Tonight the king of the cruiserweights gets real in his new venture, and he will soon learn that life in the fast lane is very different to whatever previous world he has already conquered.
He will be hit harder than he could possibly prepare for, mauled by rougher and heavier men that he has met before. When he lands his own punches? In the land of giants they may just stare back at him, asking for more.
Chazz Witherspoon, his opponent tonight at 2am live on Sky Sports Action, should be no match for Usyk but already the questions and the doubts are pouring in. This is what the heavyweight division is all about, this is what Usyk has signed up for.
It has been a rocky road to arrive in the ring with Witherspoon in Chicago. A bicep injury delayed a scheduled debut in the division against Carlos Takam then, this week, opponent Tyrone Spong was withdrawn after returning “adverse findings” in a drug test. Usyk must keep his head screwed on as new body after new body stands opposite him.
The cruiserweight division, where Usyk scooped every major championship and the World Boxing Super Series tournament, was filled with sharks who had bigger teeth than their reputations suggested. Murat Gassiev, Mairis Breidis and Krzysztof Glowacki are not superstars with glitzy entourages but they were vicious, hungry, unbeaten world champions, the type you might avoid without anyone really noticing. Usyk toured eastern Europe and beat them in their back yards – Moscow, Riga, Gdansk. Where next? He knocked out Tony Bellew on his British debut.
These nights hardened Usyk and built the aura that now surrounds him of a southpaw who slowly drowns opponents that doubles up as dancing entertainer with a gap-toothed smile and eyes that stare a hole through you.
But at heavyweight he must deal with more. Even heavier than the opponents is the weight of expectation.
Deontay Wilder said about Anthony Joshua: “There is more pressure on him. When I speak about his situation I feel drained.”
Elsewhere Derek Chisora is flipping tables and Tyson Fury’s friendly exterior can lull rivals into a false sense of security. Andy Ruiz Jr coaxed Joshua into letting him touch the title belts before their fight – “in hindsight”, Joshua later admitted, he shouldn’t have done that.
These are real issues in Usyk’s new division that he will have to deal with.
In return he will become a heavyweight the likes of which does not currently exist.
“His defence is the most important thing as a cruiserweight moving up to heavyweight,” said David Haye, one of just two men to be a world champion in both divisions.
“A bigger heavyweight can only impose his strength if he can land on you. If he can’t land, it doesn’t make a difference.”
Former foe Bellew added: “Pinning him down was hard because his footwork was on another level. Any time I tried to make a fight of it, he was too elusive.”
WBC champion Wilder, of course, has began the derision of Usyk: “He is too small. He is no threat to me.”
He is already the mandatory challenger to the WBO belt, which Ruiz Jr and Joshua will contest, and expects to challenge the winner next year. The champion will know a lot more about Usyk if he extends his record to an unbeaten 17 fights.
Victory alone is not always enough in the heavyweight division, and this is a big lesson that Usyk will learn. It is always accompanied by jabs that come after the final bell, often thrown by future rivals. The big question that already looms about Usyk: can he punch hard enough? Tonight is about emphatically answering that.
Andy Clarke’s verdict
The boxing world is itching to know if Usyk can compete at the top of the heavyweight division, if he can walk in the land of the giants. In terms of skill we know that he can, the only heavyweight who can even begin to rival him on that score is Fury.
The Ukrainian is a “hit and don’t get hit” fighter and he needs to stay that way. He’ll need to keep the speed and movement that has made him so hard to hit.
He’ll also need to be able to hit hard enough to stop the big men in the division just walking through him. The fact that he was willing to get in with Takam on debut in May before the bicep injury scuppered the fight, suggests that he and his team have no concerns on either score. But we’ll need to see hard evidence with our own eyes.
Usyk can totally outbox Witherspoon but a 12 round exhibition is not what people will want to see tonight, they’ll want to see Usyk show us some increased power and win by stoppage. If he can’t do that then questions will be asked.
But with respect to Witherspoon, who won National Golden Gloves as an amateur and whose three defeats have come against good fighters in Chris Arreola, Tony Thompson and Seth Mitchell, it’s hard to see him lasting long. Those fights came in 2008, 2009 and 2012 and he’s only boxed eight times since Mitchell beat him in 2012. He’s won them all but the opposition has been limited, light years away from what he’ll face tonight.
At 32 Usyk has time but he’s not necessarily going to take it. It’s possible he could even go into a world title fight in his next fight. His aim is to become the world’s number 1 heavyweight; he wouldn’t be stepping up were he not confident that he can achieve that.