It is fitting that the Cruiserweight World Boxing Super Series tournament opened with a brutal and impressive Oleksandr Usyk victory because barring injury it will also end with one.
The Ukrainian, full of the swagger and poise that was missing from his points victory over Mike Hunter five months ago, stopped the veteran Serbian Marco Huck in ten rounds in the Max Schmeling Halle in Germany on Saturday night. For many, it will be heresy, but I’m not sure that even the ghost of Schmeling himself would have had much joy out of the incarnation of Usyk that battered the adopted German in Berlin.
Huck, it should be stated, struggled to make his body obey the iron will that forced him through surges after absorbing a tirade of blows on his high guard this past decade, but it should also be stated that he has never been presented with an opponent of Usyk’s overwhelming boxing skill.
That high guard was compromised in the first, for example, by a stiff straight left to the body out of the southpaw stance; Usyk jabbed Huck back then took a quick step in and rattled the ribs of his man on numerous occasions in the opening three minutes. Huck, meanwhile, threw almost nothing in the first minute as Usyk’s constant circling bare inches outside of the firing range shifted the angles constantly on a fighter who is losing the ability to pull the trigger. All of the Serbian’s early successes were limited to mauling clinches, the clean work done almost exclusively by Usyk.
This is a high level marriage of speed, skill and strategy and it seems unlikely to me that Huck, even at his impressive best, would have been able to do much with the enemy that besieged him.
Usyk remained light on his feet in the third, but was already moving less, settling down to the job at hand. Huck welcomed this change of strategy and found moments to wade forward, but the Ukrainian was by now adding a straight left to his right jabs; I would go so far as to say that the writing was upon the wall even at this early stage and the word was “Usyk”. Still, there’s no strategical quit in Huck and he kept coming forward for all that his tidying footwork after a rush looked clumsy, even oafish, compared to the easy movement of the man avoiding him. Driven back by straight punches at the end of the round, Huck cut a sorry figure as Usyk unleashed a five punch combination upon him right at the bell, punctuated by a glorious but carefully pitched uppercut.
Huck went through his repertoire in the fourth, jabbing into space before blasting to the body, coming square to lead with the right, wading in two-handed. For all it disturbed Usyk, he might not have bothered. His opponent continued to execute his fight plan as though in a savage spar with a paid victim, and by the end of the round Huck’s offense had dried up entirely as Usyk slashed him with a wide and withering variety of punches. Usyk found time to smile; certainly he was in no rush. He wasn’t so much letting Huck off the hook with his stalking pressure when he had his man hurt, rather he was boxing to a music only he could hear almost regardless of what the veteran did or did not do.
Nevertheless, I felt Huck might break in the fifth. I forgot, perhaps, the depths of this man’s determination and the full extent of his experience. This was his twenty-first fight with a strap on the line and although Usyk was showing him things he had never before seen – and openly showboating while doing it – there was nothing he could make Huck feel that he had not felt before. Huck made every effort to find a weakness, lunging with a jab to the body, covering up and trying to counter, throwing bunched punches in those turgid, thudding combinations that have blasted him out of trouble so many times before. Usyk won the round at a canter.
All smiles as they touched gloves early in the sixth after Huck strayed south, I wonder if the Serbian didn’t make up his mind even then to take any opportunity at bending the rules; certainly, the beltline jab was the first thing Huck had done that seemed to unsettle Usyk. Huck added another low blow in the final minute and was warned by referee Robert Byrd to keep them up. Usyk roared his approval for the combat at the round’s end; in the other corner, Huck looked less enthusiastic.
Usyk’s single bad moment came in the eighth after he spent the seventh driving Huck to the ropes and abusing him there. That abuse continued in the next round but when Usyk slipped to the canvas while, I think, pursuing the stoppage, Huck threw a punch (and missed – probably the story of his night) as the Ukrainian was on the canvas. The referee deducted a point and Usyk went back to work for the remaining twenty seconds. “You’re a f*cking machine!” offered an unidentified member of his corner as Usyk took his seat at the bell. It is hard to disagree.
By the tenth, Huck was all-in. He did not disgrace himself, he fought like a man, and if boxing was entirely, as opposed to just principally, about heart and courage and toughs, he would have been awarded more rounds in the course of the fight. As it stands, he won precisely zero.
The end, when it came, was harrowing. Such marginal success as Huck had enjoyed after the fourth came when he countered off the ropes; and so he had sought them, and Usyk had met him there with punishment. Inevitably Huck found himself propped there without the wherewithal to retaliate, his mind mixed by a constant stream of varied punches that had chipped his way through his determination, into his heart and finally through to the iron in his belly. Usyk blasted at this unmercifully, forcing the referee to rescue him from himself, and from a rampant, deadly, tireless opponent.
This tirelessness was the finest aspect of his performance. Usyk’s engine is confirmed; it joins speed, stinging if not concussive power, a brilliant, almost supernatural grasp of a fight’s pattern and a wonderful coolness that allows elite-level punch-picking under difficult circumstances. Toss in an excellent defense and I’m happy with the following statement: Usyk has it all.
I have been covering his career from his earliest days as a professional and this is the best he has been. Physically, he seems to have peaked; I suspect that winning the World Boxing Super Series tournament will be his final contribution to cruiserweight boxing.
A heavyweight strap will follow.
Huck dropped to 40-5-1, Usyk is now 13-0; the number in the first column will get considerably bigger before the number in the second column will change.
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