USYK RETAINS WBO TITLE — Oleksandr Usyk’s HBO debut was quite rightly overshadowed by the last dance of the great Bernard Hopkins last night in Inglewood, California, but there has rarely been a better illustration of the timeless nature of pugilism. As one genius is bundled unceremoniously from the ring, another steps forward and auditions to fill the breach. I don’t think Usyk is quite as special as someone like Vasyl Lomachenko, but he absolutely belongs in the chasing pack beating a path from the east to the pinnacle of boxing in 2017.
His opponent, South African Thabiso Mchunu, was capable rather than dangerous but he is in keeping with the strange, almost careless way Usyk has been matched since the decision to step him up was taken. Of all the beltholders available to him it is likely that Krzysztof Glowacki had what represented the most troubling style for Usyk, a hyper-aggressive puncher with a thug’s attitude in the ring. Usyk beat him in a fight that was, for the most part, non-competitive.
Perhaps that has emboldened a confident fighter and his team even further; perhaps they are of the attitude that it does not matter who is in the other corner on fight night – I applaud this attitude and I understand it, for Usyk looks a world-beater to me. That said, perhaps a short southpaw survivor with a reputation for good boxing and sharp counter-punching was not the ideal opponent for his HBO bow. Mchunu, essentially, is a deluxe spoiler, one who can be stopped, yes, but one it is difficult to look good against.
Usyk was not helped, either, by his customary slow start. The Ukrainian tends to win these opening rounds but he does it by prodding with the jab, moving his opponent out of position with footwork, finding an occasional scoring opening for a bigger punch. Mchunu dropped the first but found a lovely right hand behind a left-handed feint, lost a close second to Usyk’s width of attack, those little half steps buying him straight punches when it mattered most, but won the third on my card even as a restless crowd began to boo.
I thought the crowd introduced a little tension into the combat as Usyk, perhaps, stepped things up a little bit before he was ready to do so. He supersedes his man’s guard by making small moves across his rampart as well as anyone fighting today and the ceaseless changes of position enabled him to put together his punches well. I don’t think he can be lauded enough for this nimbleness. It is possible to compare him negatively to those in the pound-for-pound squabble for footspeed, yes, but Usyk is distributing 200lbs over these anchors and that needs to be remembered.
Busy and accurate in the fifth, Usyk still seemed reluctant to bring his big punches to the party but in the sixth he began to marry his wonderful fluidity to harder shots. In all of boxing, only Lomachenko surrounds his man with the same discombobulating speed and when Mchunu was dropped by a right uppercut I didn’t see that he was hurt so much as that he was caught in the terrible predicament of standing and being hit or kneeling and being given a brief breather. He made the right choice and when he got to his feet, Usyk went back to his boxing, the tension alleviated.
Usyk stitches punches together in such numbers that counting them can become a little ridiculous, just as it is ridiculous to see such liquid movement in such a big man. Usyk is bound for heavyweight and talks about it openly. It will be fascinating to see if he can hold this combination of speed and volume at 220lbs; what he does need to do, however, is start introducing a hard punch to his combinations, one that stings an opponent into inaction. Mchunu was happy to come back at him with counters in the midst of a never-ending Usyk combination and if a cruiserweight of middling durability can do it, a big-punching heavy will certainly do it.
That said, the effects of Usyk’s volume attack, at least at cruiserweight, is withering. The seventh was unhurried but it was possible to see Mchunu crumbling in the eighth. Still, the round contained a fascinating moment, the South African landing a right-hand counter on the inside as Usyk crackled combinations across his body and head, and the punch seemed, perhaps, to trouble him momentarily. Usyk stepped back, hands on hips, and looked at his still-game opponent, seeming to chastise him for the punch. Then he went back to work.
Usyk excels at all ranges and he falls from one to the other beautifully. Fighters tend to box at-range, at mid-range, inside, distinct patterns and even goals unveiled by their work at each distance, but not Usyk. He glides from one to the other, from upstairs to down as if they were all part of one single frontier. Which, of course, they are, but very few fighters have the talent to make it seem so.
The effects of the deluge of “lighter” blows Usyk favored in this fight were clear when Mchunu finally cracked. Buckets of punches, distance, short-arm work, saw Mchunu down at 1:45 remaining of the ninth; up quickly he was soon cornered and thrashed, this time while offering nothing back. It would be ridiculous to lay his final decision to fold and take the canvas on any individual shot but it is a fact that after the referee waved the contest off and Usyk tried to help Mchunu to his feet, the challenger was unable to comply. The doctor tended to him on one knee, standing quite beyond them. These punches Usyk is throwing look tender, but he is a 200lb athlete trained for violence. I think more cruiserweights will see the final bell against Usyk but some may wish they had not. This is a dangerous volume attack thrown at unprecedented speeds for the weight class. I’ll say that again: there has never been a man of Usyk’s size who throws these bunches this quickly and consistently. We’ve seen fast men at the weight, we’ve seen long interwoven combinations at the weight, but we’ve never seen those combinations thrown with this hand speed.
Usyk’s next move might be fascinating; a testing of the waters at heavy is not impossible. If he doesn’t feel like making that move yet, Murat Gassiev is the best fight that can be made at cruiserweight. Usyk and Gassiev are ranked number one and two in the world respectively and a winner would begin a new lineage at the poundage; styles would make Usyk a major favorite.
Unfortunately, Usyk has the WBO’s belt. The WBO favors untried prospect Noel Gevor. Slightly more interesting would be their second choice, Mairis Briedis, or their third, Firat Arslan, but hopefully Usyk fights none of them. His talent is astonishing – it would be a shame if it were wasted on the whims of an organization that famously moved a deceased boxer up its super-middleweight rankings, not once, but twice.
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