This week we saw the biggest indication yet that we are edging closer to an Oleksandr Usyk (15-0) vs Tony Bellew (30-2-1) fight later this year. Speaking to Sky Sports, Eddie Hearn - Matchroom and Tony Bellew’s promotor - stated that himself and Alexander Krassyuk, from K2 promotions, enjoyed a “very positive meeting” in Paris as the teams look to strike a deal for November this year.
So let’s presume the Is are dotted, the Ts are crossed and the fight is announced, as expected, on British soil at cruiserweight. What can we expect from this fight for all the cruiser marbles?
In contrasting fields, Usyk and Bellew have enjoyed success against the odds (Bellew, particularly) in the past two years.
Since September 17, 2016, Usyk has a 6-0 (2 KOs) record, littered with road victories as well as taking the 0s of some of the best-recognised fighters at the 200-pound limit. Krzysztof Glowacki, Michael Hunter, Mairis Briedis and Murat Gassiev all held unbeaten records until they got into the ring with ‘The Cat’, and having travelled to the likes of Latvia, USA, Moscow, Poland and even Germany to retain his WBO world title against the game Marco Huck, Usyk’s sharp rise has been unrivalled across the sport.
Bellew’s incline has been more dramatic, if not as impressive. After winning the WBC cruiserweight crown in May 2016, Bellew opted for a more lucrative route now he has approached the twilight of his career. Mandatory defences - against the dangerous Mairis Briedis - were dodged in preference to build the British grudge-match of the last few years; David Haye was his partner in crime. A win against 13th-ranked BJ Flores set the scene as Haye called out Bellew from ringside; the rest is history as the pair battled it out in two back-to-back pay-per-view fights earning record purses along the way. Notably, this jump up to heavyweight has allowed Bellew’s power to flourish; his nickname ‘The Bomber’ was being questioned at light-heavyweight and even cruiserweight with a lack of notable victims on his KO record.
So as we begin to dissect the contest, where do the advantages lie? After winning the cruiserweight World Boxing Super Series and moving his record onto an unblemished 15 wins from 15 fights, Oleksandr Usyk has positioned himself in many pundits top five pound-for-pound rankings. With sublime footwork, nimble turns, a solid jab, fast hands and a controlled balance, opponents of the Ukranian have found it near impossible to pin ‘The Cat’ down to a position when combinations can be unleashed. Murat Gassiev was the perfect opponent in many ways. Strong, upright, rigid; the Russian walked onto Usyk’s controlled jab for the majority of the twelve round shutout with Usyk throwing close to 1000 punches in the fight. We all know that “styles make fights”, but with Usyk’s technically superior style it was clear from the opening bell that this would be a long, frustrating night for the home fighter.
What would Bellew have learned from watching this masterclass in Moscow? It’s hard to say. Bellew understands his shortcomings inside the squared circle, but to his credit, that’s is deemed an asset of the 35-year-old. Bellew has never boxed someone as technically gifted as Usyk is, so trainer Dave Coldwell will be hard-pressed to find a suitable example of a comparison in the list of wins on Tony Bellew’s CV. A good point of reference should be his two fights - one at cruiser and one at light-heavy - with (then) rival Nathan Cleverly. The Welshman fought at a confident rhythm in the second half of the first fight, with Bellew allowing left-hooks and upper-cuts through his guard as he went chasing the big shot. Sitting behind his jab in a large proportion of the fight, Cleverly was able to negate Bellew’s power and aggression, despite looking close to unravelling at times.
Bellew will have to be patient, something he demonstrated in both fights against a wounded David Haye, however, in his self-proclaimed “retirement fight” with the chance to go down in history as the undisputed cruiserweight king, Bellew’s adrenaline will reach new levels in the early rounds in front of a UK fanbase. Subduing his man will be tasked to Coldwell, who has been at the side of the Evertonian since 2013; his emotions helped him get the victory over Ilunga Makabu at Goodison Park on that now infamous night, but Usyk won’t be drawn into similar waters.
Usyk is no stranger to fighters attempting to land that one big punch. Briedis came closer than most in his WBSS semi-final loss in January, losing a tightly contested majority decision in Riga. The Latvian was able to get through the Ukranian’s guard; Bellew would be wise to study this approach in hoping to land that dangerous left hook.
The odds are stacked against Bellew - a position he has felt comfortable in before three of his last four fights. Currently, prices of 1/5 for an Usyk win and 10/3 for a Bellew win can be found, representing the gulf the bookies see between both men. Interestingly, almost identical odds could be found in the run-up to the first fight with David Haye last March.
On paper, this is seen as a mismatch. Arguably one of the best pound-for-pound fighters coming up against Britain’s real-life Rocky story. Bellew’s career has catapulted in the last two years, but Usyk promises to be his biggest test to date by some distance.
In a sport divided by desires of wealth and legacy, both fighters bring enough of each to the table to deem the risks on each side worthwhile. Usyk is surely guaranteed his biggest purse to date, along with a level of exposure unique to a Matchroom promotion. Bellew has a chance at a true legacy in the sport: moving back down to cruiserweight and becoming the undisputed champion at the 200-pound limit.
It would have seemed an unlikely fight just twelve months ago, however, now, Usyk and Bellew are looking increasingly like the perfect match.