Usyk vs Witherspoon: Return of the Ukrainian Nightmare
I think we are all still “Very Feel” as we head towards the return of the cruiserweight king Oleksandr Usyk on Saturday night. The reputation of the former WBA, WBC, IBF, WBO, Ring magazine and lineal Cruiserweight champion proceeds him as he debuts at heavyweight and despite a last minute change of opponent I think the levels of excitement remain high. The original opponent for this date was the former glory kickboxing world champion Tyrone Spong who was, on monday night, discovered to have failed a VADA test for the testosterone enhancer and masking agent Clomiphene (something also found in the cocktail of illegal substances Jarell Miller failed for earlier this year). This meant that the race for a replacement opponent was on, In a story all too familiar this year with the amount of heavyweight bouts that have changed due to injury or an adverse drugs test. Despite Eddie Hearns confident tweet that “We have reserve opponents standing by.” the usual names where thrown around, Hunter, Chisora, Price and Kowanaki but in the end it fell to the moderately unknown and rather bizarrely named Chazz Witherspoon to give Usyk his heavyweight baptism. The 38 year old Witherspoon, second cousin to the great underrated heavyweight champion and Frank Bruno adversary Tim Witherspoon, holds a 38-3 record and is mostly unknown to most boxing fans despite this I’m sure, given this big opportunity, he will come to fight.
Firstly however, it falls to me to once again wax lyrical about the skills and accolades of the man I place as my number two pound for pound in boxing right now, Oleksander Usyk. He brings to his heavyweight debut not just the long list of professional titles at 200lbs that I mentioned before but also his frankly staggering amateur pedigree.
Usyk was born in Simferopol, Crimean Oblast, Ukraine, then still part of the USSR, on 17 January 1987, only switching from football to boxing aged 15. However, despite this relatively late transition, Usyk was a semi-finalist at the world championships in 2006 only four years after walking into a boxing gym. He went on to win the Strandja Cup in 2008, then get to the quarter-finals of the Beijing Olympics as well as being a two-time European champion that same year as still a relative novice. He came into his own after this through, Destroying all the competition to become world champion in 2011 and Olympic gold medalist at London 2012. This run included wins over Current IBF light heavyweight champion Artur Beterbiev, Olympic silver medalist and current heavyweight contender Joe Joyce, and the man who beat him in 2008, Clemente Russo. In just 10 years he had gone from not boxing at all to be the best amateur on the planet in the heavier weight classes.
This was the perfect springboard to a pro career as he turned over with the Klitschko brothers K2 promotions taking on a progression of tough but winnable fights to accelerate him at speed towards a title shot at cruiserweight. That shot came against WBO Champion Krzysztof Głowacki, in his home town of Gdansk Poland. Usyk won handily out-boxing the veteran champion to a unanimous decision victory. Thus began Usyk’s Tour of Destruction, he went to the country of every single cruiserweight contender and champion and beat them in their own backyard. He went to Maryland USA and outfoxed Micheal Hunter, he went to Berlin Germany knocked our Marco Huck, we went to war with Marius Bredis in Latvia, picking up the WBC title as he went. He danced around a helpless Murat Gassiev in his native Moscow to win the WBSS tournament’s Ali Trophy and add the Ring, IBF, and WBA titles to his collection before coming to the UK and obliterating the former champion Tony Bellew for the lineal claim. No fighter has had a run like this in modern times, he has beaten 5 champions for 5 belts in 3 years and he has beaten every single one in their own home towns.
The confidence that this will give him moving into the heavyweight division is unparalleled, he has had absolutely no reason to doubt his skill set or his ability to win under pressure. The manner in which he won these fights also reflects his versatility as a fighter, something that will prove useful when we look at the disparate style of the champions he may well end up fighting at heavyweight. He changes and adapts his style depending on his opponent, adapting to their strengths and weaknesses, as well as enhancing his own strengths and disguising his (admittedly few) weaknesses. Against Gassiev he adopted the style of the matador, the master boxer faced with a raging bull, he danced on the back foot with a stinging jab and a sharp right hand, always moving and avoiding Gassiev’s power. Against Bredis we saw his ability to channel the brawler, he fought behind a tight guard throwing power punches and going to the trenches when things didn’t go his way. Against Bellew he became a predator, stalking his prey. He displayed patience, calm, a willingness to drop rounds as he lay in wait, an uncanny eye for distance and an almost telepathic knowledge of when to strike. He also showed his power by knocking out a man who had just come off two big wins in the division Usyk moves up to this weekend. All this means that I will be backing and fully expecting Usyk to stop Spong on Saturday night, however, there could be some stumbling blocks…
The first is the weight, there have been both successes and failures of those moving from cruiserweight up to the heavyweight division. Some people take too it far easier than others. If Usyk can add muscle and size efficiently he can look to emulate the likes Evander Holyfield who went from being the undisputed Cruiserweight champion like Usyk to a three-time heavyweight champion of the world, a feat at that point only ever achieved by Muhammad Ali. This is obviously the format Usyk will be looking to emulate however there have been other examples of fighters who headed north and found rougher waters than they had anticipated. Before the introduction of the cruiserweight two of the all-time great light heavyweight champions moved up to heavyweight and each found a different issue, all three of which may plague Usyk’s foray into the heavyweight division. Firstly the great Archie Moore the man who holds more knockouts than any other fighter in history, however, most of these came in the lower weight classes. The old mongoose found that when he landed his famous power on bigger men they stayed upright. the likes of Marciano and Patterson could take far heavier punches than the likes of Maxim and Johnson could at light heavyweight. so this poses the question, will Usyk’s power still be there when he takes on the heavyweight elite? The second all-time great to Jump from 175lbs to 200lbs was the power-punching Bob Foster. Although he could still punch and knockout big men, he found that the bigger the man, the harder they hit and it was his chin that became suspect against the giants at heavyweight. Muhammad Ali, the greatest though he certainly was, was not the biggest puncher and he knocked Foster down a staggering 5 times. He also only lasted two rounds with the admittedly harder punching Joe Frazer. This asks the question will Usyk’s chin, although proven at cruiserweight, hold up against heavyweight firepower?
The final challenge will be his opponent, late replacement Chazz Witherspoon. Andy Ruiz Jr gave hope earlier this year to every single late replacement underdog and taught writers like me never to write off or underestimate a man with the courage to step into the ring. The challenge that this late replacement will give to Usyk is the change in style and experience that Withersppon will have to contrast the preparations he will have made with Spong in mind. The first difference between the opponents is their size, Spong is a muscular, squat 6”2 with a 73” reach only weighing about 205-210lbs whereas Witherspoon is a far larger man at a full 6”4 and with a 77” reach and will come in weighing more than 240lbs, a significant difference. This may trouble Usyk as he has almost certainly been sparring with people closer in size and weight to Spong to get ready for that fight. The difference Between punching down onto an opponent and up into your opponent is very different and although Usyk is absolutely seasoned enough to adapt it could change the dynamic of the fight. The contrast of styles will also exacerbate this exact problem. Spong is a relatively boxing novice and has a very raw unpolished style and consequently throughout his spell in boxing has tended to sit low in his stance with a low lead hand and powerful, hook heavy style, something again Usyk has been preparing and sparring to neutralise and counter. Oppositely Witherspoon is a far more accomplished boxer and as a two time golden gloves champion and US Olympic team first reserve his style is far more traditional to the one Usyk will have seen all camp. With a high tight guard and a good long jab he will bring very different style to the ring than Spong. At 38 and a veteran of 41 pro fights including against perennial world title contenders Chris Arreola and Tony Thompson, Witherspoon will also bring the veteran experience that Spong would have lacked. The ability to hold, stall, delay, exploit the referee and bend the rules using his size and strength as an established heavyweight to his fullest advantage. These tactics used by someone of this size will be something Usyk has rarely experienced in the ring and could add an extra element to the fight.
There are more questions than answers as we head towards the return of Usyk and many of them can only be answered as we hear the final bell on Saturday night in the Windtrust Arena. Despite my strong feeling that Usyk will win the bout with ease there are some things that can be guaranteed, you will see either one of the best fighters on the planet work his magic or a monumental upset by a crafty veteran. Either a back and forth war of attrition or a boxing masterclass. Whatever you get, I think it will be worth tuning in for.
Ewan Breeze – Rebel Boxing for SimBoxx 🥊