By: Hector Franco
This weekend in the United Kingdom, arguably the biggest star in boxing will fight for the first time in 2021 when Anthony Joshua (24-1, 22 KOs) defends his WBA, WBO, and IBF heavyweight titles against the Ukraine’s Oleksandr Usyk (18-0, 13 KOs).
Initially, Joshua was set to take on lineal and WBC heavyweight champion Tyson Fury in what would have been the most significant bout of the year. However, Fury found himself legally obligated to face Deontay Wilder in a third fight, putting an end to the fight with Joshua.
Following the legal debacle with Fury, Joshua was then forced to focus on his WBO mandatory Oleksandr Usyk.
Usyk is one of the greatest amateur boxers of all time, holding an impressive 335-15 amateur record along with winning multiple amateur tournaments, including a gold medal at heavyweight at the 2012 Olympic games in London.
As a professional, Usyk has found nothing but success winning the World Boxing Super Series cruiserweight tournament in 2018. Usyk took on the best fighters the division had to offer throughout the tournament, earning victories over then-undefeated fighters Mairis Briedis and Murat Gassiev.
In the tournament finals, Usyk was crowned the winner holding the coveted Muhammad Ali trophy and laid claim to the undisputed cruiserweight championship holding all four major world titles in the weight class.
To cap off 2018, the Ukrainian defended his undisputed crown against the United Kingdom’s Tony Bellew, scoring an emphatic eighth-round stoppage. Usyk would become the unanimous fighter of the year in 2018, winning the honor from The Ring Magazine, the Boxing Writers Association of American, Sports Illustrated, and ESPN.
Currently, Usyk is ranked as one of the best fighters in the world, pound-for-pound sitting at the number four spot by Ring Magazine.
After accomplishing all he could at cruiserweight, Usyk set his sights up the weight scale at the heavyweight division.
Usyk made his heavyweight debut in October 2019, taking on journeyman Chazz Witherspoon who was on an eight-fight winning streak heading into the match.
While scoring a seventh-round stoppage over Witherspoon, Usyk’s performance wasn’t up to par compared to his previous fights giving many doubts about his prospects at heavyweight.
In his next fight in October 2020, Usyk stepped up the competition taking on perennial heavyweight contender Derek Chisora.
Usyk improved upon his performance with Witherspoon against Chisora, scoring a clear unanimous decision putting himself in the position to challenge for the WBO heavyweight title.
Joshua will be a massive jump for Usyk, who will have significant size and reach disadvantages. Usyk is current a +225 underdog against Joshua, who also won a gold medal at the 2012 Olympic games, but at super heavyweight.
Joshua reportedly stands at 6’6 compared to the Ukrainian southpaw’s 6’3 with a 4-inch reach advantage.
However, Usyk may have seen weaknesses that he feels he can exploit against Joshua, most notably in his loss to Andy Ruiz in the summer of 2019. Joshua would win a unanimous decision out boxing Ruiz in the rematch later that same year, but will Joshua be able to outbox a fighter as technically sound as Usyk?
“I can outbox him; of course I can,” Joshua stated during the final press conference. “And I can out-strength him. You have to have a bit of aggression, boxing skill, head movement. There is not just one factor that determines a fight. Obviously, we have our go-to, our strength.
“I will use my strengths. But it’s called a boxing match for a reason. I love the sweet science. I will display my boxing skills, but I won’t make it too complicated in there.”
Most of the boxing world has generally put Saul “Canelo” Alvarez, Terence Crawford, or Naoya Inoue at the top of their pound-for-pound lists, with Alvarez sitting at the number one spot in the majority of publications.
However, a victory over Joshua for Usyk would trump a victory for Alvarez over Caleb Plant to become the undisputed super middleweight champion, as Plant is a massive underdog who hasn’t been in the ring with elite competition.
After more than three years at welterweight, Crawford finally got a fight with a top fighter in the division when he takes on former two-time welterweight champion Shawn Porter in November. But Crawford will also be a favorite over Porter, who at this point has lost his biggest fights.
Pound-for-pound lists are fun to discuss and argue with among fans, but the fact is those lists are based more on fantasy than reality.
Usyk becoming a unified heavyweight champion to go along with his credentials at cruiserweight should put him at the top of any list. However, the reality is due to size, Usyk would easily beat Alvarez or Crawford.
Also, Usyk has shown just as high an IQ and skillset as both men.
“This is the biggest fight of my career right now,” said Usyk at the final press conference. “My opponent is the biggest, an Olympic champion with three world titles. He is a cool opponent. I am looking forward to the victory.
“I have put in all the work and effort, and I will demonstrate what it means to me.”