Oleksandr Usyk contains multitudes. Scratch that. Not multitudes. Magnitudes. The 32-year-old Ukrainian lineal cruiserweight champ-turned-heavyweight contender is guided by two indomitable polar forces, and he brings them to bear with magnetic energy, a twinkle in his maniacal eyes, and a gnashing of his gap-toothed grin. He’d be as comfortable wearing a Kievan Rus war helmet, awash in the still-warm blood of his ancient tribal enemies, as he would a propeller beanie. He is part Conan the Barbarian, part Conan O’Brien. Both apex predator and Animaniac. Killer and comic relief. Usyk is the planet’s warmest, fuzziest bear trap.
This isn’t front-page news — not for the 13 cruiserweight nerds in America paying attention and not for, you know, the rest of the world. Usyk won Olympic gold in 2012, turned pro, then pulverized the 200-pound division into particle dust inside five years. He’s also been regularly popping up in memes on your Twitter machine and behind 80-year-old weed-junkie boxing CEOs on major fight telecasts. Balls-out is an accurate description of both his finishing style in the ring and his particular brand of humor. The Usyk Show is “Raging Bull” meets “Bull Durham.”
Among those who were already tuning in are thousands of Ukrainian fight fans who jammed Chicago’s Wintrust Arena on Saturday for the heavyweight debut of their conquering anti-hero, televised on DAZN. They couldn’t have been bothered to care that Usyk (17-0, 13 KO) would make his definitive leap against Chazz Witherspoon (38-4, 27 KO), a sloppy, 38-year-old last-moments replacement for PED-popped, third-rate initial opponent Tyrone Spong. Whatevs. They wore their formal-wear tracksuits, sang their anthems and waved their national colors. And they were not alone. Joined by fight fans of all origins, plus the merely curious — a number that will continue to swell — they were there to be part of … something. The exact details, however, were incidental. Usyk could have been fighting a muppet, a hologram or one of the YouTube flunkies now appearing on DAZN’s roster, and they would have screamed their throats raw for him. This was a party.
Yet there it is. Previously, Usyk was merely one of the greatest fighters in cruiserweight history and a theoretical pound-for-pound boogeyman. But as his goofball legend has grown, and with his graduation to heavyweight, he is — must be — something else: an attraction. Because to a large portion of mainstream sports fandom (especially here in the States), a transcendent 200-pounder might as well be a G-League heavyweight: talented, sure, but mostly irrelevant if he can’t play with the big boys. European gate money spends pretty good, but it’s American subscriber dollars that put a fighter into his own Gulfstream — and those things don’t get underwritten by fighting Marco Huck.
So it has become Usyk’s challenge to not only display his gifts — both pugilistic and charismatic — but to do so against men inches taller and dozens of pounds heavier. Forget that the world’s three most significant heavyweights are an awkward Irish Traveler wrestling heel, boxing’s answer to Cecil Fielder, and the kid from “Up.” All of them have the capacity to floor world-class fighters their own size, let alone a puffed-up cruiser new kid on the block.
Witherspoon stands conspicuously outside that group, but at 6-foot-4 and 242 pounds, even he posed a lumbering threat to the 215-pound Usyk. The Philadelphia-born former not-quite-contender came in having fought just twice in three years, and he signed on as the fill-in just days before the bout — apparently cornered between buffet runs at the Golden Corral. Witherspoon may not have been in shape for Usyk, but he was, objectively, a very large man with nearly 30 professional stoppages under his belt. Styles make fights, but size can end them.
Saturday wasn’t for spoilers, though. After taking stock in the opening round, Usyk got to work with the jab. The quicker man by far, he parried Witherspoon’s power with nimble footwork and head movement. In the 4th round, Usyk had Witherspoon backing up, stinging him with occasional power left hands, driving him against the ropes and into corners to land quick-burst combinations. Chants of “Ooh-Seek … Ooh-Seek” arose encouragingly whenever the headliner paused the onslaught to size up his work, and by the 7th round, Witherspoon had been sufficiently tenderized. On his stool, before the 8th, the American let referee Hector Afu know he’d had enough. Although there never seemed a moment when Witherspoon was at serious risk of being dropped, neither was there a moment during the fight when Usyk wasn’t categorically in control.
The postfight questions lobbed at Usyk were predictable: Was the impact of heavyweight power what you expected? Will you be able to withstand it against elite competition? How will your own arsenal match up with Deontay Wilder’s or Tyson Fury’s?
One reporter — who, against all odds, survived a childhood spent playing in traffic and accepting offers of candy from strangers in windowless vans — decided to spar with Usyk. The writer doubted, he said, that the fighter could beat heavyweights at the top levels without changing his approach. On the presser podium, Usyk, who publicly uses an interpreter except on sporadic occasions when he flashes his lovably broken English in low-leverage situations, stared a hole through the man seated at a distance of roughly a lunging jab. “You serious?” he asked.
But the moment passed, the reporter’s soul was returned to his earthly body, and in an instant, Usyk was giggling and playfully nudging manager and translator Egis Klimas as the questions continued to pour in. “Soooo hungry,” he said. The fighter was famished.
A good sign. Usyk will need to bulk up for what comes next — which promoter Eddie Hearn says is the winner of the Andy Ruiz-Anthony Joshua rematch. Asked which potential opponent he prefers to face, Usyk didn’t hesitate: “Joshua.” He didn’t miss a beat a moment later, either, when he answered the night’s final question in thickly accented, but perfectly constructed, English — a potential marketing game-changer. “Wait, why has he been translating for you this whole time?” someone asked, only half-jokingly. A pause. Usyk’s crazy eyes bulge cartoonishly, his hands hit his cheeks — he’s now a 215-pound, tattooed Kevin McCallister — and from a smile that creases his face, out pops that unmistakable gap.
He’s taking apart heavyweights, he’s speaking English, and he’s having a fucking ball. If Oleksandr Usyk isn’t the new face of the sport, it’s only because his plans for a takeover — world domination on the most endearing of terms — don’t stop at just boxing.
(Photo by Ed Mulholland for MatchroomBoxingUSA)