Tyson Fury vs. Oleksandr Usyk offers something never before seen in boxing



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Given the years of acrimony between the Tyson Fury and Oleksandr Usyk camps — the most recent expression of which was an ill-fated headbutt that left Fury’s father, John, both bloodied and happily enraged — I am profoundly disappointed to find Fury on best behavior.

He didn’t deride the three-belt heavyweight champion, Usyk, as a mere middleweight.

Didn’t call him a “dosser,” British for “bum.” Didn’t even vow to knock out Usyk early, as Fury famously predicted in the lead-up to his second fight with Deontay Wilder in 2020.

“What am I going to do?” Fury said. “I’ll do what I always do: Go out there and figure it out.”

Sorry, but good manners and self-restraint don’t become Fury, the most interesting heavyweight champion since his namesake, Mike Tyson, and the most voluble since Muhammad Ali. But he’s not playing to the script here.

“He’s done his training and I’ve done mine,” Fury told ESPN on Zoom from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where on Saturday (ESPN+ PPV, Noon ET) he’ll fight Usyk for a chance to become boxing’s first undisputed heavyweight champion in nearly a quarter of a century, and the first ever in the four-belt era. “We’ll find out who is the actor and who the killer is on that night. That’s it. There’s nothing more. No trash talk. The contracts are done, the fight’s on. Nothing more to sell. The fight of the century sells itself.”

“Fight of the Century” is a term of art in boxing. It usually refers to a heavyweight bout that will determine rightful custody of the so-called lineal title. There have been three such fights in my lifetime, all between undefeated heavyweights: Ali-Frazier (1971), Tyson-Spinks (1988) and now this. Fury has the WBC belt. Usyk won the others — the IBF, WBO and WBA. The winner stands to become just the first undisputed heavyweight champion since April 2000, when Lennox Lewis lost his WBA strap, not in the ring of course, but — this is boxing, after all — in federal court.

Boxing indeed goes where the heavyweights lead. But while every other sport was routinely producing undisputed champions, boxing proliferated dispute itself — along with a series of forgettable “champions” (John Ruiz, Bermane Stiverne, Samuel Peter, etc.). It’s no coincidence that this fallow period in boxing coincided with the ascendance of the UFC, from an outlawed endeavor to hegemony in the world of combat sports. After all, whatever your preference — boxing or MMA — it’s not too much to expect a single champion per division.

Still, Fury-Usyk is the rarest kind of fight, and the only kind that the UFC can’t yet replicate. Since 1997 when Mark Coleman won the inaugural UFC heavyweight title, the belt has changed hands 22 times. New champions defend their titles, on average, just once, and many not at all. Only one heavyweight — Stipe Miocic — has been able to mount three consecutive defenses.

But boxing’s undisputed heavyweight champions — “Baddest Man” types — aren’t associated with single defenses so much as a particular decade. They’re still considered in dynastic terms. It’s said that the Roaring ’20s, for example, actually began in 1919 when Jack Dempsey knocked out Jess Willard. Along those same lines, Ali could have only come of age in the 1960s. Though boxing’s great heavyweight champions might have reigned in the previous millennium, their names still resonate: Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Jack Johnson and Sonny Liston.

Not all of them belonged to a distinct cultural moment. Some were merely great fighters (Larry Holmes and Lennox Lewis, both terribly underappreciated, come to mind).

You can argue that boxing has diminished, or certainly changed. The heavyweight division will never again be an American protectorate. But Fury-Usyk offers something never before seen. They’re not merely undefeated. They’re bigger, more experienced (or older, depending how you parse it), and more technically skilled than any previous heavyweight pairing.

Usyk, a 37-year-old southpaw from Ukraine, has evolved from an Olympic gold medalist to an undisputed cruiserweight champion to a three-belt heavyweight champion. It’s not inaccurate to describe him as a heavyweight version of Vasiliy Lomachenko, his friend and former Olympic teammate. Even as Usyk moved up in weight, he has maintained a balletic control of his striking distance.

“He’s a good boxer with excellent footwork,” Fury said. “What more does a fighter need?”

Don’t call Usyk small, either. At 6-foot-3, usually weighing in a little over 220 pounds, he’s the same size as “Big” George Foreman when he fought Ali in Zaire, and bigger than the version of Evander Holyfield who beat Foreman in 1991. If Usyk is small, it’s only compared to today’s heavyweights — big, strong guys like Anthony Joshua, whose belts he took without much difficulty.

“Where is he vulnerable?”

“I’d say in his mind,” Fury said.

It’s a curious answer, as Usyk and Lomachenko, each developed by Loma’s father, Anatoly, are famously tough-minded. Under “Papachenko’s” regimen, Usyk’s training preparation still includes 10-kilometer swims and underwater breath-holding sessions that have lasted as long as 4 minutes and 40 seconds.

Fury, of course, claims not to be impressed: “All men can be broken mentally.”

This is a subject of which he knows, having addressed his own mental health. Not long after Fury outboxed Wladimir Klitschko to win his first three heavyweight titles and recognition as the lineal champion in 2015, he began drinking and using drugs. He revved up his Ferrari up to 190 mph and came within seconds of driving it into a bridge. He attributes whatever it was that caused Fury to abort his suicide attempt and overcome his depression to God. He also became a better, more resilient fighter.

Fury was 27 years old when he beat Klitschko, mostly by picking and poking. Like Usyk, he also had good footwork — but at 6-9 with an impossibly long 85-inch reach, boxing has never seen a man so big move so well. But now, at 35, Fury is heavier, more rugged and more powerful. He didn’t beat Wilder; he beat him up. And if you’re confusing the Fury who’ll face Usyk with the guy who fought in a close “exhibition” with former UFC champ Francis Ngannou, you’re making a big mistake.

Fury comes from a long line of bare-knuckle fighters. “It took a thousand years to breed my son,” his father once told me.

But like Mike Tyson, Tyson Fury is also a boxing nerd. “I admire all the champions, all the greats,” he said. “I’ve watched them all.”

Among the peculiar personality traits of lineal champions is an ego so powerful it demands comparison, not merely with one’s contemporaries, but with the all-timers. It was Ali, after all, sick and tired of hearing about Louis and Marciano, who thought to proclaim himself “the greatest of all time” long before anyone heard of Floyd Mayweather. And it was Tyson, at just 18 years old and about to turn pro, who once wept while watching Liston beat Cleveland Williams.

“I could never beat him,” Tyson said.

“But you’ll never have to,” a friend of mine pointed out. “He’s dead.”

“But I do all the time,” Tyson said, touching his temple with his index finger. “Up here. All the time.”

Forty years hence, I asked Fury to whom he compares himself, which legend he imagines himself fighting.

“I’ve never compared myself to other men,” he said. “The only person who can beat Tyson Fury is Tyson Fury.”



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