By Matt McGrain
First writing about cruiserweight prospect Oleksandr Usyk in 2014, I named him “the fighter the classicists have been waiting for,” a future world heavyweight champion who would get that job done at 215 to 220lbs, a Liston-sized fighter capable of testing the theory that smaller men who were good enough could test the modern behemoths. That lofty prediction gets its first real test this September when the Ukrainian, out of Kiev, 9-0, takes a huge step up against the world’s #2 cruiserweight, Krzysztof Glowacki, out of Walcz, Poland, 26-0.
A southpaw, and mounting the top end of a sensational curve, Glowacki is an opponent selected by a management team in absolutely no doubt as to the quality of their man. In the eyes of those who know him best, Usyk is ready for the big time.
Glowacki first came scything into the collective consciousness of the boxing fan in August of last year, proving every bit as tough as his 6’0 flat, shaven-headed, thick-necked physique suggested, stopping no less a figure than Marco Huck in eleven savage rounds. For all that he resembles a human slot-machine, Glowacki looked good defensively in the opening rounds of that contest, ditching Huck’s meathooks with relative ease as the then world’s #1 cruiserweight sprang his usual combination of disciplined guard and surging, harrowing attacks on the underdog who, frankly, I expected to crumble. Glowacki likes to put his weight on his back foot and move, not a lot but enough to draw his opponent forward and into an attacking stance which he then tries to counter. Many of these counters were neatly banked body shots, a winning strategy against a fighter so determined to protect his head; straight punches to the torso and body and a determination not to wilt bought Glowacki the first round that night.
Then things got tough. Huck, more butcher than surgeon, found his man with a terrific counter-right hand as the bell approached, a punch that echoed the left Glowacki had used to end the first. Huck added the fourth and fifth, Glowacki too static and too given to leaning away to escape the chopping Huck right-hand, but the key attribute in Glowacki’s locker is punch-resistance. Such fighters, when they are invincible, can become terrifying destroyers of prospects but whether or not Glowacki owns a LaMotta-like chin was placed in doubt in the sixth by a sharp left-hook that dropped him to the canvas for the first count of his career; what is not in doubt is that he owns a tide-turning chin, sometimes a more important attribute. Glowacki’s recovery was so complete by the end of the next round that he had bagged that frame. All the while he was steadily pouring pressure onto Huck’s body, sapping him, thumping in turgid, heavy punches that lack killing power but want for nothing in terms of hurtful and demoralizing affect.
Far from fluid and no stylist, there is something nevertheless pleasing about Glowacki’s demanding pressure that finds him always in or close to range, waiting for the opponent to throw at which time he lights small fires of combat. More than that, he is absolutely unshakable mentally, hurt in rounds six and eight but there to take the ninth; Huck won the tenth but his guard was dropping and his fire was going out for the first time since 2007 when he was stopped on his feet by Steve Cunningham. Glowacki went one better, leaving Huck a helpless mess, tangled in the ropes and separated from his senses by a huge and heavy attack, barracked by a knockdown scored with a frightening but wild left hook.
This scooped Glowacki a belt and a #2 ranking. Many men might have looked to take an easy defense for their first, but not Glowacki; he matched Huck’s only cruiserweight conqueror, Steve Cunningham. Cunningham put on an excellent display of heart and skill to stay in a fight that saw him battered to the canvas three times and thrown to the canvas once. Glowacki is a man of prestigious strength.
And now, Usyk.
All smiles at the announcement for the fight, Usyk, twenty-nine years old but in possession of very little professional experience, was seemingly relaxed at the prospect of taking on the fiercely supported Glowacki in his home country. Glowacki’s countrymen were in full song in each of his last two contests, which were fought in America; Usyk will find himself on the end of a hostile reception when he makes his ringwalk in Gdansk. As far as temperament goes, however, the Ukrainian shows not a chink in his armour. I’m generally suspicious of claims that a fighter is deliberately “sharpening his tools” in early professional contests, by which I mean pursuing a specific punch or tactic at potential cost to his overall fight strategy but I have no doubt that Usyk has been doing just that as he battered his way past nine overmatched pugs in his early sojourns into both the cruiserweight and heavyweight division.
He probably needed that deluxe sparring. Fast, balanced, Usyk nevertheless brought with him the stylings of a great amateur and former Olympic gold-medallist, but he is high on jabs, high on head-movement, and is a wonderful judge of a punch. When he throws his right, he’s out of the line of the jab. When he leads with a hook there’s always a sweetener tagged on behind it. Too often these days when we hear an inexperienced fighter described as “schooled”, or “a technican”, what is meant is that he has a good one-two; but Usyk, legitimately, is both. The slipping, dipping, the beautiful stuck-on jab, the single-minded pursuit of his fight goals, these attributes more than make up for a tendency to shoe-shine, which, anyway, puts one in mind of Joe Calzaghe, if not in specific style then in the tendency of the opponent to become lost in a high volume of accurate punches.
Nevertheless, his best win to date was over journeyman cruiserweight Pedro Rodriguez (22-2), a man who feasted almost exclusively on men with losing records or fighters who were on the slide. Glowacki is a different beast. Perhaps not quite the conqueror Usyk could become, he is nevertheless a warrior, and one who defends home turf.
Even without the intrigue that will always surround a prospect like Usyk, this one is a fascinating clash of styles. Glowacki is the powerhouse in the fight, but he is also the counter-puncher. Usyk is the stylist, and he will take his time and learn about his opponent which might make for a slow opening, but he comes to fight, circling and throwing in volume. Usyk wants to punch – Glowacki wants to wait for his opponent to punch then brutalize him with body shots; Usyk is precision – Glowacki is wild and thundering, tasked with waiting for and then dominating his opponent with direct attacks. Someone is in for a very hard night.
Cunningham’s approach against Glowacki was fascinating, and deeply informative in the light of this contest. Expected to stay outside, box, use his superior reach and length to keep Glowacki from closing, Cunningham allowed himself to be drawn almost immediately into Glowacki’s dark realm – and then he proceeded to beat him to the punch. Under-jabbing and over-committing, Cunningham was the aggressor throughout despite his technical superiority, just as Usyk will be, but there are some very important differences.
First, there is Usyk’s uncanny balance. He is perfectly poised to punch from almost any position (echoes of Calzaghe again, though he’s not quite there) and has the feet to get himself out of trouble where Cunningham’s aging legs were not equal to that task. Furthermore, he is asking a slightly different question of Glowacki’s chin, namely whether or not the Pole can hold multiple shots while getting over his own offense. Glowacki, for all that he has been riding the tiger just lately, will be testifying at his own inquiry in Gdansk, too.
If he can, he should be able to find Usyk’s body and that might make the late rounds very, very interesting. Glowacki doesn’t throw curious punches, he throws assured punches, punches that know their task; they have their own unexpected angles and are sometimes accompanied by an equally deft forearm.
Usyk is being welcomed to the top echelon by a rough, tough fighter who fouls as well as he fights. Fighting away from home against such an opponent is far from the anointment a supposed superstar of the future might expect.
For all that, I expect Usyk to triumph. Glowacki beat Cunningham, but he needed those knockdowns to do it, at least on my card. I have two provisos – he must be able to hold a body shot and he must be able to hold his nerve. I have little doubt of the latter but the former is in the cut and can only be demonstrated in the doing.
But this one is worth putting in your diary. Likely to be undersold west of Germany, those who go out of their way to catch it will be rewarded with one of two things: a hell of a fight or the birth of a potential great.
Or maybe both.