Tyson Fury and Oleksandr Usyk will fight in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on May 18 and on that night we should – for the first time since Lennox Lewis ruled at the end of the last century – be able to recognise one world champion in the heavyweight division.
Fury’s current 34-0-1 (24) resume, which includes a win over Wladimir Klitschko in Germany and two stoppage victories over Deontay Wilder in America, puts him at the top of the heavyweight tree right now.
However Usyk 21-0 (14) has been flawless as a pro, unifying the belts at cruiserweight and now looking to do the same at heavyweight following two solid wins over former two-time heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua and claiming the IBF, WBA and WBO world heavyweight titles in the process.
It is perhaps for this reason that the bookies are struggling to separate them with the odds line now virtually 50-50 as that rescheduled fight night draws closer in the desert.
These are two contrasting characters. Usyk is known for the diligent intensity of his preparation; Fury for his bombastic rhetoric and a charisma which has spawned a Netflix series and seemingly inspired the world.
Most people have an opinion on the fight, but here we break down what Fury needs to do to become undisputed.
Size matters for ‘Gypsy King’
Even in an era of super heavyweights, ‘The Gypsy King’ stands tall at 6 feet 9 inches and weighed in at 277.7lbs for his last fight against Francis Ngannou. He will have considerable height and reach advantages against Usyk, and to get the win he will need to maximise that physical superiority.
Fury needs to lean on Usyk and use his size to push him around. He demonstrated this brilliantly in the second fight against Wilder in February 2020.
Despite boxing insiders insisting he needed to box and move to beat the fearsome Wilder in their rematch, Fury came forward from the opening bell and dropped the champion (for the first time in a decade) with a vicious right hand to the temple in the third round. He continued to manhandle the American and dropped him again with a sizzling left to the body in the fifth.
By the seventh, Wilder was bleeding from his left ear and looked a thoroughly beaten man. His legs were gone and he appeared unable to defend himself as referee Kenny Bayless waved it off at the 1:39 mark, the towel coming in with Fury mauling him in the corner of the ring.
Fury probably never used his size as well or as aggressively as he did on that night, and as a result he never looked more destructive.
‘The Gypsy King’ could also take a leaf out of Klitschko’s book and do what Wlad did against smaller, faster men. At his best, Klitschko would throw a few heavy shots and then clinch and use his enormous size to sap the energy from opponents. He was not concerned about outboxing anyone or looking aesthetically pleasing.
Time and time again Klitschko would feel an opponent out early, hold when close, make it ugly and put weight on him. If he felt his opponent was wilting he would become more aggressive later in the fight and try to force a stoppage. If not, he was happy to do this for 36 minutes and ignore the boos of frustrated spectators eager for more action.
Those notorious ‘jab and grab’ tactics were mightily effective and given his dimensions, could be the recipe for Fury to beat Usyk.
Ringcraft, and focus
Speaking to the media in London to promote this fight, Fury said: “Even if he (Usyk) had a baseball bat in one hand and a meat-cleaver in the other… I’d still beat him”. Yet for all his bombast, the ‘Gypsy King’ knows just how good his Ukrainian opponent really is.
Usyk definitely relies more on cumulative damage than one-punch knockout power, so Tyson may feel he does not need to be switched on for every second of every round (like he had to be against the big-punching Wilder). However, that mentality would surely be a mistake against Usyk, a brilliant Kapellmeister known for the rhythmic percussion of his precise punching.
Fury is not flawless strategically. He tends to meet violence with violence. If he gets brave and gets involved, he could walk onto one. Fury knows how to slow opponents down and calm situations in the ring. The ‘Gypsy King’ is a very clever and experienced boxer – a pro since 2008 – and a man who almost always rises to the occasion. More so that great domestic rival Joshua, Fury is able to improvise mid-fight if things are not going to plan and he has a fantastic boxing brain.
Look out for Fury implementing dozens of head and shoulder feints, not letting his opponent get set to throw his own big power shots and moving him around. For a big man, Tyson’s footwork is excellent but he cannot afford to get sloppy against a sharpshooter like Usyk.
The Morecambe man always talks a good fight but there will surely be some fear in him ahead of this one, given the fact that his legacy is on the line. This is not a negative though. Indeed, it is very much a plus. Anyone who has studied Fury’s career will concur that he took Ngannou lightly and almost paid a terrible cost. That is because he went into the Ngannou fight expecting an easy night against a pro boxing novice. Having fear of Usyk’s nuanced skillset will make him extra sharp from the get-go on February 17 and a fully focused Fury is a tough nut to crack.
The big question is, can he stay laser focused? Does Tyson, with all his wealth and fame, still have the desire at this stage of his career? He is 35 now and has riches beyond his wildest dreams. As 1980’s middleweight legend Marvin Hagler once said: “It’s tough to get out of bed to do roadwork at 5am when you’re sleeping in silk pyjamas”.
When not headbutting Perspex with no top on, Big John Fury is often the most outspoken of his fighting family and he can be relied upon – for better or worse – to say what he sees when it comes to his son Tyson.
Recently, he has suggested that the world heavyweight champion could have done with ‘a bit more time’ ahead of this February 17 battle and Fury Sr has also hinted that his son has shown signs of decline across his last three fights. Big John also questioned his son’s conditioning for the fight against Ngannou.
This may be why the betting line is getting close to pick ‘em territory, but with all four belts on the line Fury knows if he can stay switched on for this, immortality awaits.
Why Fury MUST attack the body
The way to solve the Usyk puzzle could be for Fury to go downstairs and target Usyk’s mid-section. Targeting the body of a skilful, mobile fighter who moves his head a lot and has a proven chin is a sound strategy, but the ‘go to the body’ narrative really blew up after Usyk’s last fight against Daniel Dubois.
Though he dominated his most recent bout in Poland against the heavy-handed Dubois, he was in real distress in the fifth round as he slumped to the canvas after the Englishman landed a heavy shot on the beltline.
Opinion was divided as to whether the shot was legal or not but the man who mattered – referee Luis Pabon – thought it was a low blow and Usyk was given four minutes to recover from it, though interestingly his opponent did not have a point deducted.
Usyk would eventually go through the gears to stop Dubois in round nine to retain his IBF, WBA and WBO world heavyweight titles, but after the fight critics were quick to say that Usyk may have an issue with body shots.
Fury throws a mean body shot too when he is in the mood, as Wilder will testify.
A sparring partner has also since poured fuel on those flames, adding to speculation that the Ukrainian does not like it around the midriff. Heavyweight Martin Bakole claimed on Sky Sports that he stopped Usyk with a body shot in sparring when the pair were in Dubai.
Responding to Bakole’s claims, Usyk’s promoter Alexander Krassyuk also told Sky Sports that the reverse was actually true, with his fighter having come close to inflicting a knockout on Bakole when they sparred.
It is rare for top-level fighters to discuss what happened in sparring, but whatever the truth, do not be surprised if Fury begins blasting Usyk to the body at the Kingdom Arena in Riyadh.
Verdict: The keys to a Fury victory
If the ref lets Fury hold whenever they end up at close range, it could be a long night for Usyk, whose best hope of winning this fight is boxing at range and using his skills – as he did in those two fights with Joshua.
Fury could get his hand raised by winning a cautious fight, using ‘jab and grab’ tactics. There is also a scenario where Fury goes into ‘Kronk Gym’ mode, tries to put it on Usyk early and targets the body. If that version of ‘The Gypsy King’ turns up, it will be a fun, exciting fight.
The big man can’t afford to switch off for a single second. Fury has to concentrate and stay switched on for the full 36 minutes. If he manages to do that, he is likely going down in history as boxing’s next undisputed heavyweight king.