Aleksandr Usyk says he’s approaching Chazz Witherspoon like the ‘biggest fight of my life’
Oleksandr Usyk has not fought since his knockout win over Tony Bellew on Nov. 10. To the former undisputed cruiserweight champion of the world, that seems like an eternity.
Usyk is anxious and motivated to return to the ring as he is hopeful to conquer the heavyweight division.
The unbeaten southpaw will face late-replacement Chazz Witherspoon Saturday night at the Wintrust Arena in Chicago. The 12-round bout will stream live on DAZN (7 p.m. ET/ 4 p.m. PT).
Usyk’s return to the ring coincides with his debut as a heavyweight Saturday night and has had boxing fans buzzing throughout fight week on social media, though that hasn’t exactly translate to the Chicago area. Ticket sales for the card have been modest and organizers hope for a decent walkup crowd on fight night.
The 32-year-old was originally scheduled to fight unbeaten Tyrone Spong, but Spong tested positive earlier this week for clomiphene, a banned substance that was detected through the Voluntary Anti-Doping Association (VADA). According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, clomiphene is an anti-estrogenic substance that is used to treat infertility in women, but can also be used to increase testosterone circulation.
Witherspoon was announced as the replacement on Tuesday afternoon.
Despite the delays and the change in opponent, Usyk cannot wait to get back in the ring.
“I haven’t been inside the ring in a while.” Usyk told The Ring before a training session Friday evening in Oxnard. “I’m going to go inside the ring on Oct. 12 very motivated. I’ve been working very hard in the gym. I’ve missed being back in the ring. That’s my big motivation in my life.”
Witherspoon (38-3, 29 KOs), who resides in Paulsboro, New Jersey, has fought sporadically over the last couple of years. The 38-year-old last fought on March 23, stopping Santander Silgado after the second round. His previous fight was on March 10 of last year, after having not fought in a year and a half.
Both Spong and Witherspoon have a size advantage over the 6’3” Usyk, but Witherspoon is the more technical fighter. While Usyk is still the heavy favorite over Witherspoon, he downplays the criticism he has received from those who state Spong and Witherspoon are soft opposition.
“Many people have said that Spong was weak and that he was not good,” said Usyk, who is managed by Egis Klimas. “Spong is a legit heavyweight and he’s undefeated. For all the people that think I’m fighting a soft opponent, let them step inside the ring (against them). As for Witherspoon, I’m preparing for him as if it’s the biggest fight of my life.”
Usyk, who is the No. 5 fighter in The Ring pound-for-pound rankings, is currently the mandatory challenger to face WBO titleholder Andy Ruiz. The sanctioning body has a mandate of placing fighters in the mandatory slot after moving up in weight from the division where a fighter holds a world title belt.
There has been debate as to whether Usyk can compete with the best in the division or that his talent can overcome the strong and heavy-handed fighters in the division. One fighter who has criticized Usyk’ move up in weight has been WBC titleholder Deontay Wilder, who was vocal about the issue in an interview last week.
Usyk scoffs at that notion, hoping the outspoken Wilder will continue to underestimate him, even as he continues to acclimate himself to the division and challenge any and all belt holders.
“I critique myself a lot (as a fighter). I’m not going to say where I am or how I am (as a heavyweight). Fans and media can talk about where I am as a heavyweight. I don’t like to talk how good I am. Somebody speaks about me though. Deontay Wilder stated in an interview that I’m too small and that I am not a danger to them. That’s good he thinks that. I like that. I can call myself, ‘Kind Cat.’ I can be kind and let them think that way about me and that I’m not a danger.”
Usyk has also followed in the steps of Ring Magazine and lightweight king Vasiliy Lomachenko and WBO light heavyweight titleholder Sergey Kovalev, amongst others, of setting up his training camp in the boxing hotbed of Oxnard, California.
The comfortable year-round weather and the quality sparring are some of the reasons why so many fighters, including Usyk, flock to the Southern California city. Usyk was surprised some boxing fans in the area recognized him.
“I’ve been here before to Oxnard to train. What I really like about here is that there are not a lot of distractions, like in Los Angeles or somewhere else. This is a place where you can concentrate and train. I really like Oxnard. I train in the morning and sometimes during the day. The surprising thing is that people recognize me whenever I’m out. They come and talk to me. Even (the other day), I was playing basketball at a gym and someone came up to me. He was surprised and asked me, ‘What are you doing here?’ I replied that I was training here. “
“I come to this particular gym (The Boxing Laboratory) and there’s a scent that I really enjoy when I’m here.”
As far as his playful persona, which includes photo-bombing an interview with Bob Arum or dancing around while training in a gym, fans continue to gravitate to Usyk. It is not an act, as he points out. Just him being himself.
“Everything that you see is who Oleksandr Usyk really is. Someone that has a lot of fun.”
Francisco A. Salazar has written for The Ring since October of 2013 and has covered boxing in Southern California and abroad since 2000. Francisco also covers boxing for the Ventura County (Calif.) Star newspaper, Boxingscene.com, and FightNights.com. He can be reached by email at [email protected] or on Twitter at FSalazarBoxing