On Saturday May 18, 2024 Tyson Fury and Oleksandr Usyk will finally clash in a fight which will redefine boxing’s heavyweight landscape.
These two titans are breaking new ground in Saudi Arabia as for the first time in history we will see all four heavyweight title belts go on the line in a unification fight.
The ‘Gypsy King’ (34-0-1) puts his WBC title in the mix while Usyk (21-0) currently holds the WBA, WBO and IBF straps and as a result, we should end up with our first undisputed heavyweight champion since the days of Lennox Lewis in 1999.
Fury, from a family of “fighting men”, has never lost in a remarkable pro career which began back in 2008. However, in Usyk he meets his match. Another undefeated professional and an Olympic champion no less, who has also unified at cruiserweight.
Most people have an opinion on the fight, but here we break down what Usyk must do to become the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world.
Usyk and the ‘Soviet style’
Usyk’s fight style is very European and based on his mastery of the southpaw stance (despite him being a naturally right-handed fighter). He has a style which back in the day was known as the ‘Soviet’ style, having trained for years in the Ukrainian boxing System.
The Soviet boxing style is all about maintaining the distance between you and your opponent, keeping him on the outside and using a strong jab. Soviet style boxers always control the distance, hit without being hit, rely on footwork and a superior jab to bank rounds.
A classic ‘boxer’ or stylist seeks to maintain distance between himself and his opponent, fighting with faster, longer-range punches, most notably the jab, and gradually wearing his opponent down.
‘Styles make fights’ is one of the most overused phrases in boxing. However, it is used so often because it is true, and there is a feeling Usyk could be all wrong for Tyson’s low, manhandling type of style, which requires that his opponents be flat-footed/stationary so that he can use his enormous poundage to lean on them and sap their energy and strength.
Usyk boxes up on his toes, meaning he can defend better. Fighters who are up on their toes also punch faster when moving in and out with their feet. Manny Pacquiao was the absolute master of this, and while he does not carry the same kind of power as ‘PacMan’ Usyk has a similar, swashbuckling style.
If you watch the Ukrainian, he is so technically gifted. Often he steps in with his lead foot on the outside of an orthodox opponent’s lead foot. Against Anthony Joshua, especially in their first fight, we saw him stepping to the outside foot all night, but also leaving his head in the middle to land the jab first. It is mind-blowing that he can operate with such comfort right in that tiny space inside and outside a jab, especially against big-punching elite heavyweights.
Given his dimensions and speed, Fury is a nightmare to prepare for. You cannot go into a fight against him with just one specific game plan – you will come unstuck. If you go after him, he can either flatten you or make you look silly. If you stand off him, he can make you look even more silly.
The Ukrainian has got to keep trying to get him on his back foot using educated pressure, stay mobile and find the gaps. Usyk cannot just sit back and look for an opening – he has to create an opening. He must actively pressure the ‘Gypsy King’ into making a mistake and not just hope that he does.
If Fury comes in heavy – 260lbs or above – he will likely have a very hard time dealing with Usyk’s movement. For the last few years all of the opponents he has faced have been big, slow heavyweights who – while powerful – all had limitations when it came to footwork and movement. Usyk builds into a fight and each round he cranks up the pressure. Will Fury be able to live with him for 12 rounds at pace?
By constantly moving off centre, Usyk rarely presents his opponent with a static target and he could frustrate Fury. If he varies the angles, tempo and power in Riyadh, he has a great shout in this fight.
Utilising the jab
The jab could be key in this fight. If Fury comes in heavy, his game plan might be to stand flat-footed and use his power to take Usyk out. The biggest advantage of boxing flat footed is that you can generate more power in your punches (think George Foreman or Deontay Wilder).
However boxing in this way means your punches from the outside are generally slower, and you are relying on head movement and blocking shots for defence. The slow jabs that Fury throws will not keep Usyk from getting in punching range to land.
Usyk has a busy and nuanced jab and he sets up that jab by using feints. He controlled his last fight against Daniel Dubois with the jab. He pecked away and jabbed and double jabbed when he needed to. Indeed the punch which actually finished the fight in the ninth was a Usyk jab.
This Usyk is so different to the one who fought Dereck Chisora a few years ago, and it is clear he is growing in confidence, as well as size, as a heavyweight. According to CompuBox, he landed with 52 jabs against Dubois, with the Englishman landing just 13 of his own.
He often doubles up with the jab, but not in a conventional way. His first jab is almost a jab feint, looking for a reaction from his opponent before ramming a sturdier jab into the target. Usyk could defeat much bigger WBC heavyweight champion Fury with his superior punch output, but the jab will be key.
IGNORE the mind games
The psychological battle here cannot be underestimated. Fury went tooth and nail against former UFC champion Francis Ngannou when they met in a crossover bout a few months back. The ‘Gypsy King’ was expected to make light work of Ngannou to set up this undisputed fight with Usyk, but he was put down by the Cameroonian and only won by a point in the end in a fight some had Ngannou – a professional boxing novice – winning.
Maybe it was complacency on Fury’s part, or maybe at the age of 35 the desire just isn’t there anymore? We will find out for sure on May 18.
These two men are contrasting characters psychologically. Usyk has a sense of fun and mischief and he demonstrates this by putting videos of him dancing in the gym out there on social media from time to time. However, he is essentially quite a private, introverted person outside of his trusted circle.
Fury will bring the usual humour and chaos to fight week, labelling Usyk “a sausage” every chance he gets, while his dad ‘Gypsy’ John parades around topless trying to look intimidating. ‘Team Fury’ will try to get under Usyk’s skin and rattle the man from Ukraine.
Crucially though Usyk has the mental strength to cope with Fury’s mind games and the gravity of such a superfight. He was built for this.
I genuinely do not believe Fury’s mind games or intimidation tactics will work on someone as experienced as Usyk, an athlete who is also a man of God and who has unshakeable self-belief. He lives, sleeps and breathes boxing and seems to have the same level of dedication and enthusiasm for the sport now that he did as a fresh-faced amateur two decades ago.
Indeed if Sun Tzu had not written The Art of War, it is quite possible Oleksandr Usyk might have. Mentally, he is in a different league to anything Fury himself has faced before. This makes any bet against him an extremely risky one.
Verdict: The keys to a Usyk victory
Usyk has the ability, the boxing IQ, the athleticism and the desire to win this.
However, his concentration levels cannot waver and those feet must work tirelessly to engineer the openings he needs against Fury, a heavyweight behemoth who is no slouch himself when it comes to ring movement.
Both fighters will have to overcome what the other brings to the table in order to win, but Usyk might just have the edge when it comes to movement, stamina and mental strength.
Usyk does not have that supernatural punch power of a Deontay Wilder, but he is so good technically and showed twice against Joshua that he can dominate against elite big men.
He is a ring mechanic and up at heavyweight it is a joy to see him dismantle his opponents, slowly making their confidence erode as they realise that they cannot box with him.
Usyk will have to close the distance quickly when the opportunity presents itself, but not stay in the pocket too long. To win he must use angles and pivot/circle around Fury as much as possible and prevent the ‘Gypsy King’ from clinching as much as he likes.
He needs to remain as small as he can to present a small and elusive target. Crucially, he needs his ring IQ to be firing on the night to adapt to Fury’s roughhouse tactics. If he does this, and all the stars align, he goes down as an all-time boxing great and a unified champion at cruiserweight and heavyweight.