Weekend Review: Oleksandr Usyk made history with transcendent performance

A critical look at the past week in boxing

Oleksandr Usyk

Oleksandr Usyk (right) did a lot of damage with his left hand. Richard Pelham / Getty Images

I used to roll my eyes when anyone compared Usyk to another cruiserweight titleholder who became heavyweight champion, Evander Holyfield, who I believe is among the two or three best fighters pound-for-pound over the past 40 years.

I can’t do that anymore, not after what Usyk did on Saturday in Saudi Arabia.

Usyk overcame a slow start and a spirited effort from Tyson Fury to score a pivotal ninth-round knockdown and go on to win a split decision in an epic battle between the two best fighters in the division, thus becoming the first undisputed heavyweight champ since Lennox Lewis a quarter century ago.

And he relied as much on grit as his boxing wizardry to do it. He appeared to be in trouble in the first half of the fight, as Fury was able to land heavy punches – many to the body – surprisingly consistently given Usyk’s technical ability.

Usyk not only survived the rough stretch but managed to turn the tables in the second half of the fight, highlighted by a monstrous left to the head that resulted in a standing knockdown and nearly ended Fury’s night in Round 9. Usyk went on to outwork Fury down the stretch, which was enough to have his hand raised.

One could argue that Fury did enough to get the nod – Fury himself pleaded his case afterward – but few outside the loser’s camp is crying robbery. Usyk earned the greatest victory of his career.

The 37-year-old Ukrainian has defeated former heavyweight king Anthony Joshua in back-to-back fights and now Fury in a four-fight span even though he was dwarfed by both of them, leaving little doubt that he’s the top heavyweight at least until an anticipated rematch with Fury and an all-time great.

I still have trouble comparing Usyk to Holyfield, who was a dominating 190-pounder (the cruiserweight limit at the time) and went on to become a four-time heavyweight champion. I believe he would’ve been the greatest heavyweight ever if he were naturally bigger.

I now have similar thoughts about Usyk. He defeated the gifted Fury even though he was outweighed by 38½ pounds. What he would’ve done if they were the same size? Fury, as well as Joshua, wouldn’t want to know the answer to the question.

The fact he is 3-0 against them as a blown-up cruiserweight is nothing short of remarkable, just as Holyfield’s success against bigger men was in his generation.

We’re privileged to be witnessing something so special.

Tyson Fury

Tyson Fury (left) gave a strong performance in defeat  Richard Pelham / Getty Images

The “0” in Fury’s record is gone but he certainly has nothing to be ashamed of.

In fact, he gave one of the better performances of his career given Usyk’s ability and determination. He seemed to be in control of the fight by the middle rounds, using his combination of skills and athleticism to land eye-catching shots consistently.

And his recuperative powers were on full display in Round 9, when Usyk’s left hand staggered him and a follow-up barrage of power shots almost put him away. His ability to not only survive the harrowing moment but come back to fight hard down the stretch is a testament to his conditioning and will power.

However, the 10-8 round proved costly for Fury. Had it been a 10-9 round for Usyk, the two 114-113 scores would’ve been 114-114 and the fight would’ve ended in a draw.

Alas, Fury must now accept the fact that he has lost for the first time. And we must reevaluate the way we look at him, at least to some degree. He had a chance to confirm what many believed going into the fight, that he was the premier big man in the sport.

Instead, he can only claim to be second best at the moment. That’s not bad but Fury won’t embrace that designation, particularly because he feels he did enough to get the decision.

Fortunately for him, it appears that he’s going to get a second chance. He indicated after the fight that he would exercise the rematch clause in the contract signed by the fighters, and Usyk made it clear he has no problem with that.

If Fury wins, particularly if he can do it convincingly, he can reclaim his spot atop the division and much of what he lost. If he loses again, he’ll be remembered as a guy who came up short.

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Story originally appeared on MMA Junkie