By Marc Livitz: On occasion, the casual viewer of professional boxing may find it odd when the sport’s top attractions aren’t listed among the top names in the field. While houses, pubs and arenas may fill to thrill American audiences, it’s often across the Atlantic where the best talent lies, especially when bouts are set in a tournament format and not simple mandatory meetings set forth by various sanctioning bodies. One chance means a win keeps you in, while a loss means otherwise. 2018 was the year which brought more and more boxing fans to one of the most historically missed divisions in the sport, the cruiserweight ranks. Much of this was due to the meteoric rise of Oleksandr Usyk, who was voted by the writers of SecondsOut.com as ‘Fighter of the Year’.
Usyk (16-0, 12 KO’s) began 2018 much in the same fashion as 2017 had ended, which was in the ring as he took part in the “World Boxing Super Series” cruiserweight tournament for the coveted ‘Muhammad Ali Trophy’. On September 9, 2017, Oleksandr scored a tenth round TKO victory over Marco Huck in Berlin, Germany in the competition’s quarterfinal with the WBO world cruiserweight title also at stake. In doing so, the native of Kiev, Ukraine booked his place into the semifinals, which meant a matchup with WBC champion Mairis Briedis in the defending champion’s backyard of Riga, Latvia on January 27.
In a bout which Usyk would later describe as the most difficult of his life, he landed seventeen more punches on Briedis, yet he threw over 250 more. The decision would of course be accompanied by its share of disagreements, yet the higher activity levels were enough for two of the three ringside judges to see the bout in his favor, seven rounds to five. With two world championship titles to his credit, the victory over Briedis meant a spot in the final, which was to be held in Moscow, Russia at the Olimpiyskiy Sports Complex.
As was the case with Briedis, Usyk’s victory earned him a trip to his opponent’s homeland, this time for the ultimate prize against Murat Gassiev on July 21. This was set up by Gassiev’s late knockout win over Cuban Yunier Dorticos on February 3, which earned him the WBA strap to go alongside the IBF version he’d taken to the ring. Finally, the die was cast and the stage was ready for the showdown for cruiserweight supremacy in a bout many expected could go either way or would at least bring the absolute best out of each man.
Although the original May date for the final had to be postponed due to an elbow injury Usyk sustained in training, that night in July turned out to be a total wash for the 31 year old from Ukraine. The 2012 gold medalist boxed beautifully for twelve solid, one sided rounds. He cut off the ring, which often left fellow southpaw champion “Iron” Gassiev looking frustrated and lost. Oleksandr used his jab to near perfection, which again and again split the guard of his Russian adversary and allowed him to connect with left hooks and straight rights.
When all was done, two judges awarded one round to Gassiev, while the third gave him none. The unanimous decision triumph meant that Usyk was the unified cruiserweight world champion and the winner of the prestigious ‘Ali Trophy’, yet he wasn’t done there. What would he choose for an encore? How would he compliment his performance in the tournament to place beside his gold medal and one of the most successful amateur careers in recent memory?
The answer came this past November. Former WBC world cruiserweight champion Tony Bellew moved up to the heavyweight ranks to twice defeat David Haye in March of 2017 and May of 2018, respectively. Six months later, the Liverpool native moved back down to cruiserweight to challenge Usyk for his newly attained titles. On November 10 of this year, Oleksandr met Bellew at the Manchester Arena in England, complete with a hostile crowd and raucous energy. Throughout much of the bout, it was the former champion Bellew who was the clear aggressor. Tony made sure to use his footwork to stay away from the left hand of Usyk and by the second round, he was openly talking trash to him after he connected with a right hook to the head. This made Oleksandr smile.
Bellew used superior head movement and refused to stay in one place for too long as
he continued to box slick. At the end of round four, he was taunting his Ukrainian
opponent and sticking out his head, though he’d absorbed a left hook to the face for his trouble. Still, he was able to slip Usyk’s jab and return fire with his right hand. However, by the end of round seven, the tide began to visibly turn and Bellew’s face was clear evidence of this. It wouldn’t take long for Oleksandr to wear him down and much of round eight gave the crowd in Manchester an idea of what looked to be inevitable. With just over one minute to go, Usyk finally broke the former champion down and sent him to the canvas with a left hook.
Tony was clearly out of his element and as he used to the ropes to attempt to regain his stance, referee Terry O’Connor had seen enough and waved off any remaining punishment. At the time of the stoppage, Oleksandr was even on one scorecard, yet behind on the other two. At the end of the night, Usyk indicated that he’d just passed through the most arduous period of his life as a professional fighter as he somewhat deflected questions about moving up to heavyweight. In the meantime, we can continue to wait and see where his decision lies. Until then, we at SecondsOut.com extend sincere congratulations to Oleksandr Usyk, 2018’s ‘Fighter of the Year’.