Last October, Oleksandr Usyk, the undisputed cruiserweight world champion at the time, found himself surrounded by boxing greats during the WBC’s 56th annual convention. Usyk, in a hotel in his hometown of Kiev, Ukraine, was like a kid in a candy story.
Usyk was giddy as he sat with heavyweight royalty in legendary former world champions Evander Holyfield, Lennox Lewis and brothers Wladimir and Vitali Klitschko (whose K2 Promotions is his co-promoter with Matchroom Boxing), as well as the great Roberto Duran. But Usyk had eyes only for Holyfield.
Holyfield is Usyk’s boxing idol and this was the first time the two had met.
“I didn’t really care if he knew me, but I came to him and I told him how happy I am to meet him,” Usyk told ESPN through an interpreter. “I told him about how I was trying to follow his steps. I told him what I know about him. I thanked him a lot for being the person he is. For me, I was like a little mosquito being there with these guys. It was incredible being among those people, those great fighters.”
Holyfield was familiar with Usyk and was welcoming when the cruiserweight champion approached him.
“I’ve seen one of his fights, his last fight,” Holyfield said. “He’s good boxer. He is very skillful and he’s fast.”
Since turning professional after winning a gold medal in the 2012 Olympics, Usyk’s goals have been to emulate what Holyfield accomplished in his 28-year career. He wanted to win the undisputed title at cruiserweight and heavyweight — and ultimately wind up enshrined in the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
Usyk unified the 200-pound division in July 2018, when he became the first cruiserweight in the four-belt era to collect all the titles. He did so with a one-sided unanimous decision against Murat Gassiev in the final of the World Boxing Super Series.
When Holyfield became the undisputed cruiserweight champion, he knocked out Carlos De Leon in 1988 when the division weight limit was 190 pounds, not 200 as it is today. Back then a fighter needed only three major belts to achieve such recognition. It was the same when Holyfield knocked out Buster Douglas to become the undisputed heavyweight champion in 1990.
“I’m very happy when I’m compared to Evander Holyfield,” Usyk said. “But I always want to do better than these guys. I want to be better than him. Evander Holyfield has a big heart. He has the heart of a champion … I know a lot of his history and it impressed me. “
Holyfield was appreciative of Usyk’s admiration.
“He’s the best cruiserweight of his era. I was the best of my era,” Holyfield said. “I was excited to meet him and see the next person who was going to step up because records are meant to be broken. I’m the first one who [had] ever done it, become undisputed cruiserweight champ, and then undisputed heavyweight champ. He’s been undisputed cruiserweight champ and now he’s going up to fight the big boys and see if he can do it there, too.”
Usyk was only 11 months old when Holyfield won his first cruiserweight belt in his 12th fight by outpointing Hall of Famer Dwight Muhammad Qawi in an epic 15-rounder in 1986. When Usyk won his first belt on the road in Poland by unanimous decision against Krzysztof Glowacki in September 2016, he did so in his 10th fight.
That broke the division record for fewest fights needed to win a cruiserweight title, surpassing the mark held by Holyfield.
“I didn’t know that he broke my record,” Holyfield said during a recent interview with ESPN, sounding not a bit upset by it. “Records are meant to be broken. He broke my record and got all four belts. I think that’s great. He did what he had to do. There were only three belts back when I did it. But if there were 10 belts, I think I would have got all 10. I did all I could do. No doubt that he fought good fighters and did all he could. He’s the best in his time.”
Holyfield said despite the size disadvantage in this heavyweight division, Usyk can definitely be competitive among the world’s best.
“Today’s heavyweights are going to be bigger than him, but it’s going to be hard for them to stay with him because he has that speed and he has skills, and he’s also southpaw. But until you see a person get hit with some shots and see how they respond, you don’t know. But he’s always gonna be slick. Guys like Deontay Wilder, Anthony Joshua, they got longer arms and they may be stronger, but it’s gonna be hard for them to stay with him. He’s real good and he’ll be faster than them and he can get away from their punches.”
The transition to heavyweight was always part of Usyk’s plan, just as it had been for Holyfield decades ago. Usyk will debut in the division in a scheduled 12-round bout against short-notice replacement opponent Chazz Witherspoon on Saturday (DAZN, 9 p.m. ET) at the Wintrust Arena in Chicago. Witherspoon (38-3 29 KOs), 38, of Philadelphia, a cousin of former two-time heavyweight world titlist Tim Witherspoon, was pressed into service on Tuesday after original opponent Tyrone Spong was dropped from the bout because of a failed Voluntary Anti-Doping Association drug test.
Usyk (16-0, 12 KOs), 32, who is close friends with Olympic teammates Vasiliy Lomachenko, the unified lightweight champion and pound-for-pound king, and light heavyweight champion Oleksandr Gvozdyk, is already in a mandatory position to get a title shot against the winner of the Dec. 7 rematch between unified heavyweight titlist Andy Ruiz Jr. and Joshua. But he will risk that status against Witherspoon and in any other bout he has before he gets his title opportunity.
“I don’t think about that. I just go and box. I need to box,” Usyk said.
Usyk, the consensus 2018 fighter of the year — who is trained by reigning trainer of the year Anatoly Lomachenko (unified lightweight champion Vasiliy’s father) and managed by reigning manager of the year Egis Klimas — said he plans to weigh around 217 pounds at heavyweight, explaining that it is his natural weight. He said he is happy not to have to cut weight to make the cruiserweight limit. As long as he continues to win, Usyk will get a mandatory heavyweight title shot, likely in the second half of next year, when he can continue his pursuit of matching Holyfield’s accomplishments.
“Oleksandr did so much in the cruiserweight division and I think he can do a lot of things in the heavyweight division. He’s the one who can go very far in this sport,” Klimas said. “Size doesn’t make a difference. It depends on if you have heart and if you have balls and skills.”
For all that Usyk has already accomplished, it would mean more to him to also add the title of undisputed heavyweight champion like is idol once held.
“Of course, I have this goal to be undisputed as a heavyweight,” he said. “But we have to go step by step, from bout to bout.”
Just like Holyfield.