Updated: Oct 11, 2019
Oleksandr Usyk makes his professional heavyweight debut on Saturday night, fighting Chazz Witherspoon Sprong (38-3) in Chicago's Wintrust Arena.
A decorated Olympic and world amateur champion, in June 2018 Usyk became the inaugural cruiserweight to hold and unify all four major titles when he defeated Murat Gassiev (26-1) in the final of the World Boxing Super Series (WBSS), a victory which also made him the premier winner of the WBSS’s Muhammad Ali trophy.
A commanding and profile-building KO victory over Tony Bellew followed in November seemingly leaving, at cruiserweight at least, no further obstacles to overcome, no more belts to win and no worthwhile unvanquished adversaries left to defeat.
Support and hope began swelling amongst a discounted boxing fanbase who were desperate for him to now step up in weight, with many seeing Usyk as a necessary remedial antidote to a heavyweight division which in recent times has often become an object of frustration and underwhelm. Many were dissatisfied at the impasses and prevarications which had thus prevented the current elite triumvirate of Fury, Joshua, and Wilder from fighting each other; or, in the cases of Fury and Wilder, in actually fighting each other when they were each nearing peak, commensurate fitness. And they looked at Usyk with a flinty-eyed sincerity, seeing a challenger finally capable of defeating all three incumbent malingerers and thus alleviating their communal dissatisfaction.
They still do, yet the landscape has shifted somewhat since then. Following the Bellew victory, Usyk has endured a protracted and injury-plagued period of lamentable inactivity, whilst Andy Ruiz Jr shocked everyone, or apparently everyone other than himself, stopping Anthony Joshua in the 7th round of their June matchup to become the unified WBO super, IBF, WBO, and IBO heavyweight world champion. His rematch against Joshua is scheduled for December, with the winner scheduled to then face the mandatory challenger, Oleksandr Usyk…should he prevail against Witherspoon on Saturday night.
So just who is Chazz Witherspoon?
Well, he isn't Tyrone Spong, Usyk's initial opponent. Tyrone returned two adverse urinary findings in a VADA drugs test, findings he unsurprisingly labelled "shocking", "incorrect" and "a manipulative attempt to remove me from the Usyk fight." Be that as it may, it has been a successful attempt, as he has now been hastily replaced by the 38-year-old-second-cousin-of-two-time-heavyweight-world-champion-Tim, Witherspoon.
Witherspoon comes into the contest on an eight-fight winning streak which dates back to 2014. His 38 career victories include 29 by way of knockout, although he has never fought anyone of Usyk's pedigree. He has never fought outside the US, and he isn't starting now. The only championship fight he has been in was a TKO loss in February 2012 against Seth Mitchell (26-2-1) for the vacant WBO NABO heavyweight title.
Yet he has been in regular training and is supremely confident.
"I can't wait," he told reporters on Tuesday. "Oleksandr is stepping up to heavyweight and he's going to find out it's a totally different game."
Is it? Usyk has fought in the heavyweight division as an amateur and was never unduly troubled. And despite the high KO percentage of Witherspoon's record, there is a keen difference between the mere carriage of power and in possessing the subtlety and tactical adroitness requisite in precisely executing that power upon an already Hall-of-Fame opponent like Usyk, especially when you are aged 38. Although, it is not within the usual remit of these preview pieces to offer any prediction on fight outcome, this writer fully expects that I, along with yourselves, will be watching the-still-mandatory Usyk fight either Joshua or Ruiz sometime around the summer/autumn of 2020.
It is worth finally mentioning that Usyk was due to initially face Carlos Takem (37-5-1) rather than Spong or Witherspoon, yet with injury delaying the first fight and then promotional hindrances canceling any rescheduling. Takam would have been a higher profiled and obvious test, but the outcome would have likely been the same. Find out just what that outcome will be on Saturday night.