2018 Boxer of the Year: Oleksandr Usyk
Oleksandr Usyk stands in rarified air as he did something that has only been done by only Terence Crawford at super lightweight in recent years as he unified his cruiserweight world title winning all four major belts over the course of the year fighting in opponent’s backyards. This intro can end at this as he accomplished more in a single year than most fighters, ever do.
Usyk entered the year with the WBO cruiserweight title and picked up the WBC cruiserweight title by majority decision over Mairis Briedis in Briedis’ hometown of Latvia in January of this year. Usyk followed this up with a one-sided domination of the IBF and WBA cruiserweight world champion Murat Gassiev in Russa in July of this year to not just unify the world titles, but also win the World Boxing Super Series Ali Trophy. The icing on the cake was a big money fight against beloved U.K. fighter Tony Bellew, whom he stopped on European pay-per-view in November and was Uysk’s second time being available in the United States television as he fought on the streaming platform of DAZN.
What makes each win notable besides the high level of competition without the need for a tune-up in between each bout is the fact that Usyk fought three different ways for each fighter. Take for example Gassiev he stayed on his backfoot using angles to keep Gassiev off balance as Gassiev likes to rush in like a bull with pure aggression and a whole lot of power, against Bellew he used constant pressure to tire out the British fighter to set up a highlight reel KO and against Briedis he was a hybrid of the two to gut out a narrow win.
Usyk isn’t what you would call athletic per say, he might not explode off the line like a defensive end or be able to play any sport quickly, but he is well coordinated, well coached and seemingly one of the only fighters who seems to be at cruiserweight not because of his fighting limitations, but simply because it is a weight that works for him. In short, Usyk is a fighter you’d typically see in other weight classes, but we rarely get at cruiserweight since the paydays aren’t as good as say the heavyweight division.
It also must not be understated that Anatoly Lomachenko, Vasyl Lomachenko’s father, took on Usyk a few years ago, and has added to the fighter’s repertoire, even though Usyk was a tremendous amateur defeating most of the most highly thought of professionals in his era.
The Awkward Truth
That being said, it speaks to the transitionary period we are in, in the sport of boxing as most of our major stars were not active and setting up for major years in 2019 and 2020. Usyk, a fighter that die-hard fight fans might have watched at most two of his bouts and at worst, might have caught highlights here and there on YouTube is kind of the pick for fighter of the year that use to make me resentful of boxing writers. Usyk earned the award and fought the best, but he didn’t impact the culture of boxing tremendously meaning I don’t know many people at boxing gyms around my area, that made plans to watch him fight or talked about his bouts afterward. Usyk was impressive, but was not much a topic of conversation in the sport, and that needs to be taken into account.
In fact, when he fought Murat Gassiev, a fight I was excited about and streamed from KloudTV on my phone at a taco shop we frequent, I saw a crowd full of boxers, who had little interest in the bout. The fact is the cruiserweight division outside of Evander Hollyfield and Dwight Qawi has been a no man’s land that has mainly existed overseas and been looked down upon, rightly or wrongly. The last cruiserweight I remember watching was Steve Cunningham, but most of his bouts I watched at heavyweight moreso than when he was in his prime.
The World Boxing Super Series allowed the best fighters in this division a chance at proving who was the best since the division struggled to find a home on U.S. television. Even with the best facing the best facing, the tournament couldn’t find a home on U.S. airwaves. As Jaime Munguia’s first world title defense of his WBO super welterweight title against Liam Smith on HBO, took precedent and mostly controlled the conversation, as Usyk win over Gassiev took place on the same exact day.
Despite being an excellent fighter and having a tremendous year, a lot of Usyk’s work went unseen. This award in many ways feel like giving best picture at the Oscar to a terrific art film, one that everyone should watch, but most people will never get around to or even care to.
Well, with Usyk more than likely winning every fighter of the year award from every media outlet, it seems he will move up in weight to heavyweight to fight much bigger fighters like Anthony Joshua, Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder. Though he has a chance against them, I feel he is greatly outgunned as he is the best cruiserweight I have seen since Hollyfield, but in the true nature of prizefighting will not get the chance to create a dominant legacy at his natural division as the massive pay increase at heavyweight will be too much for him to pay by. .