Former undisputed cruiserweight world champion and 2018 fighter of the year Oleksandr Usyk made his heavyweight debut against late-replacement opponent Chazz Witherspoon on Saturday night at Wintrust Arena in Chicago. Usyk won via TKO as Witherspoon quit on the stool after the seventh round.
Usyk, already in a mandatory position to fight for a world title, weighed 215 pounds and while on the smallish side for a heavyweight, has the skills, amateur background and fighting spirit to compete in the division.
Dan Rafael and Steve Kim examine Usyk’s path going forward:
What did this fight do for Usyk?
Rafael: It did a lot for him. He was able to go seven rounds with a much bigger man and see that what it is like. Granted, Witherspoon’s skills and speed were no match for him, but he was almost 35 pounds heavier and did land a few shots. You have to walk before you can run and this was a good fight for Usyk to break into the heavyweight division with even if it wasn’t ideal that Witherspoon took the fight on a few days’ notice when Tyrone Spong was dropped for a failed drug test.
Kim: It gave him a chance to go through camp as a full-fledged heavyweight and gauge where he can be most effective above 200 pounds. That in itself is important, given that as a professional he has competed only as a cruiserweight. As for the fight itself, being blunt, it’s hard to tell given that the 38-year-old Witherspoon had fought only twice since 2016. Before Usyk suffered an injured biceps, he was supposed to make his heavyweight debut against Carlos Takam, a solid, reliable heavyweight. Now that would’ve given us a real indication of just where Usyk stands in the division.
But to be fair, Witherspoon did last seven rounds and Usyk was able to get some heavyweight rounds under his belt. Perhaps the fact that Usyk hadn’t fought since last November — when he stopped Tony Bellew in his cruiserweight swan song — played a factor in how he approached things Saturday. After a slow start, Usyk started to look a bit more comfortable after the third round and show the form that allowed him to become the undisputed cruiserweight champion of the world. Usyk began to let his hands go a bit more as the fight progressed and gave the Vasiliy Lomachenko-esque angles, which make him so unusual for a big man.
We still don’t know how well Usyk can catch one on the chin from a legitimate heavyweight puncher.
Is Usyk ready for a title fight?
Rafael: He is not ready — yet. Ideally, he will have at least one or two more fights in the division first, but that might not be reality. He is already the mandatory challenger for the winner of the Dec. 7 fight between unified titlist Andy Ruiz Jr. and former titlist Anthony Joshua. He will get a shot at a belt next year, be it the winner of that fight or potentially a vacant title, and will take the fight as soon as it is available to him.
Kim: Ready or not, it doesn’t really matter because given his standing as the WBO cruiserweight titlist, his team petitioned for him to become the No. 1 contender in its heavyweight rankings. That request was granted by the WBO. Currently, that belt belongs to Ruiz. You wonder if Usyk’s braintrust will see who the Ruiz-Joshua rematch winner is before deciding on their course of action.
Usyk’s manager, Egis Klimas, told me that they aren’t in this for tune-up fights or to work their way into a title shot, or look for a soft spot. If there’s a title shot to be had, they will take it, whether it comes against the winner of Ruiz-Joshua II, or against WBC belt-holder Deontay Wilder. They want to fight for a heavyweight belt sooner rather than later.
But you wonder, is Usyk really ready to tangle with the upper echelon in the division so quickly? Keep this in mind, before Evander Holyfield — generally considered the greatest cruiserweight in history — fought for the heavyweight title, he had a six-fight build up (James Tillis, Pinklon Thomas, Michael Dokes, Adilson Rodrigues, Alex Stewart and Seamus McDonagh) before defeating James “Buster” Douglas to win three belts.
Whom should Usyk fight next and how many fights does he need to be ready for Wilder, Ruiz, Joshua, Tyson Fury?
Rafael: I’d like to see him next fight Carlos Takam, a battle-tested former world title challenger who gave a good effort in a 10th-round stoppage loss to Joshua in a title fight in October 2017. Usyk was supposed to fight Takam in his heavyweight debut in May before an injury, but there’s no reason their camps can’t put the fight back together for early next year.
It won’t take many heavyweight fights for Usyk to get a title shot because he’s already a mandatory challenger.
Kim: OK, some names come immediately to mind, and each of them would really give legitimacy to Usyk as a heavyweight contender. First would be Dereck Chisora, who has a solid track record and is perhaps the division’s toughest gate-keeper. If you want to go anywhere as a heavyweight, you have to get through this guy. Joseph Parker is a former belt-holder and he’s still a viable big man. His only losses have come to Joshua and to Dillian Whyte in a memorable slugfest in July 2018.
Then you have Michael Hunter, whose only loss came to … Usyk, back in 2017, when they were both cruiserweights. Though Usyk overwhelmed him late in that 12-round contest, the mobility and quickness of Hunter troubled him early in the fight. Another interesting bout would be against the heavy-handed and lead-footed Joey Joyce, whom Usyk defeated as a heavyweight by unanimous decision in the World Series of Boxing back in 2013. How would a much longer fight between the two as professionals play out?
Speaking of Whyte, he has been considered one of the top heavyweight contenders for a few years and has been looking for a title shot. That not only would a Usyk-Whyte matchup be an entertaining one, but one that would clearly establish a true No. 1 contender in the division.
Is Dmitry Bivol getting a fight with the other light heavyweight champions? What’s next for him?
Rafael: Bivol plans to attend Friday’s light heavyweight unification fight between Oleksandr Gvozdyk and Artur Beterbiev in Philadelphia, as well as the fight between titleholder Sergey Kovalev and middleweight champion Canelo Alvarez on Nov. 2 in Las Vegas. He wants to be seen at those events and get a unification bout with the winner of either fight. He’s a broadcast free agent so either fight is possible. That said, I tend to doubt he gets either fight in his next ring appearance. He continues to say he can also easily make the 168-pound super middleweight division limit, but there does not seem to be a major fight available to him at the moment in that weight class either.
Who else impressed you Saturday?
Kim: Charles Conwell (11-0, 8 KOs), 21, who represented the United States in the 2016 Olympics, took a step up in competition against Patrick Day. Conwell controlled the action from the beginning with his stronger punching and he floored Day in the fourth round. Day was able to have his moments, but Conwell’s power was the difference. Conwell sent Day to the canvas again in the eighth round, then again in the 10th to finish the fight.
What made this performance so impressive is that in his last outing, the 27-year-old Day gave the highly rated Carlos Adames (who’s the top-rated junior middleweight by the WBO) all he could handle before losing a 10-round decision. This was a statement victory for Conwell, who stamped himself as a prospect to watch in the future.
After the bout, Day was taken to a Chicago-area hospital and was in a coma after undergoing emergency brain surgery.