Eleven years ago, David Haye challenged Nikolai Valuev in Nuremberg in a heavyweight title fight that represented the greatest size disparity in modern boxing. Valuev stood at 7ft 2in tall and weighed in at 22st 8lb. Haye, a former cruiserweight, who had blown himself up to a career-high 15st 8lb for the challenge, still gave away nine inches and seven stone to “the Russian Giant”.
“When I envisaged winning the heavyweight title it was against someone big, obviously, but not this big,” said Haye. But on the night, he took Valuev’s belt, quite literally boxing circles around his lumbering opponent for a majority decision. The David-beats-Goliath headlines wrote themselves.
Haye was not the only smaller fighter to beat the “Beast from the East”. In 2007, a fresher, previously undefeated Valuev was outpointed by Ruslan Chagaev, who was nearly as disproportionate in measure as Haye. Four years earlier, Roy Jones Jr. made the leap from the light heavyweight division to heavyweight and easily outpointed John Ruiz to swipe his title, despite being 33 pounds lighter.
Even in defeat, much smaller men have made their mark. Tyson Fury was 44 pounds heavier and six inches taller than Steve Cunningham when they met in 2013, but Fury had to come off the canvas after a near-knockout to beat the American.
Stacked against those fights, the meeting between Oleksandr Usyk and Dereck Chisora at Wembley Arena on Saturday night have lacked a certain heft, but it still held considerable sway over the future of the heavyweight division. Usyk, a 33-year-old former unified cruiserweight champion, was making his second appearance at heavyweight, with the intent of using Chisora, 36, to determine whether his formidable skills could bridge the size gap to the division’s elite. The theory, though hardly revolutionary, was sound: if Usyk (who weighed in at 15st 7lb) could handle the experienced if limited Chisora (18st 3lb), perhaps he could handle more talented fighters.
It’s hard to say precisely what we learned as Usyk (18-0) outlasted Chisora (32-10) by cutting his fuel line early in the fight, waiting for the larger man to gas out and securing a clear-cut decision on points. It was a deceptively difficult task for Usyk but he played it almost perfectly. A size “advantage,” especially at heavyweight – where anything goes above 200 pounds – sometimes just translates to leaden feet and love handles. There is a reason we don’t compare Butterbean to Muhammad Ali. But Chisora went into the fight in excellent condition – thick, but tight as a drum – and used his mass effectively. For all his performative buffoonery over the years, Chisora is a decent and dangerous fighter at his best, and he pressurised Usyk smartly in the early rounds, cutting off angles, punching relentlessly and frequently forcing the Ukrainian to the ropes inside a small ring.
Usyk dodged and covered up to avoid most of the serious punishment, but he wasn’t able to find footing to launch his own attacks. Chisora simply kept coming, and for Usyk – whose one-punch power at heavyweight is nothing special – the juice wasn’t worth the squeeze. The Ukranian’s sturdy chin and knack for taking heat off heavy blows with his movement and guard ensured he didn’t slip into panic mode, but he was rarely in control in the first few rounds and was almost certainly down on the judges’ scorecards.
But, by the end of the third round, Chisora was already slowing. The lull in the Englishman’s workrate gave Usyk a chance to breathe, gather his bearings and start calibrating timing and distance. In the fourth, Chisora landed a pair of big right hands early, but Usyk took them well. Sliding off a glancing jab from Chisora in the fifth, the southpaw Usyk exploded a straight left hand in the Englishman’s mug. Usyk started to penalise Chisora for his lapses, stinging him with jab counters off the back foot, before gradually leading with his offence, putting more of his punches together and further stripping away his opponent’s stamina.
As the rounds piled up for Usyk, it looked as if Chisora might pack it in – or at least be exhausted into submission. At the end of the seventh, a series of Usyk combinations sent Chisora bouncing off the ropes and sucking wind as the bell sounded. In the eighth, Chisora – hands lowered and head almost unmoving – was a mostly stationary target. Usyk lashed away with left hands, beating his opponent to the punch and pivoting off his hip, ahead of any counterattacks. The smaller, swifter man now had the size advantage.
Chisora briefly resurfaced in the tenth round, again bearing down on Usyk to land a pair of powerful right hands. But it was a fuel dump, the final angry lurches of a dry-tanked Peterbilt. Usyk used the fight’s remaining five minutes to strip the Englishman for parts.
The next step is not clear. If you listen to former Usyk victim Tony Bellew and the WBC, a fight against Deontay Wilder in a newly proposed “super cruiserweight” division would be “the perfect thing” for Usyk. “If I had my way, it would go from 190lbs to 220lbs,” said Bellew of the new division. “You’re looking at the small heavyweights. I would have fallen into that category quite comfortably, Oleksandr Usyk falls into that category, Deontay Wilder falls into that category, and David Haye falls into that category.” Why would Usyk bite on such an offer and end his career there when he has just beaten a man who weighed in heavier than Anthony Joshua did for his last fight?
Despite taking up boxing late at the age of 15, Usyk spent a decade grinding his amateur competition into dust and winning Olympic gold at London 2012 before painstakingly cleaning out the cruiserweight division. Rather than settling for a counterfeit title in a half-baked division, it seems far more likely that he would pursue his spectacular career arc to its logical end, pushing forward to challenge Fury, Joshua or both. If size is ever to be made to matter to Usyk, someone will first have to show him why.