Oleksandr Usyk battled hostile conditions to become undisputed cruiserweight king and is now eyeing Tyson Fury’s heavyweight crown

Oleksandr Usyk was already considered the world’s leading cruiserweight when he entered the cruiserweight World Boxing Super Series in 2017.

He had dethroned Krzysztof Glowacki in his 10th professional contest to win the WBO title, enhancing the reputation that meant he was already widely respected for winning gold in the heavyweight division at London 2012.

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Usyk emerged from the WBSS as undisputed WBA, WBC, IBF and WBO cruiserweight world championCredit: getty

Usyk was rightly installed as the competition’s number-one seed.

Russia’s Murat Gassiev was the second seed; Mairis Briedis of Latvia third.

Poland’s Krzysztof Wlodarczyk, Marco Huck of Germany, Dmitry Kudryashov – another Russian – and the Cubans Mike Perez and Yunier Dorticos completed the field.

As the first seed, Usyk elected to first fight Huck.

When he travelled to Germany he stopped Huck in the 10th round, putting him on course to fight, in the competition’s semi-finals, Breidis, who had outpointed Perez.

Not unlike against Huck, Usyk – who similarly in the future would travel to London to outpoint fellow Olympic gold medallist Anthony Joshua – travelled to Riga, Breidis’ hometown, and proceeded to win the competition’s most entertaining fight. 

“His performance against Breidis – you mustn’t forget the levels in that tournament,” Kalle Sauerland, who alongside his brother Nisse oversaw each edition of the WBSS, told talkSPORT.com.

“Their fight was very, very close, but I don’t think you could fault his performance or Breidis’. They were both on full power that night. That’s why it was such a tight fight.”

Usyk pummelled Huck to win his quarter-final clash

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Usyk pummelled Huck to win his quarter-final clashCredit: Getty – Contributor

Usyk, one of the world’s most masterful boxers, fought without the same discipline he has so often proved capable of, and risked a close, physical fight with the home fighter he was aware he had the ability to outbox.

The closest contest of his career therefore unfolded; he was awarded two scores of 115-113 against one of 114-114 for a majority decision victory.

“The environment in Riga was actually – they love their boxing in Latvia and it was a terrific atmosphere,” Sauerland said.

“You mustn’t forget Usyk was on the road for the whole of the WBSS. Fighting Huck in Berlin, and Breidis in Riga. That’s massive credit to him.

Oleksandr Usyk shows off indestructible abs during brutal training drill as he prepares to fight Tyson Fury

“The toughest fight, of course, was the one against Breidis – an absolutely legendary fight. It was still a pick ‘em fight.

“You have to give him credit where credit’s due – when I was promoting him in the tournament, he never complained about having to travel.”

Where Usyk had defeated Huck and Breidis, the heavy-handed Gassiev had stopped Wlodarczyk and Dorticos.

Russia had yet to launch its murderous invasion of Ukraine, but the occasion of a Ukrainian fighting a Russian in a high-profile fight represented a wider test for all involved.

Briedis pushed Usyk all the way

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Briedis pushed Usyk all the wayCredit: Rex

“Much more hostile was Russia with Gassiev in the final,” Sauerland continued, “The Russians – it was obviously a very big site deal to bring the final to Moscow.

“It was of course a tough time, because there was already a conflict between Russia and Ukraine, over Crimea at the time.

“So in theory, actually, he was going into what for Ukraine was a war zone, so it was extremely, extremely admirable and courageous, the way he went about it. I can’t keep saying how professional he was. 

“Gassiev at the time was a very, very dangerous opponent. In his prime, and he nullified him very early in that fight when he took a punch and gave it straight back – respect shown in a positive sense in the ring, and it gave him that freedom to use his big shots, so he absolutely had an absolute blinding performance.

“The performance to beat Gassiev in Russia that night [in July 2018] – if you put into perspective all of the politics going on outside of it, and that’s not boxing politics I’m talking about. Government politics between Russia and Ukraine at the time – it was one of the most moving performances I’ve ever seen in a boxing ring.”

Sauerland, owing to the success of his father Wilfried in promoting, had grown up immersed in boxing.

Like almost every other neutral observer, he was almost in awe of what perhaps remains the finest performance of Usyk’s career.

The then-31 year old’s discipline – born of his respect for Gassiev’s power and potentially the belief that the judges in Moscow couldn’t be trusted – punch output and fluidity surpassed even that demonstrated against Joshua at White Hart Lane.

Usyk twice beat Joshua to win and keep three of the four heavyweight belts...

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Usyk twice beat Joshua to win and keep three of the four heavyweight belts…Credit: Mark Robinson/Matchroom
...and he now wants Fury's WBC crown to once again complete the set

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…and he now wants Fury’s WBC crown to once again complete the setCredit: Getty

“He’s definitely the most recognised global star to come out of it, but one mustn’t forget the likes of Josh Taylor, [Naoya] Inoue; Mairis Breidis,” the promoter reflected.

“But of course, when you go on to become heavyweight champion, that’s always going to be a special league of its own.

“[Tyson] Fury and Usyk have both got a very similar skill set in terms of boxing IQ.

“I’m going to go with Fury [to win in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, when they fight for the undisputed heavyweight title on May 18]. Just on the basis of, because they’re so level, I’ll always go with the bigger man at heavyweight.

“I used to watch [Usyk] on the scales, and everyone thought he would go up to heavyweight after the tournament, and I didn’t think he had the frame to carry it, to be honest.

“But I knew the levels of not only skill, but boxing know-how, that he had. I didn’t get much confidence out of the Derek Chisora fight [won on points by Usyk in 2020, when he again travelled, to London], but he grew into that role very well.

“He had a shaky start to his heavyweight chapter, but has just grown from strength to strength since.”

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