The Sportsman Boxer Of The Year - Number 2: Oleksandr Usyk

The all-time great cruiserweight became a two-weight world champion in 2021
08:35, 23 Dec 2021

It’s been quite a year in the squared circle. Trilogies have reached their brutal conclusion, undisputed champions have been crowned, and shocking upsets have left us slack-jawed in wonder. As 2021 draws to a close, The Sportsman has picked the five fighters that have defined an extraordinary year of fistic happenings. Join us as we count down to The Sportsman Boxer Of The Year.

You’d have thought British boxing would have got the hang of this by now. Oleksandr Usyk flies into the country, beats the brakes off an English fighter, and if they have any belts he leaves with them in his luggage. Tony Bellew found this out in 2018, while 2020 was Derek Chisora’s turn. Yet, Usyk was still a betting underdog when he travelled to the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium to face Anthony Joshua in September of this year.

In fairness, this time did feel different to his previous visits. ‘The Cat’ was a supreme cruiserweight, and had the undisputed championship in tow when he came to meet Bellew. It was clear from the outset that ‘Bomber’ faced a tall task against the only man to ever unify the four cruiserweight belts. While Chisora was given a slightly better chance than the scouser, Usyk still fit the profile of the sort of elite level operator you need to be to beat ‘Del Boy’. But ‘AJ’ presented a new challenge for a number of reasons.

For a start, Usyk was bidding to become just the third former cruiserweight champion to move up and win a version of the heavyweight title. Evander Holyfield and David Haye were the only fighters who had ever made the jump successfully. Secondly, Joshua’s only defeat had been administered by a man who weighed 47 pounds more than Usyk did on fight night, in Andy Ruiz Jr. Power, it seemed, was the way to get to ‘AJ’. By contrast, Usyk weighed 19 pounds less than Joshua when they met on that September night at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.

Size only gets you so far in the squared circle though, and while Anthony Joshua did little to impose his, Usyk relied on his speed and superior skills to box brilliantly. The gifted Ukrainian stood right in front of the champion at times, and still Joshua could not hit him. Usyk’s head movement, timing and dazzling combinations were unlike anything the home fighter had been in the ring with. Usyk’s arsenal was also unlike anything Joshua was expecting, judging from his nervous smiles and puzzled demeanour. The Watford heavyweight had come to play Connect Four, but he could barely connect with one meaningful shot. Meanwhile, Usyk had come to play 4D chess, and he just happened to be a grandmaster.

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Given they happened less than a month from each other, it is natural that Tyson Fury and Usyk’s twin-triumphs would be compared. They were both equally beguiling in their own way. ‘The Gypsy King’ showed tremendous heart, courage and power in breaking down Deontay Wilder. But Usyk went about his work like a surgeon, picking apart the skills, and then the confidence, of a unified heavyweight king. Fury diced with danger, Usyk neutralised it. The WBC champion robbed the bank with a bulldozer, the new unified king did it by dressing as a security guard and picking the lock to the vault. Both viable approaches, and 2022 might bring us a fascinating clash of the two.

After a history-making year, it looks like Usyk will need to repeat the trick in order to secure further achievements next year. Anthony Joshua looks intent on activating his rematch clause, with Fury likely to be otherwise engaged. But after making cruiserweight history, then winning three quarters of the heavyweight crown in front of a packed stadium, it is difficult to bet against Oleksandr Usyk doing anything he puts his mind to. This truly special talent could have even more in store for us in 2022.

Boxer of the Year 5: George Kambosos Jr

Boxer of the Year 4: Josh Taylor

Boxer of the Year 3: Tyson Fury

 

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