Oleksandr Usyk has the skills to be a factor at heavyweight, but is he too small?

Kevin Iole
Combat columnist
Oleksandr Usyk, shown here on Nov. 10, 2018, in Manchester, England, after a win over Tony Bellew, will make his heavyweight debut Saturday in Chicago. (Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

On Jan. 22, 1973, a pair of unbeaten one-time Olympic gold medalists met for the heavyweight championship in Kingston, Jamaica.

Joe Frazier, the reigning champion, weighed in at 214 pounds, 8½ more than he’d weighed 22 months earlier for his epic “Fight of the Century” bout with Muhammad Ali on March 8, 1971, in New York, when he came in at 205½.

It was obvious Frazier wanted to bulk up a bit to prepare for George Foreman, who at 6-foot-3 had four inches in height and six inches in reach on Frazier.

Foreman was a menacing figure even then who was known as “Big George.” He knocked Frazier down six times en route to a stunning second-round TKO victory.

Foreman would go on to be one of the greatest heavyweights who ever lived. But if he were boxing in the modern era, he would have needed a different nickname, though “Average George” doesn’t have the same kind of cachet as “Big George.”

The best heavyweights these days have become the size of NBA power forwards or NFL defensive ends.

WBC champion Deontay Wilder is 6-7, 225 with an 83-inch reach. Former champion Anthony Joshua is 6-6, 245 with an 82-inch reach. Tyson Fury is 6-9, 255 with an 85-inch reach. And though unified champion Andy Ruiz is “only” 6-2 with a 74-inch reach, he generally fights around 260 pounds.

On and on goes the list of giants in the division, which makes Oleksandr Usyk’s bid to become a player at heavyweight that much more of a challenge. The one-time undisputed cruiserweight champion will make his heavyweight debut Saturday (7 p.m. ET, DAZN) in Chicago. He was to face Tyrone Spong, but Spong failed an anti-doping test and is out of the bout.

Promoter Eddie Hearn hasn’t yet named a replacement, but he’s zeroed in on Chazz Witherspoon.

A 2012 Olympic gold medalist in London, Usyk has the boxing skills to be a factor at heavyweight. He has terrific footwork, fast hands and good defensive instincts. He’s difficult to hit, and as a left-hander, he creates matchup problems for the right-handed dominant division.

But, while at the same height and with the identical 78-inch reach Foreman once had, Usyk will give up size to most of the heavyweight contenders he faces. He’s fought at 200 pounds as a cruiserweight, so it’s unlikely he’ll be any more than 220 on Saturday when he debuts at heavyweight.

Weight-wise, he wouldn’t give much up to Wilder, who was only 212½ when he fought Tyson Fury. Wilder is an extraordinary puncher, however, and has more than five inches of reach on Usyk.

There is no place in the sport for heavyweights the size of Frazier or Rocky Marciano, whose size would simply make them cruiserweights these days. Marciano, who was 48-0 in his legendary Hall of Fame career, was only 5-10½ with a 68-inch reach.

They’d simply be physically overmatched. And while Marciano was a legendarily hard puncher, he only weighed more than 190 pounds in three fights.

Tony Bellew (L) reacts to a blow from Oleksandr Usyk during their cruiserweight bout Nov. 10, 2018, in Manchester, England. Usyk successfully defended his four belts and likely sent Bellew into retirement by knocking out the British fighter in the eighth round. (Nick Potts/PA via AP)

Usyk isn’t at that kind of a disadvantage, and as a slick boxer, he’ll create issues for whichever one of the elite big men at the top of the division he’d face. But he hasn’t proven he can take a punch from a man that size and continue on.

Managers tend to have their guys shy away from southpaws with boxing skill, so it’s doubtful that Wilder, Ruiz, Joshua or Fury will be in any kind of a hurry to get into the ring with Usyk.

Usyk, though, would be walking a precarious tight rope against each of them. He’d give up more than 25 pounds to Ruiz, Fury and/or Joshua, at least four inches of reach to Wilder, Joshua and Fury, and three inches, four inches and six inches of height, respectively, to Joshua, Wilder and Fury.

That said, Usyk’s a brilliant technician in the ring who has repeatedly shown the ability to walk his opponents into punches and to avoid the kind of long punches that most heavyweights throw.

Another former cruiserweight champion, Murat Gassiev, will campaign at heavyweight soon, and he’s similar in size to Usyk. Gassiev, who lost to Usyk for the undisputed cruiserweight title in the finals of the World Boxing Super Series’ first tournament, is 6-4 with a 76-inch reach.

He’s more of a puncher but far less of a boxer than Usyk. But if he could get himself to 230 or 235 and his power translates, he could also be a factor.

The division is, for the foreseeable future, going to be the domain of the big men. In addition to Wilder, Fury, Joshua and Ruiz, prospects like 2016 gold medalist Tony Yoka (6-7, 82-inch reach), Efe Ajagba (6-6, 85-inch reach), Daniel Dubois (6-5, 78-inch reach) and Filip Hrgovic (6-6, 82-inch reach) are all larger heavyweights.

Usyk is skilled enough to compete with the best of the heavyweights. Whether he’ll be able to compensate for being the much smaller man for the first time in his career, though, is something that only time can tell.

Here’s guessing he can, but a perfectly placed right hand on the chin by the likes of Wilder or Joshua could say otherwise.

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