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Monday, November 12, 2018

Oleksandr Usyk, Leading Candidate For Fighter Of The Year 


by Eddie Goldman

It is pointless to be obsessed with year-end awards in boxing and assume that they all represent major historical feats. Some fighter of the year awards are more notable than others, since they are restricted to whatever 12-month period is being considered, an arbitrary time span which may or may not coincide with great performances by great fighters. The last few years have seen split decisions over who has been designated fighter of the year by the so-called media pundits of boxing, as they often are just paying homage to those fighters' promoters, whose bidding they are really doing. And of course this year still has several major fights to go, and we can always expect the unexpected in boxing, so no final verdict can be made yet anyway.

But we have seen enough of 2018 boxing to establish that some fighters have made their historical mark this year, and are leading candidates to win that award, and perhaps be the undisputed fighter of the year, to mix some of boxing's mythical categories.

One such fighters is the 25-year-old Japanese phenom Naoya Inoue, known simply as the "Monster". Now with a record of 17-0 and 15 KOs, his two fights in 2018 lasted a grand total of three minutes and two seconds. In May, in his first fight at bantamweight since moving up from super flyweight, Inoue scored a knockout at just 1:52 of the first round over then-WBA champion Jamie McDonnell, a fighter who never previously had been knocked out and who had only lost two close decisions, both early in his career. Inoue returned in October, in the opening round of the World Boxing Super Series bantamweight tournament, to face Juan Carlos Payano, a former WBA champion whose only loss coming into this fight was a debatable majority decision to Rau'shee Warren. Payano lasted just 70 seconds before losing by a devastating knockout by the "Monster". Inoue's next likely victim is the 19-0 IBF bantamweight champion Emmanuel Rodriguez, who faces him sometime next year in the tournament's semifinals.

As devastating and impressive as Inoue has been this year, he is still new fighting at this new weight and, while the tournament favorite, has yet to prove that he can clean out the division. He may yet do so, and all eyes should be on him in 2019, but this one important detail may work to place him just behind a fighter who has already achieved such an historical accomplishment. This of course is but a subjective evaluation, but so is this whole fighter of the year thing.

The most impressive fighter this year is unbeaten and undisputed cruiserweight champ Oleksandr Usyk of Ukraine, now 16-0 with 12 KOs. Usyk was a 2012 Olympic gold medalist at heavyweight, where that Olympic weight class is actually almost the same as cruiserweight in the pros. He turned pro the next year, and won the WBO cruiserweight belt in 2016 in just his tenth pro fight. In Sept. 2017 he had his first fight in the cruiserweight tournament of the newly-founded World Boxing Super Series, where he was seeded number one. Fighting as he often does on the road, this time in Germany, Usyk stopped the veteran Marco Huck, who is based in Germany, in the tenth round to advance to the semifinals. Usyk ended 2017 with a record of 13-0 with 11 KOs.

Those semifinals pitted him on Jan. 27, 2018, against then-unbeaten WBC champ Mairis Briedis of Latvia, in Riga, the capital of Latvia. It was a close, action-packed battle, which afterward Usyk said included "the most difficult rounds I've had in my career". The fight went the distance, with Usyk taking a majority decision over the hometown hero with scores of 115-113 twice, and 114-114 even, scores which were arguably a shade too close. It also was an early candidate for 2018 fight of the year, perhaps equaled or surpassed by the World Boxing Super Series' other cruiserweight semifinal the next week between two more unbeaten fighters, Murat Gassiev and Yunier Dorticos, a thrilling fight won by Gassiev with a 12th-round, last-minute TKO.

Gassiev's victory gave him both the IBF and WBA belts, with Usyk holding the WBO and WBC belts, so their World Boxing Super Series tournament final was also a fight to determine the undisputed cruiserweight champion of the world. After their fight was originally scheduled to take place in Saudi Arabia, Usyk and Gassiev finally met on July 21 of this year, again in the home country of Usyk's opponent, in Moscow, Russia.

There were fears before this fight that if it went to the judges, that the Russian Gassiev would get the nod, deserved or not, over the Ukrainian Usyk, especially given the continuing tensions between the two governments following Russia's annexation of Crimea and backing of separatists in Eastern Ukraine. But those fears proved unfounded, at least in this fight.

The fight opened with the southpaw Usyk jabbing, moving, controlling the action, and stymieing most of Gassiev's attempts at offense. This was thought to be a 50-50 fight coming in, but Usyk continued to put on a virtual boxing clinic throughout, being elusive, more active than Gassiev, and just about getting a shutout. The final scores were 120-108 and 119-109 twice, all for Usyk, in what was perhaps the best performance of his career. In doing so, Usyk had now won all four major cruiserweight belts along with the World Boxing Super Series' Muhammad Ali Trophy as the cruiserweight tournament victor.

Just about the only piece of the puzzle left for Usyk to clean out completely the cruiserweight division was the former WBC champ Tony Bellew of the U.K. Bellew won that belt in 2016 and defended it once, before moving up to heavyweight for a pair of highly charged fights with David Haye, who was favored in both of them. As you likely know, Bellew stopped the oft-injured Haye both times. The popular 35-year-old Bellew, looking to end his career on a high note, agreed to return to cruiserweight to face the undisputed champ Usyk, who had called him out, whether on his own or not, after his tournament win.

The build-up to this fight, which took place on November 10 in Manchester before an energetically pro-Bellew crowd, was marked by Bellew's emotional promises that he had the will to overcome the admittedly better-skilled Usyk. There were none of the shenanigans, trash talk, and WWE-like theatrics which have degraded so many other fights, as it was high respect all around for each other. But Usyk, although fighting once more on the road, was expected to win easily.

Usyk sometimes starts slowly in his fights, gauging distance, power, positioning, and speed of his opponents in the opening rounds. This was the case here, as during the feeling out rounds Bellew was more active than Usyk and succeeded in landing some rights on him, although little damage was done. By round three, however, Usyk closed the distance better on Bellew, let his hands go a little more, and was now in irreversible control of the fight. Usyk ratcheted it up a bit more each round, while using angles and timing to stifle Bellew, But he had yet to dominate the game Bellew, who still was getting through with some right hand shots. In the fifth, Usyk continued to pick Bellew apart. By the sixth, Bellew's output had visibly dropped even to his dearest admirers. The assault by attrition continued, and in the eighth round, Usyk saw it was time for this pugilistic drama's denouement. The end came at exactly two minutes into round eight, as a series of punches highlighted by a picture perfect left hand ended Bellew's night and almost sent him through the ropes and into the arms of his promoter, Eddie Hearn. Bellew had had his moments, but it was Usyk who prevailed and showed why he should be the leading candidate for 2018 fighter of the year.

If you haven't yet seen this fight, the judges' scores at the end of seven rounds were the product of pure home cooking. Yes, there were some close rounds which a casual observer of boxing, who did not understand the nuances of what Usyk was doing, might have thought were closer than they actually were. But that these official judges had Bellew ahead after seven was, as we hear more often in the U.K., rubbish. Two judges had Bellew ahead by scores of an egregious 68-65 and 67-66, while one had it 67 apiece, meaning he had scored an even round somewhere. Taking nothing away from the disciplined and gutsy performance of Tony Bellew, he won two and, being generous, perhaps three rounds out of the first seven before being stopped in the eighth. This was actually better than many had predicted for Bellew beforehand, especially in light of Usyk's near-shutout win over Gassiev in his previous fight. All these scores show is that trickeration is alive and well in boxing all around the world and after the Halloween candy has been eaten, gone rotten, or thrown out.

As for boxing's mythical pound-for-pound lists, just about everyone has Usyk near the top of these. It could be argued that there are a couple of fighters who deserve to be ahead of him there, but Usyk's 2018 feats reflect an important advantage he has over them: he had the chance in the World Boxing Super Series tournament to face the best of the best, regardless of promoter, sanctioning body, or network. Top level fighters like Terence Crawford and Vasiliy Lomachenko are hamstrung in displaying their talents by their promoter, Bob Arum's Top Rank, which protects their fighters by keeping them out of the World Boxing Super Series. They can only face other Top Rank fighters or those contracted to smaller or cooperative promoters, and not on networks which are rivals to those with whom Top Rank currently works, in today's instance ESPN. Thus Crawford cannot face top welterweights like Errol Spence Jr. because he is part of a rival quasi-league, Al Haymon's Premier Boxing Champions, which has exclusive U.S. TV deals with Fox and Showtime. Likewise the lightweight fight all boxing aficionados would love to see between Lomachenko and Mikey Garcia, also tied to the PBC, is in effect blocked until there is enough pressure and/or money involved to force such a fight. Until then, it means that the best won't fight the best at most weights outside the World Boxing Super Series. This gives fighters like Usyk in 2018 and the World Boxing Super Series bantamweight and super lightweight tournament winners in 2019 a better stage on which to shine than most other top fighters. And for fighters like Crawford and Lomachenko, their best bet for becoming monumental superstars would entail untangling and ending their contractual commitments to Top Rank, which, as Mikey Garcia found out, at best would rob them of some of their best years while stuck in a legal purgatory.

So the World Boxing Super Series, shunned by the mismanaged and now almost shuttered HBO boxing program, as well as Showtime and ESPN in the U.S., is the best thing in boxing today. It generally has many of the best fights, and is becoming one of the best ways for a boxer to become the fighter of the year.

With his business more or less finished at cruiserweight, the logical next step for Usyk appears to be a move to heavyweight. The Bellew fight was on Sky Sports Box Office in the U.K. as well as streamed on DAZN in several countries, both of course tied to Eddie Hearn's Matchroom Boxing, so an eventual fight with their heavyweight star Anthony Joshua would seem to be a likelihood in the future. The undefeated, undisputed cruiserweight world champion and 2012 Olympic heavyweight gold medalist vs. the undefeated, unified heavyweight world champion and 2012 Olympic super heavyweight gold medalist, both of whom won their gold in London, would sell out instantly and possibly crash all sorts of TV and streaming viewership records.

At the postfight press conference after the Bellew fight, Usyk was asked when he wants to fight Joshua, and he cracked, in English, "Tomorrow." More realistically, after he takes time off to visit, as he said, Santa Claus's home, his move up to heavyweight will begin more modestly, as he adjusts to the size, pacing, and power of that division. Usyk, who turns 32 in January, still seems to have peak years remaining in his career, especially if he stays at heavyweight where many fighters do well in their thirties.

There are many excellent boxers active today who excel at their craft and art, far beyond the big punchers who too often get the most attention. Few of them, however, can be categorized as masters, similar to the great masters of other, non-sporting arts. This is entirely separate from the feudal and anachronistic title of "master" given to instructors and coaches in the martial arts, and often to themselves.

The boxing masters belong side-by-side with the great masters in art, literature, and music, lists which must include those from all cultures and lands and not just the ones taught in most Western schools and universities. Likewise, the boxing masters come from all parts of this Earth. It should have already been known that their ranks include that cruiserweight southpaw from Ukraine, Oleksandr Usyk. If he indeed gets recognized as 2018 fighter of the year, it is hoped that his mastery of his art will be celebrated as well.

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