It’s sad, really, the way America — and much of the rest of the globe, actually — gives no fucks about the cruiserweight division, the stubbier sibling of the kaiju heavyweight class. So many of history’s best heavyweights, from Joe Louis to Rocky Marciano to Muhammad Ali, hovered around the cruiserweight 200-pound limit for large swaths of their careers. And while, yes, it’s truly satisfying to see real-life giants crash into each other, the more fleet of foot big men at 200 pounds often produce a more pleasing and well-rounded style of combat while also offering plenty of fulfilling crunch.
For one year, at least, Oleksandr Usyk (née Alexander Usyk) made everyone take notice. His 2018 cruiserweight campaign was so damn good that the suggestion he’s now the best ever to roam the class isn’t entirely stupid. He’s done it all in just 16 fights. And he’s done it in style — well, styles, to be more specific, with something for every kind of fan.
Start with his January meeting against Mairis Breidis, who, rankings aside, proved themselves the two best cruiserweights in the world in their January conflagration. It was, for this writer, the kind of fight that best hits the spot. This was elite boxing with good, offensive-minded fighters doing intelligent battle on almost equal terms, with the outcome shrouded in doubt until the scores were read. It wasn’t the Fight of the Year, but it wasn’t far off, either.
Move next to his victory over Murat Gassiev in July, who via the World Boxing Super Series had risen to the finale against Usyk coming off a nasty knockout in a tough battle against Yunier Dorticos. Usyk utterly neutralized Gassiev and outclassed him from start to finish. It’s extraordinary that Usyk can do this, and he does it routinely; it’s what made the Briedis fight all the more compelling, that he was in a fight that ever was in question. Every night out other than against Breidis, it’s Usyk by way of outclass or KO, against younger, older, just plain anyone in a division that has marked parity. And with this win, Usyk established himself as the true champion of the division.
So why not put a cherry on top? In November, he smote the shit out of Tony Bellew, a division veteran who had established he could compete at heavyweight and even score knockout there. Popeye could hardly have done it better than Usyk did against Bellew. After it happened, Bellew retired from the sport on the spot.
(An aside: God bless boxing’s Ukrainians for elevating the sport in 2018. The country’s population is marginally larger than California’s, but between Usyk, Vasyl Lomachenko, Oleksandr Gvozdyk, Usyk/Loma trainer Anatoly Lomachenko, it accounted for a significant percentage of the year’s excellence. Extend to the entire Soviet bloc and it gets even more disproportionate.)
When he took out Bellew, that made three whole divisional contenders Usyk conquered by calendar’s end. Every other Fighter of the Year finalist beat two. Besides what he did at cruisereweight, you can make the case that Usyk is now the third best fighter in the world of any weight. His Fighter of the Year-ness was so clearcut it was the only category where the TQBR team voted unanimously.
And now Usyk will give in to the siren song of the heavyweight division, as many a cruiserweight before him did. He’s so skilled there’s no skepticism he’ll be able to compete, but whatever comes, there will be the “might have been” had Usyk stayed home, something that would’ve been more viable if cruiserweights’ earning potential wasn’t hampered by the universe’s disinterest in them. The chance to put insurmountable distance between himself and anyone else for the claim of “best that ever was” will evaporate. At least he gave us a year to remember on his way out.