Oleksandr Usyk faces Derek Chisora on Saturday night in a heavyweight showdown that has huge implications for the short and medium-term future of the division.
The 32-year-old Ukrainian – 17-0 (13 KOs) – conquered all-comers at cruiserweight, and is now seeking to do what only Evander Holyfield and David Haye have achieved in the past by progressing from holding a title or titles at cruiser prior to becoming a world champion in the unlimited weight class.
Currently occupying the mandatory challenger position for Anthony Joshua’s WBO crown, the gap-toothed Ukrainian is the joker in the pack who may yet upset the best-laid plans for a four-belt spectacular next year between AJ – who also holds the WBA Super and IBF belts – and WBC/Lineal champ Tyson Fury.
Having fought only once since his destruction of Bellew in November 2018, largely because of injuries to his right bicep and left elbow, much anticipation surrounds Usyk’s return to action, which represents just his second contest at heavyweight, after a low key win against Chazz Witherspoon last year in Chicago.
Chisora – 32-9 (23 KOs) – is looking to upset the odds and in doing so propel himself towards a second heavyweight title shot, more than eight years since he extended and occasionally inconvenienced Vitali Klitschko over 12 tough rounds in Munich, a fight the Zimbabwe-born Brit lost via unanimous decision.
Usyk is – by common consent – one of the five or ten best pugilists in the world. His ring savvy coupled with his cool temperament and ability to exert almost imperceptible and yet suffocating pressure with his clever footwork and constantly probing and pawing jab saw him conquer all comers at 200lbs, including an astonishing run of four consecutive ‘on the road’ victories against Marco Huck, Mairis Briedis, Murat Gassiev and Tony Bellew.
However, as alluded to earlier, the path from cruiserweight heroics to heavyweight glory is a byway littered with regret, disappointment and broken dreams. Aside from Holyfield, who enjoyed multiple alphabet reigns and could be considered the true champion at heavyweight on two, possibly three, occasions, no other man has ruled as undisputed king in both divisions, an honourable mention for Haye’s WBA-WBC-WBO title reign at cruiser and spell as WBA heavy ruler notwithstanding.
Whether Usyk can eventually emulate Holyfield, or even Haye, is a debate for another day, however. For now, the sole question we have to grapple with is whether the Ukrainian sensation’s brawn can complement his boxing brain to the extent it carries him to victory against Chisora.
The efforts of Eddie Hearn and his promotional behemoth Matchroom, combined with the hyperbolic brilliance of fast-talker extraordinaire David Haye, have served to create sizeable hype and expectation among those viewers prepared to shell out the sadly inevitable pay-per-view bounty this weekend.
However, such hype requires the cold and rational addition of a cellar-full of salt.
Haye – Chisora’s mortal enemy turned manager, a plot twist British boxing seems to have borrowed from Rocky III – certainly excelled himself this week when talking up his man’s chances in an interview with Boxing Social.
“When it comes to the crunch, Derek Chisora has – thank God – brought it all together,” said the 40-year-old, who himself TKOd Chisora back in July 2012. “This is what he’s been waiting for his whole career, for this one night. Those nine losses that he has had have fine-tuned him into being the beast he needs to be to not only win this fight but to destroy Usyk, to completely wipe him out.
“It sounds mad but what he has done inside the gym, behind closed doors… He has been beasting beyond belief. He’s been chewing up sparring partners. You’ve never seen anything like it. I’m telling you…knowing what I know and knowing what I’ve seen I’m leaking with anticipation. It’s going to be devastating.”
Beyond the promotional smoke and mirrors – however – the truth is that Chisora is unlikely to have been reincarnated as either Joe Frazier or Rocky Marciano. Instead, he is what he has pretty much always been – a rough, tough, willing customer whose best wins (er, Szpilka? Takam?) are far overshadowed by his gallant losses (Whyte, Klitschko). As such, Haye’s notion that Chisora will gradually break down and then inexorably destroy Usyk collapses beneath its own absurdity.
Instead, Chisora’s best hope probably rests with landing a Hail Mary wonder punch that separates Usyk from his senses in the way that Povetkin poleaxed Whyte and Chisora himself flattened Takam and Szpilka. As heavyweight history has proven frequently, and shockingly at times, such a conclusion can not be ruled out.
The only other route to victory I can see for the Finchley man is if injury, inactivity and/or complacency have blunted Usyk’s edge beyond repair. Or if Usyk’s possibly injury prone frame breaks down mid-fight – a la Haye versus Bellew – allowing Chisora to somehow bully and hurt an immobile or compromised Usyk, probably to the body (as Artur Beterbiev did in the amateurs), en route to an untidy and probably contentious points victory.
Truth be told, I do not find either of these scenarios compelling or likely. Instead, I expect Usyk to box cautiously but effectively, consistently befuddling and frustrating Chisora.
‘War’ may have never lost to a southpaw but then he has never faced one with the class of Usyk (Lee Swaby, Carl Baker, Senad Gashi and Artur Szpilka, if you’re reading this, no offence intended). Furthermore, it is worth recalling that Tyson Fury, in his second fight with Chisora, boxed left-handed for long stretches and won while barely breaking sweat, albeit while offering a potent cure for insomnia.
The fact is that Chisora has never beaten anyone approaching true world class, and anyone he has faced with effective movement and higher level skill has given him fits. This is said not to denigrate a magnificently hard, willing and entertaining man, but merely to offer a realistic appraisal of what you are likely to get for your £24.99 on Saturday night.
In all likelihood, an at times rusty and possibly over conservative Usyk will clinch a clear decision on the scorecards, at least one of which will appear to have been written before the fight by a hopeless hometown optimist, or from ringside at a different bout all together.
Main image: Mark Robinson/Matchroom Boxing.