Cruiserweight has long been a forgotten division in the United States. The title holders are more often than not European. Fans in America rarely know their names.
So it’s a rare thing to see the way HBO is embracing and promoting Ukraine’s Olesandr Usyk. Not only is he a cruiserweight, he’s a cruiserweight with a name that is difficult to pronounce and even harder to spell.
He’s also a very special talent. He won the 2008 Olympic gold medal at heavyweight (a 201-pound limit in the amateurs), defeating the sensational Artur Beterbiev of Russia in the finals. He turned professional in 2013 and won his first 9 fights by stoppage. Last September he captured the WBO version of the cruiserweight title via one-sided decision over Poland’s Krzysztof Glowacki, a very good fighter who came in against Usyk following back-to-back wins over Marco Huck and Steve Cunningham.
Usyk was introduced to the U.S. audience last December, when he stopped tough Thabiso Mchunu. Saturday night he fights undefeated Michael Hunter in Maryland. Hunter was an amateur standout in his own right, representing the United States in the 2012 Olympics. He has not fought in nearly a year, but last May he defeated undefeated Isiah Thomas by near shutout.
This is a good matchup. Hunter has enjoyed none of the attention that Usyk has, but he’ll get his shot to grab the spotlight on Saturday.
The last time I remember a cruiserweight getting the sort of attention Usyk is getting was way back in the 1980s, when Evander Holyfield was emerging on the scene. Holyfield remains the greatest cruiserweight of all time, but he is more remembered as an all-time great heavyweight champion.
So a lot of the excitement around Usyk is based upon speculation that he will eventually move up and fight the giants in the heavyweight division. He has the frame and power to be taken seriously at heavyweight. His speed and technical skill could create some real problems for much bigger men.