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Oleksandr Usyk: Boxing’s ‘King of the Road’

One of the best boxers in the world not only is undefeated, but he has a knack for playing road spoiler.

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World Boxing Super Series Final in Moscow
Oleksandr Usyk wins the World Boxing Super Series trophy over Russia’s Murat Gassiev in Moscow.
Photo by Valery Sharifulin\TASS via Getty Images

Ukrainian boxing sensation Oleksandr Usyk (18-0, 13 KOs) began his professional career fighting almost exclusively in his home country. Eight of his first nine fights were in Ukraine, with one against Germany’s Ben Nsafoah in Oberhausen.

Ever since Usyk became a fully fledged championship-level fighter, he’s been boxing’s road warrior in ways really unmatched by anyone else in the sport — probably combat sports as a whole come to think of it.

His first championship bout in 2016 was for the WBO cruiserweight title against Poland’s Krzysztof Glowacki in Gdansk. Usyk outboxed Glowacki and took his belt in front of Glowacki’s fans.

After stopping South Africa’s Thabiso Mchunu in his United States debut, Usyk won a 12-round decision over American Michael Hunter in Maryland. That’s an away match in the literal sense but on the undercard of his Olympic teammate and friend Vasiliy Lomachenko, this was a home crowd given the sizable Ukrainian immigrant population of the Washington DC-Baltimore region.

Usyk’s profile rose as a result of the World Boxing Super Series, an eight-man tournament which would eventually unify the entire cruiserweight division through single-elimination matchups. Usyk’s quarterfinal saw him defend his WBO title against former champion Marco Huck, stopping the German in his own backyard in the nation’s capital of Berlin.

His toughest fight to date then came in the semifinals, as he edged out a majority decision over Latvia’s Mairis Briedis in Riga to take the WBC title off of him in one of the best fights of 2018.

Usyk’s thrilling victory set up the undisputed title showdown with Russia’s Murat Gassiev, an unbeaten power-punching terror who knocked out his previous two opponents on his way to the final. WBSS put the championship bout in Moscow in what had obvious geopolitical implications, given Usyk was born in the Crimean capital and just a few years prior that region had been annexed by Russia. Thankfully that was not the focus of attention come fight night.

As for the fight itself, it was a total non-contest. Gassiev’s powerful fists barely touched Usyk, who put on a boxing clinic and silenced the home crowd on his way to winning the inaugural Muhammad Ali Trophy and becoming undisputed champion of one of the deepest divisions in the sport.

Before moving to heavyweight, Usyk provided one last parting shot to the cruiserweight ranks by retiring Tony Bellew in London, with pockets of Ukrainian fans there amongst a sea of partisan support for the Brit.

The 34-year-old’s heavyweight ventures have not been remarkable. An initial planned fight with Tyrone Spong was pulled after the former kickboxing star failed a drug test, prompting Usyk to instead get a routine win over Chazz Witherspoon in Chicago (another city with a large Ukrainian contingent, so a home crowd). In his lone appearance of 2020, Usyk took a somewhat tougher than expected decision over veteran Dereck Chisora behind closed doors in London, but nevertheless chalk up another road W for him.

If you’re keeping score, Usyk has gone into enemy territory and taken belt(s) off of three world-class opponents, as well as made successful title defenses over Huck and Bellew in their native countries. All while not having a true home fight (aka literally competing in Ukraine) since 2015.

Not bad.

But in just a matter of hours will be the ultimate road trip for the 2012 Olympic gold medalist. Once again Usyk is in London, this time competing for three of four major heavyweight titles versus Anthony Joshua. For the first time in his entire career, Usyk is a betting underdog (in the +200 to +225 range).

You could say that Joshua is the best opponent Usyk has ever faced, but the same may apply the other way around. Usyk hasn’t been seriously tested against elite heavyweight power, whereas Joshua hasn’t dealt with the pure boxing skills and energy-sapping pace that Usyk loves to set. The stakes are astronomically high, with expectant fans wanting an undisputed title mega-clash between the winner of this matchup and the victor of the Tyson Fury vs. Deontay Wilder trilogy.

If he can topple Anthony Joshua in front of over 60,000 fans at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, it’ll be his hallmark achievement and prove once and for all that he really is boxing’s King of the Road.