Alright, thank you everyone for joining us on our show, where we have a look at some of the sport's brightest young stars, and assess their strengths, weaknesses and current developmental status. Today's show features musical guests The Slovenian National Symphony Orchestra and is brought to you by Raid. Raid - It Kills Bug Dead.
In previous episodes we've covered:
Heavyweight Anthony Joshua, touted as the next great heavyweight of his generation.
Light heavyweight Russian youngster Dmitry Bivol
Minimumweight titleholder Kosei Tanaka
Former 2012 US Olympian Jose Carlos Ramirez, fighting at jr. welterweight.
Power punching American super-featherweight Saul Rodriguez
Former 2012 US Olympian Joseph 'JoJo' Diaz Jr., fighting at featherweight.
Argentinian buzzsaw light middleweight Brian Castano.
British giant super-middleweight Callum Smith
Olympic medalist and hopeful cruiserweight title challenger Evander Holyfield
Today we look at one of the very best prospects in all of boxing, Ukrainian cruiserweight Oleksandr Usyk.
Usyk was a hugely successful amateur, winning among other things the European Championships Gold Medal in 2008, the World Championships gold medal in 2011 and the Olympic Gold Medal in London in 2012. He owns two amateur victories over amateur stars Artur Beterbiev and Tervel Pulev, one over 2-time World champion Mahommedrasul Majidov as well as going 1-1 against Italian amateur star and two-time World Champion Clemente Russo. Usyk was 6-0 in the World Series Of Boxing, then turned pro in late 2013, signed with the Klitschko brothers' K2 Promotions and has been fighting in his native Ukraine where he is a popular star. His bouts are often attended by his close friend Vasyl Lomachenko, Kiev mayor Vitali Klitschko and other celebrities of the Ukrainian sporting elite. Like many prospects with rich amateur backgrounds, he started out at a pretty decent level of oppositon from the get go. His record thus far stands at 9-0 with 9 KOs. Here are some of his bouts on Youtube:
This is his professional debut, a 5th round stoppage of Mexican toughman Felipe Romero.
This is his 3rd pro fight, a 3rd round stoppage of German club fighter Ben Nsafoah.
This is his 6th fight, the longest on this list, going 9 rounds before stopping South African gatekeeper Danie Venter.
This is his 7th fight, an 8th round stoppage of Russian cruiserweight champion Andrey Knyazev.
This is his 8th pro fight, a definitive 3rd round stoppage of South African fringe contender Johnny Muller, who was coming off a career-best win against former European champion Mateusz Masternak.
And this is his latest bout from December against Pedro Rodriguez, a pretty decent club fighter fighting out of the Dominican Republic
If you don't have time to watch all of them, you can watch the Knyazev and/or the Rodriguez fight. Either one is very representative of what is on display in all of them.
As usual, here is a list of things I noticed, divided into several categories:
The Very Best
1) Ring movement. Usyk moves a lot more than you would expect from a cruiserweight. He is always gliding in, out and to the side. He moves moves in quickly for attacks, moves well out of range after punching, moves laterally to get off the ropes or escape pressure etc.
2) Outside fighting. Usyk is a classic stick-and-move boxer and a southpaw to boot. He is both very profficient at fighting from the outside and very successful at keeping the bout fought at a distance.
3) Defense. Usyk has great defensive versatility, instincts and execution. He can (and does) avoid punches by moving away with his quick feet, block them with his tight guard, roll with them or dodge them with his upper body movement. He also naturally varies between these four alternatives so you can never know what to expect when you attack him.
4) Composure and patience. A lot like 'The Technician' Sergey Derevyanchenko, Usyk takes his time studying his opponents, trying to get his timing and his distance just right. He usually doesn't start attacking until he has his man fully figured out. This sometimes means as much as 3 or 4 rounds of feeling out, but he never lets his offense go before he is fully confident and therefore when he does let his hands go, it's usually nighty-night time.
5) Stamina. Usyk maintains his high-cardio constant ring movement all the way into the mid-to-late rounds, where he actually ends up somewhat frequently. It's actually quite surprising that a man so big who runs so damn much shows no sign whatsoever of being gassed or even vaguely winded. Usyk fights are a danceathon and quite frankly he just does it like it's nothing. It's probably at least partially related to the fact that he takes little to no punches throughout and is very economical with his own punches.
6) Power. Usyk has obviously devastating power in both hands, but particularly likes to set up his left.
7) Punch accuracy. Probably has a lot to do with how much time he spends feeling his opponent out before starting to throw, but when he does throw, the man lands and lands hard. His jab is also surprisingly accurate.
8) Head and upper body movement. Usyk really is all sorts of mobile. He moves his body to both dodge punches and set up different angles of attack.
9) Size. Usyk is a large cruiserweight. He also uses his obvious range advantage very very well. He is large enough that he could probably cut it at heavyweight as well, although, like Steve Cunningham, he would be smaller than pretty much any heavyweight he would get in the ring with.
10) Active right hand. Usyk uses his front (right) hand a lot. He pokes, he probes, he jabs, he blinds and pesters his opponents with it constantly. He seems especially adept at keeping opponents at bay with it. He even has a very short and accurate counter right hook over the top of incoming left-hand jabs.
11) Tight technique. Usyk is disciplined in his movements. He generally keeps his chin tucked, his hands up, he doesn't usually overload on his power shots or throw many wide punches. He puts his body into his shots enough to get leverage and power but not as much as to lose balance.
12) Improvement. Almost everything I added to the 'Bad' column after watching his first few fights I had to move up to 'Decent' or 'Improving' after watching his latter fights. He has improved his work rate, his punch variation, his lateral movement and his stance over the past year and a half. To be frank he has visibly plugged pretty much every hole in his game, which is remarkable given that he came into the pro ranks at 27 years of age, with 12-years' worth of amateur boxing habits you' think would be difficult to shake off at an advanced age. The work he puts in the gym must really be something.
13) Hand Speed. I actually see a lot of Anthony Joshua in Usyk: he moves a lot for his size, he uses his front hand very well, he takes his time setting up his opponent, he is very accurate when he does start throwing, it takes him at most 3 or 4 successful rallies (but usually just 1 or 2) to take his man out. And just like Joshua, he seems to have two gears to his handspeed. Normally you don't see much in the way of speed, but when he does commit to his attack he can be fairly quick.
14) Body punching. Not necessarily a cornerstone of his attack but he does sometimes punch to the body and when he does he usually loads up pretty well and it looks painful.
15) Use of uppercuts. This punch used to not be a part of his arsenal in his early fights, but he has definitely perfected it of late.
The Not So Great But Improving
16) Work Rate. As mentioned several times already, he usually doesn't start throwing power shots in the early rounds. Actually, you can pretty much book it that he will throw a grand total of zero power punches in the first round and at most two in the second round. Against Danie Venter it took him an amazing 5 rounds to start throwing. Fortunately there have been obvious improvements in this area in his recent bouts, otherise it would have been a red flag.
17) Head hunting. There is a reason Usyk throws so little. He seems to be used to winning his bouts by stoppage. He doesn't seem concerned with outpointing his opponent. His main concern throughout the bout is finding the opening for his massive left hand. He basically works on the assumption that as long as he finds that opening, the rest of the rounds will not have mattered, as the bout will be over right there and then. So far, this has actually worked for him but at some point somebody will go the distance with him and when the final bell is sounded he might think that he could have at least won a few of those rounds when he was studying by being slightly more active.
18) Slow starter. As mentioned before, the first one, two or even three rounds of Usyk fights are almost guaranteed to be devoid of any action whatsoever. There has been improvement in this area and I'm sure it won't be a problem as long as he is in his prime. But this need to get the timing just perfect before daring to throw is just a hallmark of fighters who are bound to become gun-shy as they age. I have no problem predicting that Usyk will be a 'fail-to-pull-the-trigger' type of fighter about 5 or 6 years from now.
19) Experience with inside fighting. Usyk is so succesful at keeping the bout on the outside that not once and not for a second has any of his adversaries been able to take him inside and turn the bout into a phonebooth war. But if he ever does encounter a fighter who manages to impose this on him, all bets areoff. I have absolutely no idea whether Usyk can take any inside fighting or whether he ever even practices it.
20) Experience against southpaws. Usyk has never fought a fellow southpaw as a pro. This might be a problem since the WBO title he is targeting is currently held by a southpaw (Krzysztof Glowacki) and overall the top of the cruiserweight division is littered with southpaws.
21) Single gameplan? Usyk seemingly fights the same way in all of his fights. Nobody has been able to take him off his game yet so the question looms: if this ever happens, does he have a plan B? Why haven't we seen at least traces of it so far?
22) Corner. Usyk is trained by American James Ali Bashir, a former long-time assistant of Emanuel Steward. I don't know anything for a fact, but I can suspect a few possible downsides: 1) Usyk doesn't speak English so instructions in the corner must be translated to him. In my experience, a lot tends to get lost in translation in such cases. I for one never noticed Usyk actually following anything Bashir told him. 2) Bashir is still based in America whereas Usyk lives in Simferopol, Crimea. They only get together for training camps. 3) Bashir calls him 'Usyk' instead of Alexander, Alex or Sasha. What gives? Since when do trainers and fighters refer to each other by their family name? Is that the kind of relationship they have? I don't remember, say, Terence Crawford's trainer telling him 'Yo Crawford! Kepp them hands up!'
The Downright Horrible
There is nothing that Oleksandr Usyk does that is a major problem outside of his hair.
Well, I think it's safe to say based on the evidence at hand that Usyk has clearly moved past the 'prospect' status and is a full-blown contender at cruiserweight. With his speed, insane movement, stamina, accuracy, power and focus on defense he is a good bet to dance around and frustrate all cruiserweight contenders, who, like all big men, tend to be at least a little bit plodding. The main concern is what happens if someone manages to derail this gameplan of his. He clearly has never had that happen to him thus far. The thing is, on the eye test alone, his gameplan looks pretty bulletproof, especially if he manages to use his lateral movement to avoid being bullied on the ropes. Then again, like Mike said, 'Everyone has a plan until they get hit.' Usyk hasn't been hit yet, not that I've noticed anyway. Regardless, I think all the holes in his game have been plugged and he is 29 years old. I think there's little improvement left to be made fighting at this level, I think Usyk's handlers should target a top-10 / top-12-ranked opponent and make a financially sound offer to WBO titleholder Glowacki when he returns from his injury sometime mid-2016 or something.
Before watching his fights I was very wary about Usyk as a prospect but after deeper analysis I actually think he really should be the bookies' favourite to dominate the cruiserweight division for as long as he feels like it. But I will actually go one step forward and suggest that his style would actually translate pretty darn well to heavyweight as well. Yes, he would lose his current advantages in height, reach and possibly power, but his main strength (his non-stop ring movement) would be seriously amplified and his main weakness (work rate and caution) would be diminished compared to his opponents. Unfortunately giants such as Fury, Joshua, Wilder and Ortiz really do seem too big for him, but I would be veeeery curious to see what he could do with someone like Joseph Parker, Alexander Povetkin, Kubrat Pulev or Malik Scott. I think he would run rings around such contenders as fellow countryman Vyacheslav Glazkov or Bermane Stiverne. Anyway, for now, at cruiserweight, me likey, me likey very much!
In closing don't forget...