage and it worked in the end. Cunningham did have enough to defeat then-unbeaten contender Amir Mansour using his experience and skill to win rounds and his heart and will to survive two knockdowns. Cunningham also appeared unlucky in losing his heavyweight rematch with fellow cruiserweight Tomasz Adamek and drawing with former light-heavyweight king Antonio Tarver. In the end, Cunningham returned to the cruiserweight division with his pride intact.
Cruiserweight: 24-6
Heavyweight: 5-3-1

Tomasz Adamek
“Goral” Adamek held world titles in both the light-heavyweight and cruiserweight divisions. Following his impressive run at 200,lbs which included defeating O’Neill Bell, Steve Cunningham and Jonathon Banks, Adamek stepped up to heavyweight to knock out his countryman Andrew Golota in five rounds. Although Golota was a spent commodity at the time, Adamek impressed with his show of power, strength and sustained hand skills in dismantling his fellow Pole. Adamek built a steady resume with tight decision victories over Chris Arreola and Jason Estrada. His chin and stamina carried him through the tough battles. He also topped a pair of giants in Michael Grant and Kevin McBride, who could not match his skill, but presented formidable challenges in height. Adamek earned himself a shot at then-champion Vitali Klitschko, but his preparations and abilities could not meet the challenge presented by a larger champion with greater ability. Against Klitschko, Adamek could only prove himself brave. Adamek hung around though and won controversially against Eddie Chambers in a close contest. He also added wins over retread heavyweights in Travis Walker and Dominick Guinn, but fell from contention after losing close contests with Vyacheslav Glaskov and Artur Szpilka. He remained active until late 2018 and may fight on, but the once top contender is only a stepping-stone now.
Light Heavyweight: 31-1
Cruiserweight: 7-0
Heavyweight: 15-5

David Haye
“The Hayemaker” unified three cruiserweight belts in two of his best wins over Jean-Marc Mormeck and Enzo Maccarinelli, stopping both well inside of the distance. These two bouts comprised his reign and he moved up to heavyweight to where he defeated a well-worn, but experienced, Monte Barrett in five rounds. Haye captured a version of the heavyweight title with a slow, action-starved decision victory over the giant Nikolai Valuev. Just barely. He then dismantled former titlist John Ruiz, knocking him down no less than four times in nine rounds. Haye failed to deliver his heavyweight punch in his unification bout with Wladimir Klitschko in spite of big talk before the bout. Klitschko pitched a near-shutout to dethrone Haye. David stopped a fresh Dereck Chisora in five rounds before pausing his career for nearly four years. He was never again a factor and ended up losing his last two outings by stoppage to Tony Bellew.
Cruiserweight: 21-1
Heavyweight: 7-3

Vassily Jirov
“The Tiger” defeated some fine cruiserweights in Arthur Williams, Dale Brown and Julian Letterlough, but he will always be best known for losing an amazing cruiserweight battle to the great James “Lights Out” Toney to surrender his title. Jirov fought twice more under the cruiserweight limit before seeking heavyweight success; he almost had it. In his heavyweight debut, he fell behind early against unbeaten Jose Mesi, but managed a dramatic late-rounds rally. Jirov hurt Mesi in the ninth and dropped him. Mesi rose, but hit the canvas again twice in the 10th. The surge proved too little too late as Jirov lost by one point on all three cards. Mesi suffered two brain bleeds in defeat and was suspended for some time before he could resume a career that never reclaimed its momentum. In his next outing, Jirov started early and was able to build a strong lead over former heavyweight champion Michael Moorer. However, it was Moorer who would use late dramatics to salvage a victory by stoppage in nine. Jirov eventually won five heavyweight bouts against unheralded opponents. He also managed a draw with former cruiserweight champion Orlin Norris.
Cruiserweight: 33-1
Heavyweight: 5-2-1

Al Cole
Al “Ice” Cole’s career can be called a ‘Tale of Two Cities’. He never lost in his prime as a 190lb champion and had avenged the lone loss on his resume as a prospect. He defeated James Warring to become a title-holder and defended against Uriah Grant, Nate Miller and Glen McCrory amid his title reign. Cole’s motivation to move up was to earn the bigger paydays and he certainly made more money as a heavyweight opponent than he did as an underappreciated cruiserweight champion. Cole lost his heavyweight debut to Tim Witherspoon by decision in 1996. Michael Grant stopped him in 10 the following year. He drew with Kirk Johnson before losing the rematch on points. Heavy-hitting South African Corrie Sanders blitzed him in the first round. Cole managed to hand Vinny Maddalone his first defeat and later ended the career of David Izon on points. However, there were a lot of unimpressive defeats in the role of heavyweight opponent for Cole. Terrence Lewis, David Bostice, Sherman Williams and Sedreck Fields - all heavyweight opponents themselves - handed Cole points losses. The once world’s best cruiserweight was never considered a contender at heavyweight.
Cruiserweight: 27-1
Heavyweight: 8-15-3

Evander Holyfield
“The Real Deal” is a name you might remember in terms of cruiserweight and heavyweight success. Holyfield is universally recognised as the world’s best ever cruiserweight and sometimes rates among the top 10 best heavyweights. Holyfield, so far, is the standard for the cruiserweight-to-heavyweight rise and he set the bar very high. Although an all-time great in each division, his work as a heavyweight exceeds his work as a cruiserweight. After unifying three cruiserweight titles with victories over Dwight Qawi, Rickey Parky and Carlos De Leon, Holyfield earned his heavyweight title shot with stoppages over James Tillis, Pinklon Thomas, Michael Dokes and Alex Stewart. A showdown with Mike Tyson was inevitable, but Holyfield would have to settle for decimating James “Buster” Douglas following the “Upset of the Century’ to become champion. Holyfield’s first reign as heavyweight champion included defenses against George Foreman and Larry Holmes. A Tyson bout again fell through due to Mike’s incarceration, so Holyfield met Bert Cooper after Francesco Damiani also pulled out. This reign would end after 12 rounds with Riddick Bowe, but Holyfield would hold heavyweight titles four more times and would get robbed in his opportunity to add a fifth. Holyfield would add another win over Stewart and avenge his loss to Bowe to claim a portion of the unified title. He would lose them to Michael Moorer, but defeat Ray Mercer to get back in line. He failed in his trilogy fight with Bowe, but soon posted two victories over Tyson to again be called heavyweight champion. He avenged the loss to Moorer to add another belt before drawing and losing to Lennox Lewis. He then edged John Ruiz to get one title back, but lost it in the rematch and could only draw in their rubber match. Hasim Rahman was outpointed to get back into position, but a three-fight slide followed, including a stoppage loss to James Toney, and effectively ended his best days. Sultan Ibragimov defeated Holyfield in yet another bid for a title and Valuev was awarded an unpopular decision over him in an attempt at another. Holyfield still mustered enough of his ability to add wins over Frans Botha and Brian Nielsen to end his amazing Hall of Fame career.
Cruiserweight: 18-0
Heavyweight: 26-10-2

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