It was the first outing of 2015 for Oleksandr Usyk, Ukraine’s most dangerous prospect, who on Friday night climbed to 7-0 with an eighth round stoppage of regional strap-holder Andrey Knyazev (now 11-2).
Knyazev, although experienced, perhaps represents something of a stall for Usyk who, at twenty-eight years of age, is likely ready for the next level; and then perhaps another three or four.
Speaking frankly, there are those who believe that Usyk is working his way, gradually, towards a heavyweight title shot. At 6’3 and likely capable of holding no more than 220lbs, I have previously described him as the fighter the classicists have been waiting for. The tests he has ahead of him if that little prediction is to come true are many and varied and will certainly be considerably more difficult that the one he faced Friday, but once again Usyk passed with flying colours, all the while embracing each and every one of the clichés that light up the heart of a dead-eyed gym-rats on five continents.
Old-school; well-schooled – a natural, take your pick, Usyk embodies them all. Tattooed and hard-eyed, sporting a top-knot and closely cropped back and sides, Usyk looks every inch the Tatar he would have been centuries before. Knyazev, frankly, looks like a blown up middleweight, not the natural cruiserweight Usyk so clearly is, but he brought heart, persistence and a perpetually useless attack that he did not abandon until the last moment at the Sport Palace in Kiev, Ukraine.
Usyk began at range, using the right-hand from the southpaw stance as a spear and a club, mixing hooks and jabs to control the range and snatch every opportunity at a punch that his overmatched opponent provided. Expressive footwork formed an additional layer of both offence and defence as Knyazev was repeatedly brought onto snapping punches, the left finally making an appearance in the final seconds of the round. Volume off the backfoot is one of the most difficult strategies in boxing but Usyk already seems to have mastered it, shoeshining up top before digging to the body. What this achieves is a steady accumulation of virtual threats; as Usyk’s punch selection becomes more eclectic, so his opponent must choose whether to try to box or neutralise and for an opponent of Knyazev’s class, boxing such a man is an impossibility. He was forced to rush an unconcerned Usyk who lifted his gloves, backed off at speed and sought opportunities to counter.
Of these there were many. Usyk’s right hook is as casual as his right jab and he is as capable of snapping it into place as he is landing that jab, which can be seen in triplicate form the third round onwards. Untroubled by his opponent’s foraging attacks and unhurried even upon hurting him, at this level the Ukrainian’s fights take on the flavour of a training exercise, as was the case when he began to narrow his ever decreasing circle of movement at the halfway point of the scheduled ten, tightening up on the hooks and the mobility, firing straight punches. By the round’s end, Knyazev was bloodied and a little unsteady.
Still, he roared out for the sixth if only onto Usyk’s sickener, a hard left hand, the only punch he throws with real abandon. In its wake, he turned his Russian opponent often and hit him at will.
Speaking with caution now, I say that Usyk’s movement late in this fight is reminiscent of Muhammad Ali’s and if he as yet lacks the rapier jab and the seething glovework that made Ali a walking feint, his virtual threat seems just as disturbing, at least at regional level. I suspect he will remain a lethal prospect, at any level, in any fight where he can remain active.
Marco Huck seems to be the strapholder Usyk’s people most favour as a target and although I don’t understand this completely – he seems temporarily neutralised by very sudden rushes, the kind Huck specialises in – Huck’s habit of fighting for only short spells in some rounds, will afford him chances. That said Huck certainly will not end any contest as Knyazev did Friday, moribund and stalling, target practice for an opponent who unsheathed even the uppercut as the blinds quickly descended. Experienced referee Mickey Vann had seen enough and stepped in to end the Russian’s suffering, and while it might be argued that a few more seconds were necessary were there to be a definitive stoppage, it is worth pointing out that Knyazev was bleeding, swelling, and had not won any thirty second period of the fight at hand.
Under the watchful eye of promotional interest and fan Vitali Klitschko and an ecstatic Kiev audience in desperate need of a conqueror, Usyk has triumphed once more – but there are figures now at the periphery of his vision that will be eager to provide him the opportunity to earn their plaudits more completely. His stated ambition is to win a cruiserweight strap before Evander Holyfield was able to do so. This fight places him half-way towards the 16-0 and Holyfield carried to the ring with him for his first title fight against Dwight Muhammad Qawi.
He will be equal to these and other, sterner challenges.