Former cruiserweight undisputed champion Oleksandr Usyk announced in March he was moving up to the heavyweight division to look for better and bigger challenges.
Usyk unified all four major cruiserweight belts with a unanimous decision victory over Murat Gassiev in the World Boxing Super Series final a year ago and made one defense, an eighth-round TKO victory over Tony Bellew in November, before deciding to move up in weight.
Usyk (16-0, 12 KOs), the 2018 ESPN fighter of the year, was scheduled to make his heavyweight debut against Carlos Takam on May 25, but Usyk suffered a torn right biceps weeks before the fight and was forced to withdraw.
Last week, Usyk's team sent a petition to the WBO requesting his fighter to be the heavyweight mandatory challenger to current champion Andy Ruiz Jr. The WBO obliged.
Ruiz and Anthony Joshua will meet in a rematch late this year, and the winner is likely to take on Usyk.
What are Usyk's chances as a heavyweight? Is he really ready to fight the elite fighters in the division? Former two-division world titleholder Timothy Bradley Jr., Dan Rafael and Steve Kim weigh in.
What do you think of the WBO decision making Usyk a mandatory challenger to the heavyweight title?
Rafael: I have no issue with it whatsoever. The WBO followed its rules in which a fighter with a title in a lower weight division is entitled to petition for the mandatory spot if he moves in weight to a higher division. The WBO takes into account what the fighter has accomplished in the smaller division and in his career. In the case of Usyk, he clearly fits their profile of making the champion from the smaller division the mandatory in the heavyweight division. The WBO, according to its ruling, took into account his superb run at cruiserweight in which he became the undisputed champion as well as his sterling amateur career that included an Olympic gold medal. Even without those accomplishments, the WBO could have rightfully installed him as a heavyweight mandatory challenger. Given Usyk's background, the WBO's decision in this case was a no-brainer.
Kim: It's absolutely justified given that A) it's in their bylaws and regulations; and B) Usyk has had an incredible run and has done everything that can possibly be asked of a modern-day boxer. Beyond that, he is one of the best and most accomplished fighters in the world, period. It makes no sense to make him basically start over in a new division if he's willing to take the risk early on in facing the most dangerous and respected heavyweights.
Bradley: Well, I loved the WBO in my time of fame and becoming the unified champion at 140 pounds twice. I was stripped by the WBC on two occasions. Sanctioning bodies weigh their options just like fighters. Rules are rules and loopholes are present daily. So, I'm good with it.
Is it a good decision by Usyk to jump right into the thick of the heavyweight division?
Rafael: Absolutely this is a good decision. Usyk has accomplished all there is to do as a cruiserweight by winning the WBSS, becoming the undisputed champion -- the first of the four-belt era -- and even defending all the belts once by scoring a huge knockout of Bellew. Also, from the moment Usyk turned professional after winning an Olympic gold medal in 2012, his stated goal was to unify the cruiserweight division and then try to do the same as a heavyweight. He has spoken openly about trying to emulate what Evander Holyfield did.
There is nothing to gain for Usyk to stay at cruiserweight. He can add to his legacy, his profile and, most definitely, his bank account as a heavyweight.
Kim: Yes. He had one of the most productive runs of any fighter in recent years by cleaning out the cruiserweight class and becoming the undisputed world champion. Like an Evander Holyfield before him, after clearly dominating a division, he wants to move up where the real money is.
Perhaps there would be some interest in a rematch with Mairis Briedis, but the reality is that the biggest and most lucrative fights are in the game's glamour division.
Bradley: I think is great for Usyk to jump up into the heavyweight division now because he already handled his business at cruiserweight. He's doing it because it's hard, not because it's easy.
Who should Usyk fight as a tuneup fight? Does he need more than one?
Rafael: Regardless of if he was appointed as a mandatory heavyweight title challenger or not, he should do exactly as was planned before his injury and fight Takam. He's a legitimate opponent for anyone at heavyweight, especially for Usyk, who is moving up in weight. Usyk doesn't need to fight a walkover opponent in his first heavyweight fight. That does nothing for him. When James Toney went from winning a cruiserweight title from Vassiliy Jirov to heavyweight in 2003 he jumped right into the deep end against an older but still very dangerous Holyfield.
Whether Usyk needs more than one heavyweight fight first before fighting for the title is probably more of a decision that will be based on the sanctioning bodies. Just because the WBO made him a mandatory challenger does not mean he gets the next shot at the winner of the Ruiz-Joshua rematch. That winner will have other mandatory challengers as well or perhaps could seek (and receive) an exception. If Usyk is mandated to be next, he will likely only have one heavyweight fight first. If the mandatory is not ordered right away he very well could have a second fight. How many fights he has at heavyweight will depend on the organization's schedule.
Kim: If I'm Usyk's brain trust, I go back and revisit the Carlos Takam fight. He's a solid, sturdy heavyweight who will provide a good first test for him as he dips his toes into the heavyweight waters. Then, if they need further verification that he's a bona-fide heavyweight, I'd consider Joseph Parker, who has some credentials attached to him and isn't a humongous heavyweight by today's standards.
Bradley: I think he should fight Carlos Takam as a tuneup because Takam is 6-foot-3 and possesses an 80-inch in reach. Carlos is a smaller heavyweight weighing in around 235 pounds in most fights. Stylistically and experience wise Takam has been battle tested by fighters in the upper tier of the heavyweight division, guys like Joshua, Parker, Alexander Povetkin and even Dereck Chisora. That makes Takam a gatekeeper or a measuring stick to anyone trying to cross over to the bigger fish in the division. If Usyk can KO Takam, what a message he will send to everyone in the heavyweight division.
How does he beat Ruiz?
Rafael: Although Usyk will be coming up in weight to potentially challenge for the belts against Ruiz, he will be the taller man. Usyk is a legit 6-foot-3 while Ruiz is a not-so-legit 6-2, as he is listed. Usyk is also longer and has similar hand speed. Usyk is also a southpaw, which could give Ruiz issues as it does for a lot of fighters.
Usyk matches up physically a lot better with Ruiz than he will with Joshua so if Usyk fights like he usually does, with controlled pressure and using his height, fighting stance and quickness he will do very well against Ruiz. It remains unclear how Usyk's punching power will translate to the heavyweight division but he scored some impressive knockouts at cruiserweight and I suspect his power will still be very good as a heavyweight. But Ruiz can also box and has terrific hand speed, which is not something Usyk saw a lot of as a cruiserweight. I think there would definitely be a feeling out process against Ruiz, who would be facing the quickest, most skilled fighter of his career.
Kim: Usyk defeats Ruiz by being who he is -- a guy with deft movement who can give angles like no other heavyweight. He also has a very high boxing IQ and will understand that he can't just sit in the pocket and let Ruiz set his feet and weave his fast combinations at a stationary and upright target. Usyk will use his mobility and agility to defeat Ruiz.
Bradley: I think stylistically it's a perfect match for Usyk being that he's a boxer/puncher. Ruiz is a pressure fighter with great timing and hand speed but he has to be close to be effective. Standing at 6-foot-2 with a reported 74-inch reach Ruiz seems to struggle with fighters around his size and with fighters that can get in and out of range quickly. Usyk is slightly taller with quick hands and has a great transportation system. Just like in the Parker fight, Ruiz will have problems with every element Usyk brings to the table; the southpaw stance, his agility, ring IQ. And the way Usyk positions himself where he can hit you but you can't hit him will give the champ major problems.
How does he beat Joshua?
Rafael: If a fight between Ruiz and Usyk is a toss-up in terms of who has the better speed, a fight between Usyk and Joshua definitely gives that edge to Usyk. He will be the much shorter fighter and possess far less punching power against Joshua but he will have much greater speed against him. He is also a more skilled fighter than Joshua. He will have to box Joshua and not get dragged into a slugfest because Joshua's power is fearsome and he can turn out the lights with one shot. I'm not sure if Usyk will be able to do the same as a heavyweight. If I'm in Usyk's corner, the command is box, box, box and box some more but also pick spots to throw combinations and maybe catch Joshua with something he does not see coming. Usyk can probably bang it out to a degree with Ruiz. That is suicidal against Joshua.
Kim: In this particular matchup, Usyk will have to show that he can still have long-distance stamina as he did as a cruiserweight. He won't be the puncher that Joshua is -- few are -- but AJ is a fighter who is a tad mechanical and predictable in his movements. Usyk will have to make Joshua continually reset his feet and never work in a straight line for long stretches, while hitting him with a multitude of punches from the flank. But throughout this fight, no matter how it's going, Usyk will have to be disciplined throughout to this game plan.
Bradley: A fight against Joshua would be tough. Many people are blindfolded by Joshua's horrible performance last time out. Well. I'm not. I assure you becoming an Olympic gold medalist is not easy, and his skill set and power will be prevalent in the rematch against Ruiz. Usyk should stay away from Joshua.