NEW YORK — He walked down a narrow hallway in DAZN’s lower Manhattan office, smiling, occasionally shadow boxing, and a year ago the sight of a 6’3”, 200-pound Ukranian would largely would have gone unnoticed. In 2017, Oleksandr Usyk was a cruiserweight champion, a titleholder in boxing’s weigh station division, where future heavyweights pause on the way up the scale. Today, his résumé stretches a few extra lines: undisputed cruiserweight titleholder—the division’s first since 2006—World Boxing Super Series champion and Sports Illustrated’s 2018 Fighter of the Year.
The WBSS was a launching pad for Usyk. In boxing, tournaments are risky. Exhibit A is the Showtime-funded Super Six, an injury riddled tournament that was supposed to create a new star in the super middleweight division ultimately did very little for the Q-rating of its eventual winner, Andre Ward. The WBSS—headlined by a pair of eight-man fields in two divisions—had money behind it, but limited U.S. television exposure, fueling the belief that it would have a limited impact.
Usyk made the most of his opportunities, beginning in 2017, when he stopped cruiserweight stalwart Marco Huck in the opening round of the tournament. The real work began in January, 2018, when Usyk edged Mairis Briedis in the semifinal, unifying a pair of titles. In the final, facing a dangerous puncher in Murat Gassiev, Usyk put on a boxing clinic, dominating Gassiev en route to a unanimous decision.
Alone, those victories would put Usyk in the running for Fighter of the Year. But he cemented his status in November, when he took on Tony Bellew. Bellew, himself a former cruiserweight titleholder, was looking for one final challenge before retiring. Enter Usyk, the unquestioned kingpin of the division. The popular Bellew took on Usyk in England, and in front of 21,000 pro-Bellew fans, Usyk ended his career with a devastating straight left hand in the eighth round.
Said Bellew: “He is the greatest man I have shared a ring with.”
Last week, Usyk leaned back in a chair in the DAZN offices and reflected on his year. Physically, he was worn down, his body battered from 32 grueling rounds in 11 months. He had elbow surgery last March. Mentally, he felt worse. Training camps took him to secluded areas of Ukraine, away from his wife and three children. “Physical pain is temporary,” Usyk told SI.com through a translator. “The most that hurts is I couldn’t see my kids growing up. They grow and go. Most of the time I’m in training camps. I couldn’t see that happening. This hurts me.”
Still, the journey has brought him here. He’s aligned now with Matchroom Boxing, Eddie Hearn’s powerful promotional outfit. He can defend his titles—Usyk says he still makes the 200-pound cruiserweight limit comfortably—or he can move to heavyweight, where Hearn has a healthy stable of fighters, including unified heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua. He can try to coax Ward out of retirement, a showdown Usyk says he wants and one that would match two of the most skilled fighters of this decade.
“It was a very hard year for me,” Usyk said. “It was a lot of training, a lot of action, a lot of fights. Injuries, it was crazy. But it was very successful.”
With success comes attention. Usyk says he is recognized more in the U.S. His personality is starting to show. Last week, Usyk popped his head into the office of a Ukranian-American woman working at DAZN. He sat down in the desk across from her.
“I heard you were hiring,” Usyk said.
“What can you do?” the woman asked.
“Swim, jump rope and beat people up,” Usyk replied. Pausing, he added, “But only for money.”
For Usyk, any attention is uncomfortable. “I’m a simple guy from the neighborhood,” Usyk said. Indeed, coming from a hardscrabble upbringing in Simferopol, Crimea, Usyk is just happy to be alive. His boxing career began in childhood, when Usyk was invited to a newly opened boxing gym. On the first day, he sparred with an older man. “Beat the shit out of me,” Usyk said. But Usyk didn’t quit. He returned every day, waiting for the man to come back. Weeks later, he did. Usyk got him in the ring. “I beat him,” Usyk said, grinning. “Badly.”
There is a discipline needed to rise from anonymity the way Usyk has, which is why he answers questions about his toughest opponent one way. “There are a lot of things in this life that go on,” Usyk said. “The toughest opponent is me. A lot of times, you don’t want to train. You don’t want to box. Sometimes, life hits you to the point where you don’t even want to live. You have to fight with that person. You have to make yourself wake up in the morning. You have to make yourself watch your weight. That’s how I fight with that person.”
At 31, Usyk is set to begin a new chapter in his career. His next fight will earn him millions, and a successful run at heavyweight could make him even more. Boxing’s glamour division is dominated by giants, but Usyk believes he can contend with the best of them. He’s watched Joshua, Deontay Wilder and Tyson Fury. He’s watched them with a critical eye, studying them, mentally steeling himself for when the opportunity to share the ring with them presents.
“The first part of my professional career is over,” Usyk said. “We’re going to go further. We’re going to try new things. I’m going to go until the guy from above says, ‘Alex, you’re done.’ My goal is, to go [to heavyweight], to fight with them, to compete with them. A lot of people don’t believe in me. They think I’m too small for heavyweight. Just like a lot of people told me long ago that I shouldn’t box. That I wasn’t going to make it. I just knock my head and say I’m capable. I can do it.”