Oleksandr Usyk looks ready for his U.S., HBO debut
LOS ANGELES – If you’re not among the small-but-passionate group of hardcore fans eagerly awaiting Oleksandr Usyk’s U.S. debut because you’re only vaguely familiar with the 2012 Olympic gold medalist from Ukraine, chances are good that you’ll know exactly who he is this time next year.
By then you might even be a fan of the cruiserweight standout who, in his most recent fight on Sept. 17, won the WBO title in his 10th pro bout.
That’s the plan of Usyk’s promoter, Tom Loeffler of K2 Promotions, and manager, Egis Klimas, and maybe we should take heed. They have a pretty good track record of developing Eastern European and Central Asian amateur talent into world-recognized and respected elite boxers that are now regularly featured on HBO.
Loeffler has done a masterful job with unified middleweight titleholder Gennady Golovkin, a top attraction in New York City and Southern California. Klimas has guided former light heavyweight champ Sergey Kovalev and 130-pound titleholder Vasyl Lomachenko to the top of pound-for-pound lists.
The first step of Usyk’s introduction to American audiences takes place on Dec. 17 at The Forum in Inglewood, California. Usyk (10-0, 9 knockouts) will make his first title defense against formidable South African contender Thabiso Mchunu in the opening bout of an HBO telecast that features young featherweight contender Joseph Diaz Jr. and the final bout of Bernard Hopkins’ legendary career.
“He can wake up the cruiserweight division in the same way Golovkin woke up the middleweight division and Kovalev woke up the light heavyweight division,” Klimas said during a recent press luncheon for Usyk at Palm Restaurant. “People say that the cruiserweight division isn’t appreciated in the U.S but give us a year, I have a feeling that it will be very well known with Usyk’s help.”
Like Golovkin and Lomachenko, Usyk – who also has a 2011 world amateur championships gold medal to go with his Olympic heavyweight (201 pounds) title – turned pro in his mid-20s. Already 29 years old, Usyk knows that time is of the essence and he’s on the same page of Klimas and Loeffler, who want to move the versatile southpaw as actively and aggressively as they have the careers of Golovkin, Kovalev and his countryman Lomachenko, who has won two major titles in just eight pro bouts.
Usyk made it clear to the boxing writers at the luncheon that he won’t be satisfied with one world title, or with being known only to diehard fans.
“As soon as I get all (the cruiserweight) titles, I’m going to heavyweight,” he said through Klimas. “I can easily weigh what (Muhammad) Ali used to fight at, 96 kilos (roughly 212 pounds).”
Usyk, who is a bona-fide celebrity in Ukraine, wants to be a star in America, where many of his boyhood boxing idols are from.
“This is the reason I came here,” he said. “I’ve had a dream to fight in America since I was a little kid. So many of my favorite boxers were Americans, from (Mike) Tyson to Roy Jones Jr. to Hopkins to (Arturo) Gatti. Of course, Ali is who I loved the most.”
Usyk was also a big fan of Evander Holyfield, whose career he hopes to emulate by becoming a unified cruiserweight champ and then winning world titles at heavyweight. One of Holyfield’s records, winning a world cruiserweight title with the fewest number of fights (12), was broken by Usyk when the Ukrainian outclassed and widely outpointed WBO titleholder Krzysztof Glowacki in the undefeated (26-0) defending beltholder’s native Poland in his 10th pro bout.
“As soon as I heard about Holyfield winning his first title in his 12th pro bout I aimed for that record,” Usyk said.
Loeffler, who gave a lot of credit to HBO Sports executive vice president (and head of boxing programming) Peter Nelson for taking an interest in Usyk, believes the former amateur star has the “character and personality, in and out of the ring, that will appeal to U.S. fans.
“He’s got the talent level from the amateurs where the sky is the limit,” Loeffler continued. “He’s not afraid of any of the top cruiserweights and he’s not afraid to go where the action is. It’s a deep division. (WBC titleholder Tony) Bellew is big in the UK. There’s the winner of the (WBA/IBF title bout) Denis Lebedev-Murat Gassiev fight in Moscow. Usyk will make his name in the U.S., but he’s also willing to fight Bellew in England or Lebedev in Russia or wherever the biggest fight can be made.”
World-class cruiserweight action usually takes place in Europe with little to no fanfare in the U.S.. but Loeffler thinks that can change with Usyk’s title reign.
“It was the same story with ‘Chocolatito’ (Roman Gonzalez),” said the Santa Monica-based promoter, who also represents the former flyweight champ and current pound-for-pound king. “HBO hadn’t shown many flyweight bouts prior to Gonzalez fighting on Golovkin’s shows, but Nelson has proven to be looking for talent and marketability to showcase, not a particular division. I think when U.S. fans get a look at Usyk, they’ll want to see more of him.”
He’s hard not to notice. Even with the language barrier Usyk draws attention with big, intense eyes, a gap-tooth grin and vibrant facial expressions. Photos of Usyk (sporting a traditional Ukrainian Cossack-style haircut – shaved on the sides with a topknot) made the rounds on social media and drew comments from fans who had yet to see him fight.
So what will they see on Dec. 17?
“I’m a player,” Usyk said. “When you talk about sport and playing it, that’s me, I’m a player.”
Klimas helped him elaborate: “He can be aggressive, he can fake out his opponents with footwork, he can do a lot of things in there.”
Usyk is best described as an athletic boxer who is unusually nimble for a 200 pounder. He can move as well as he can punch, and like Lomachenko, he generally blends his offense and defense with expert in-and-out angles.
In a perfect world, Loeffler said, Usyk will defend his title against Mchunu (who is no walk in the park) in impressive fashion and then fight under the still-in-negotiations showdown between Golovkin and Daniel Jacobs in New York City in March.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Usyk has to beat Mchunu first and look good doing it. Loeffler and Klimas are confident that he will do more than that. They think his boxing ability, his hairstyle (which changes – “I’m unpredictable,” he says), the jovial side of his personality, as well as his penchant for dancing will charm first-time viewers and the boxing media.
“When he learns English, you guys are going to have a lot of fun,” said Klimas.
Email Fischer at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @dougiefischer