THE first fight at heavyweight for world cruiserweight champions like Oleksandr Usyk is always designed to test the terrain. It’s generally a careful step to ensure the subsequent step, an altogether more dangerous one, can be taken confidently.
Taking the theme to extremes, Oleksandr Usyk, the Ukrainian ring wizard whose arrival in the banner division has long been craved, walked through a plucky but overmatched Chazz Witherspoon in seven rounds inside the Chicago Wintrust Arena.
But how much benefit Usyk himself will have received from such a cautious bedding-in has justifiably been questioned by the cynics. Particularly as the 32-year-old, mandatory challenger with the World Boxing Organisation, could end up facing one of the champions in his next outing. Witherspoon to Andy Ruiz, Anthony Joshua, Deontay Wilder or Tyson Fury would ordinarily be a preposterous step, after all.
Usyk, though, is no ordinary fighter. Neither were the circumstances leading to this bout. Tyrone Spong, the intended opponent, was removed during fight week after adverse findings in a drug test were revealed and Witherspoon, once prospect in the distant past, took his place.
In addition to the late switch of opponent, critics of the Chicago mismatch must also take into consideration Usyk’s own problems in 2019. A bicep injury vetoed his proposed bout with a far more suitable opponent than Spong or Witherspoon, the rough and ready Carlos Takam, in May. Consequently, Usyk entered the ring in a new weight class, against an alien opponent, following his longest period out of it since he turned professional six years ago.
We were told that Witherspoon was unbeaten throughout that time. It was a truth dressed up as marketing spiel and it fooled only the uneducated. That Chazz was thrashed by Seth Mitchell in 2012 highlighted Witherspoon’s limitations and meant the Philadelphia-born 38-year-old – a distant cousin of former WBA and WBC champion, Tim – was taking a significantly bigger jump to Oleksandr Usyk than Oleksandr Usyk, despite giving away 27lbs, was to him.
In that regard, credit Witherspoon with giving this all he had. One could even make a case for him winning the opening round as Usyk, as is his custom, took some time to analyse the strengths and weaknesses of the boxer in front of him. The American landed the odd shot too, but Usyk – contrary to popular myth – has never been unhittable. Usyk’s lack of elusiveness, particularly as he figures out his rivals, should only heighten an appeal that is anchored in his own offensive genius. Witherspoon had no answer for the combinations coming his way, for the brilliant approach play or the spite that Usyk has in spades.
Ultimately, the Witherspoon drubbing must be deemed a worthwhile exercise. At 32, it was imperative that the southpaw signalled the start of his heavyweight invasion (after 11 months out of the ring) even if real progress was impossible against an opponent like this.
What we saw from Usyk is what we have long suspected: Though he lacks heavyweight punching power he more than makes up for it in patience, intelligence and skill. Though he doesn’t possess the aggression that drove Evander Holyfield to success as he switched from cruiser to heavy, or the explosiveness that David Haye could boast, Usyk is arguably a more complete fighter than either of the only two men to make the transition successfully in the past.
In the end, this seventh-round drubbing did everything it was supposed to. Witherspoon gave Usyk some rounds and just enough durability to make it a fight. It ended Usyk’s spell of inactivity and it showed that he’s comfortable at the higher weight.
Above all, it ensured his new rivals, his more illustrious rivals, were served notice of a new and exciting threat to their dominance. Usyk is now a heavyweight and the weight class, which thrives when there is plenty of talent within it, is all the better for his introduction.
What was one just small step for Oleksandr Usyk could soon become one giant leap for the heavyweight division.