THE only cruiserweight champion to make the leap into the heavyweight division and truly conquer it. His achievements don’t need spelling out again here, but – like Usyk is fully expecting to – he made a mockery of supposedly being too small, despite this accusation being levelled at him by almost every boxing hack for the opening five years of his heavyweight career.
Only when he regained the title against Riddick Bowe did those critics quieten down. It took even longer, until the 1996 victory over Mike Tyson, for them to shut up altogether.
His speed, excellent all-round game and courageousness made him a match for every single heavyweight he faced at his peak.
Unlike many others here, he was never once daunted by vast differences in size; so busy was Holyfield believing in himself and focusing on his own strengths, he didn’t have time to worry about anything else.
THOUGH Haye won a belt in the heavyweight division and beat some world class opposition – namely Nikolai Valuev, John Ruiz and Derek Chisora – the comprehensive defeat to Wladimir Klitschko and the subsequent injuries mean his achievements are often underplayed.
They shouldn’t be, of course. A monstrous cruiserweight, one of the best of them all, Haye was also formidable at heavyweight, if only for a handful of fights. The speed and power was glaring at the start but if Holyfield’s success should inspire Usyk, Haye’s ultimate downfall should act as a warning: “Hayemaker’s” body simply wasn’t built for the excess bulk he felt he had to put on.
Furthermore, if Holyfield went into each bout confident he could withstand the force of a truck connecting with his chin, Haye was clearly more mindful about his own durability. His performance against Klitschko appeared to underline this. With hindsight, a more devil-may-care approach might have served him better.
CUNNINGHAM did not enter the heavyweight division on the back of a glittering reign nor was his emergence in the weight class met with any expectancy. “USS” simply moved between the two classes depending on where the opportunities were.
A clever fighter, albeit one never courted by the big promoters or networks, Cunningham was technically solid in all aspects of the fight game. To the powerbrokers, he was a name of sorts, but to his opponents, he was an out-and-out nuisance. Cunningham never saw the point in piling on the pounds and even when outweighed by 44lbs he presented Tyson Fury with all manner of problems.
Cunningham showed, even when losing (often controversially on the cards), that big heavyweights can be outmanoeuvred, out-thought and outboxed. But by getting drilled by Fury in seven, he also exhibited that those entering the division without the physical advantages of their opponents are generally facing an uphill struggle.
THIRD only to Holyfield and Haye as the most successful established cruiserweight-turned-heavyweight. A former titlist at light-heavy, the Pole won a belt at cruiserweight before entering the land of the giants by thrashing his over-the-hill countryman Andrew Golota in 2009.
By the time he challenged division-leader Vitali Klitschko two years later, he had earned his shot by being too good for Jason Estrada, Chris Arreola and Michael Grant. Adamek, a little like Holyfield, understood how being physically smaller, and a shade quicker, need not always be a disadvantage as he beat good men, often at their own game.
Ultimately, when met with a giant who was massive, intelligent, talented and hard-hitting, Adamek could not compete. Klitschko stopped him in 10 one-sided rounds. Adamek, however, remained a fixture in the rankings for several years afterward.
SOMETHING of an anomaly here because his heavyweight adventure consisted of two victories over the aforementioned and past-his-best David Haye. However, his approach to battle is worth noting.
It’s far too easy, not to mention disrespectful, to write off Bellew’s achievements at heavyweight. Because everyone was writing him off before the first Haye encounter. Many, including BN, felt that his leap to Haye was a dangerous one.
However, buoyed by the best form of his career at cruiserweight and memories of an old sparring session with Haye, Bellew and trainer Dave Coldwell formulated the perfect gameplan to win. Though unquestionably assisted by Haye’s leg almost snapping in two mid-fight, Bellew had already illustrated what could be achieved by patiently and confidently negating an opponent’s strengths.
The rematch, when Bellew obliterated the remnants of Haye, further illustrated how a smaller fighter can expose a bigger one.
JUAN CARLOS GOMEZ
ANOTHER fate for Usyk to be mindful of. Gomez, a clever southpaw, steadily grew into the heavyweight division after a successful period atop the cruisers. But by the time he faced Vitali Klitschko in 2009, he was way beyond his best fighting weight.
After being walloped in nine rounds, Gomez – an exceptional boxer – spoke of the sheer size of Klitschko being too big an obstacle to scale. Crucially, perhaps, Gomez was too respectful of that size from the beginning of the contest, preferring to stay out of danger and hope – prey – for an opening later in the bout.
It never came. Klitschko simply found a rhythm and a familiar comfort zone and pounded the resistance out of Gomez, who was not physically equipped to survive. The Cuban did score the odd noteworthy victory in the banner division but generally found what made him special at cruiserweight was too often absent in the land of the giants.
Joshua vs Usyk – the story of the fight, read more here