In the 41-year history of the division, only two former cruiserweight world champions have gone onto capture heavyweight gold. Tonight, Oleksandr Usyk takes the next step in his quest to follow in the footsteps of Evander Holyfield and David Haye, when he faces his first legitimate test in the land of giants as he takes on Dereck Chisora at the SSE Arena in Wembley.
One man who is acutely aware of the challenges involved in bridging the gap between the two weight classes is Johnny Nelson.
Prior to Nelson embarking on his seven-year reign as WBO cruiserweight champion he had a short-lived spell competing in the sport’s marquee weight class.
Nelson was never a true heavyweight but had found opportunities hard to come by in his natural division after two failed attempts at winning a world title at cruiserweight. His sojourn at heavyweight saw him travel to South Africa, New Zealand, Thailand and Brazil. During this time, Nelson won the lightly regarded WBF title, before losing the belt to Adilson Rodrigues (L12).
Despite having a modicum of success in the division, Nelson never weighed more than a little over 206lbs, just 6lbs above the current cruiserweight limit.
Ultimately, the Sheffield boxer was certain his future lay one division south.
“I knew I wasn’t a heavyweight,” Nelson told Boxing Social. “I dipped my toe in the heavyweight pool and won the silly WBF title and I gave it up straight away. I went to New Zealand and boxed Jimmy Thunder [W12] and I beat Nikolay Kulpin [W12] in Thailand. You can fight certain heavyweights as a cruiserweight and deal with them with ease, but I knew I couldn’t compete because I didn’t carry enough weight at the time, to box at heavyweight, so I stayed in my lane. I’d eat and eat and eat, but I couldn’t put the weight on, I couldn’t get any bigger. I was at a disadvantage at heavyweight, I was at an advantage at cruiserweight, so that was me.”
While Nelson was able to overcome the size discrepancy against the likes of Thunder and Kulpin, it was an entirely different matter when he stepped up in class to face future world champions Corrie Sanders and Henry Akinwande. While Nelson heard the final bell in both contests, he had no answer for the weight of Sanders’ punches or the sheer size of the 6’7” Akinwande.
Although Nelson stands at over 6’2”, he was unable to put sufficient muscle on his frame to cope with the heavyweight behemoths. As such, he was never tempted to vacate his cruiserweight title to become mandatory challenger for the WBO heavyweight belt.
“When you go in there and fight heavyweights, if you are giving so much away; height, as well as weight and reach, unless you are proper on it, it’s a hard ask,” he said. “I didn’t have the weight; I didn’t have the power to make a difference. I remember against Corrie Sanders; I didn’t have the power to stop him in his tracks. I can remember hitting Corrie with a flush shot and he just walked straight through it, I thought: ‘Fuck Me!’ You can batter most heavyweights, but the few that you’ve got to be careful of, you’ve got to be very careful of because you give away too much.”
While Nelson and Usyk have similar physical dimensions and both are southpaws, that is where the comparisons end. Nelson worked hard to utilise every ounce of talent he possessed and, under the tutelage of Brendan Ingle, became a hard man to beat.
Usyk on the other hand is natural. The Ukrainian is a mercurial talent who has phenomenal foot work, ring intelligence, hand speed and accuracy. The London 2012 Olympian gold medallist has staked his claim as perhaps the greatest cruiserweight of all-time when he unified all four major sanctioning body belts during the World Boxing Super Series.
Despite Usyk’s domination, Nelson doesn’t believe we’ve seen the best of him yet.
“I can Remember watching Usyk box [Murat] Gassiev in the World Boxing Super Series,” he said. “At times I thought: ‘Usyk is boxing within himself.’ There were parts where I was thinking: ‘Wow! This guy actually doesn’t realise how good he is’. He was making the fight hard for himself at times and boxing within himself. There was an old saying Brendan [Ingle] always used to say: ‘You’ve got to have the confidence to match your ability’. I’m sure Usyk has confidence, but he didn’t realise how much ability he had then. I said at the time: ‘This guy isn’t the finished article,’ even now, I don’t think he’s the finished article, but give him time. It’s just a case of if someone can trip him up before he gets there.”
Dereck Chisora is the man hoping to “trip up” Usyk tonight. Usyk’s heavyweight debut last October didn’t provide many answers regarding the Ukrainian’s long-tern success in the division as he turned in a solid, if unspectacular, performance against Chazz Witherspoon.
Some hope that Chisora will provide a better assessment of Usyk’s credentials in the land of the giants. Chisora has enjoyed an Indian Summer since rebranding himself as ‘War’, producing highlight-reel knockouts against Carlos Takam and Artur Szpilka.
Yet Chisora has traditionally struggled against more elusive heavyweights such as Tyson Fury and Agit Kabayel.
Nelson is not convinced Chisora will be able to solve the puzzles Usyk will pose.
“That’s a problem,” Nelson said of Chisora’s lacklustre performances against nimble boxers. “He’s in against a moving southpaw that can box, so of course it’s going to be an issue. Dereck knows what he’s got to do, he’s got to take the pace away from Usyk, he’s got to rush him, close him down, he can’t follow him around. He’s got to keep Usyk under pressure and hope he breaks Usyk’s heart and lands a solid shot to see how Usyk holds a shot. If you are a mover who can create problems and angles, Dereck is going to be frustrated. I’m sure he’s worked on those weaknesses. Dereck has been training for a year, so, if he fancies it, he’s got every chance in the world.”
Chisora will be in excess of a two-and-a-half stone heavier in the ring and certainly has the greater one-shot power, the question remains: will he be able to land the punches to put those advantages to use?
While Nelson doesn’t believe it is an impossible task, he finds it hard to look past an Usyk victory.
If the 33-year-old is successful, Usyk will challenge for the WBO world title currently in the possession of Anthony Joshua.
Could Usyk be the third man to join the illustrious list of boxers who have won world titles at cruiserweight and heavyweight? Only time will tell, but Nelson believes it is possible.
“Like many, I hope that Chisora gets the win, but it’s a big hope,” Nelson said. “You look at everything Usyk has done at cruiserweight, you look at his pedigree, his style of fighting is almost infallible against most fighters. On paper, this is a baptism of fire for Usyk stepping up to heavyweight; it’s a case of how he deals with the strength and pressure of someone who is used to being at heavyweight. Dereck Chisora is not a big heavyweight, he’s not like a big, tall, long unit, he’s just an average sized heavyweight, but he’s a heavyweight. This is the first test for Usyk in regard to how he’s going to deal with a heavyweight that’s live, that’s got something about him, that can test him. That’s what it is, a test. For Usyk, it’s going to be about his adjustment and growing into the weight. His boxing ability is what he’s got to depend on for now, until he can develop that concussive heavyweight knockout power.
“I personally think that Usyk will box him smart in the first half of the fight, hoping that Dereck’s pace drops in the second half of the fight. I think it’s going to be like a bull and a matador, poking him, teasing him, hitting him, hurting him. Dereck will keep throwing shots but when you are grabbing and grasping, if you keep missing you are going to be disheartened, it’s going to break your desire. I think that’s what will happen, I’m going for Usyk late, I think the referee will stop it.”