The Big Question: Is Oleksandr Usyk the greatest cruiserweight of all-time?

On Saturday, Oleksandr Usyk became only the third cruiserweight in history to move up a division and win a world heavyweight championship after his 12-round boxing clinic against the favoured Anthony Joshua at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.

Having cleaned out a tough cruiserweight division during the first WBSS tournament series, the Ukrainian maestro followed in the footsteps of Evander Holyfield and Britain’s David Haye in making a successful leap to the land of the giants.

For over 30 years, Holyfield has been widely acclaimed as the greatest cruiserweight in history after unifying the WBC, WBA and IBF belts in the late 1980s before conquering at heavyweight, but should that accolade really belong to ‘Road Warrior’ Usyk who has repeatedly won in his opponents’ backyard? The Boxing Social team weigh in….

Oleksandr Usyk has thrown himself straight to the top of the cruiserweight pile. 

Yes, his career hasn’t been as long professionally as the likes of [Dwight Muhammad] Qawi or Holyfield, but nobody has been able to solve his blend of technique, trickery and toughness. There’s always an argument that those fighters who’ve spanned decades and exchanged wins with losses at the highest level should emerge as “the best ever” at a certain weight – but why?

Usyk swept the cruiserweight division, which was resurgent and swelling with talent at the time, and despite a relatively muted start at heavyweight, he absolutely schooled a solid, long-time champion. The WBSS gave the Ukrainian the stage to prove himself as one of the best ever – and that’s not something fighters from other eras have had the benefit of, but it’s extremely impressive nonetheless. And with a sad, worrying asterisk next to Holyfield, you’re reminded that…you either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain. – Craig Scott.

In boxing, politics and life in general, it is impossible to really get a sense of a situation when you are right in the middle of it. It took us years to fully absorb 9/11 and its impact; in fact, we are still working on that. The same will apply to Covid.

This especially applies to the career of a top-level boxer, and particularly in this day and age of social media where everything is dissected on a daily basis by the online equivalent of a Greek Chorus, who would lurk in the background of a play and provide constant commentary and criticism of the main action. You can only truly take a bird’s eye view of a career once it is done and dusted, but even then, it is still difficult as a fighter might disappear for decades then come back for one final, humiliating beating. 

The good thing about the Holyfield-Usyk debate is that they are without doubt the two best cruiserweights of all-time. The only issue is that one of them, Holyfield, has been put into stark contrast whereas Usyk is still an ongoing concern.

Fortunately, a line has been drawn under both of their 190lbs and 200lbs careers so we can give a fair assessment of who gets the top spot, and for me it is Holyfield. I’ve seen comments stating that the division wasn’t established when he dominated it and that the weight limit was only 190lbs so the fighters were smaller.

You can flip that by arguing that he fought in the 15-round era. So if you say, ‘What about them 10lbs?’ you can be facetious by replying, “How about the prospect of those extra three rounds?’ Plus, Holyfield had to develop into a brand new division. He was one of the first, “Half-man, half-machine’, true athletes in boxing, as opposed to ‘Great physical specimen’ types like Ken Norton. Holyfield became a beast at the weight and it told in his fights there.

That is the crux of the matter. Both Holyfield and Usyk cleaned up, but only one of them fought boxers who would regularly come up on the list of best cruiserweights of all-time, and that fighter was Holyfield.

He beat better all-time fighters in the division before moving up: Dwight Muhammad Qawi, twice, and the first time over 15, Ossie Ocasio and Carlos De Leon, for a long-time seen as possibly the ATG number two at the weight by many. Those wins are better than Krzysztof Glowacki, Huck, Gassiev and Bellew, who are all solid names, but not as good as the ones Holyfield beat.

The main problem for Holyfield is that he diminished his legacy to the point where it can get overlooked, but what a legacy it was and that line under his cruiserweight career underlines, for me, why he was the best in that division. 

Don’t get me wrong, I love watching Usyk, but I read someone mention that he fought for his titles on the road whereas Holyfield unified them in the USA. A remark like that smacks of someone who only started following boxing from the 2000s onwards as back in Holyfield’s day American fighters didn’t need to hit the road, the fighters came to them and, if you couldn’t make it in America, then you may as well have turned it in.

Also, boxing fans tend to get enamoured with groups of fighters. In the past it was the Cubans, now we think that every Eastern European fighter is the best to have ever done it, and there is no middle ground. You’re either a boxing hipster or an idiot. 

Lomachenko lost his first pro fight, but that was OK because it was a rough one and he was just finding his feet. Then he lost his second one and, well, it is still OK because he didn’t have a strong enough Wi-Fi connection to download the data. Gennadiy Golovkin was touted as being better than Hagler when he clearly wasn’t, and his career is bearing this out.

Like I said, Usyk is going to be an interesting one to watch in the heavyweight division, but his cruiserweight career is over, and it wasn’t better than Evander Holyfield’s as he didn’t beat better all-time fighters in that division. – Terry Dooley.

I’d concur with Terry that Holyfield and Usyk are clearly the two greatest cruiserweights of all time. However I would diverge from him on the question of who holds the better wins at the weight. Qawi was pretty shopworn by the time he fought Holyfield the second time, and I think Usyk’s hit list is marginally better, largely because it also includes Mairis Briedis but also because cruiserweight today is a more recognised and competitive division than ever. Back in the 80s it was a relatively new weight class that really didn’t make all that much noise.

I also think that winning on the road gives Usyk a further edge. Sure, there was no need for Holyfield to travel in his day, but the fact is he never won a fight in a hostile atmosphere the way Usyk has done repeatedly.

Finally, if the two men met in their cruiserweight primes (at a catchweight of 195 I guess, given how the divisional weight limit was moved from 190lbs to 200lbs in recent years) I would give Usyk the edge. His speed, movement and cunning would – I think – give Holyfield big problems. – Luke G. Williams.

Historic comparisons are hard to make and while that is usually said when discussing fighters from the ‘20s against modern-day boxers, I think it is appropriate here, too. Holyfield and Usyk fought in two very different cruiserweight divisions; both in number of rounds and weight limits.

It doesn’t feel fair comparing the achievements of both men. Is Usyk’s record on the road more impressive than Holyfield’s win over Qawi over 15 rounds? Both are impressive feats. 

Holyfield’s win over Qawi in their first fight is the best win on either man’s record, but I think Usyk had faced the better fighters over all, although it is extremely close.

Terry mentioned that Holyfield’s opponents are regularly highly placed on lists of the best cruiserweight of all time, but I think Marco Huck and Mairis Briedis will likely feature heavily in the future. 

I feel Usyk just pips Holyfield to the number one spot, but I can’t argue with anyone who picks Holyfield. Just like The Stones and The Beatles, you don’t have to be a fan of one or the other, you can appreciate they are very different but brilliant in their own right. – John A. MacDonald.

Main image: Mark Robinson/Matchroom Boxing.