Back in 1985, Michael Spinks, the undisputed champion of the 175 pound division, challenged long-time heavyweight king Larry Holmes. It was an intriguing match-up for sure, but at the time same time most fans gave Spinks little chance to win and were anticipating that Holmes would make history by getting victory number 49 to tie Rocky Marciano’s legendary record. Instead Spinks made history, defeating Holmes by fifteen round unanimous decision and becoming the first world light heavyweight champ to topple a reigning heavyweight king.
Now Anthony Joshua is not Larry Holmes, and Alexander Usyk was never a light heavyweight, but the parallels are there. Like Spinks, Usyk had dominated a lighter weight class—in his case, the cruiserweights—and had unified all of the title belts. He had a series of convincing wins over Marco Huck, Mairis Briedis, Murat Gassiev and Tony Bellew and he had in fact notched two victories at heavyweight, over Chazz Witherspoon and Dereck Chisora. He was undeniably an elite performer, talented, crafty, and a southpaw to boot. But even so, most thought Joshua was clearly a leap too far. Still in his athletic prime, “AJ” was bigger, taller, more powerful, and would likely enjoy a weight advantage of thirty pounds or more.
Similarly, back in ’85, no one questioned the skills of Spinks, it was just that everyone remembered that old maxim: a good big man beats a good little man. There’s a reason we have weight divisions and physical advantages can never be dismissed. But Spinks found a way to win. And earlier today so did the Ukrainian fighter some call “The Cat.” Like Spinks, Usyk neutralized his opponent’s physical advantages with speed, timing, an effective jab, and constant movement, consistently beating the bigger man to the punch.
It was a competitive duel, no question, with a number of very close rounds, but Joshua failed to truly assert himself, and rarely even tried to fight like what he was supposed to be: the bigger and naturally stronger man. He did not impose sustained pressure on Usyk, and on the inside, where he figured to be the boss, he did not use his greater size and weight to his advantage. By the late rounds it was clear that Usyk had to be well ahead on the cards, but instead of Joshua fighting with urgency and gunning for a knockout, it was the former cruiserweight who closed the show, throwing and landing big punches and badly hurting the Briton in the closing seconds of the fight.
Usyk joins Evander Holyfield and David Haye as cruiserweight champs who successfully annexed the heavyweight title. But this win feels more significant than “Real Deal” knocking out a poorly conditioned Buster Douglas in 1990, or Haye besting Nikolai Valuev in 2009. Having rebounded from his upset loss to Andy Ruiz, there was the sense “AJ” had learned from that setback and would re-establish himself as the best heavyweight in the world. No doubt some who were confidently picking Joshua to win saw Usyk as a stepping stone, an opportunity for Joshua to demonstrate his renewed focus, as he anticipated a possible mega-fight against Tyson Fury.
In short, the challenge for Usyk was viewed as truly daunting, with Joshua a solid three-to-one betting favorite. For Spinks the odds were longer: six-to-one, despite the fact that Holmes was 35-years-old and clearly in decline. In both cases, the smaller man surprised many, scoring an upset win that will have significant ramifications.
But like Larry Holmes, Anthony Joshua is already talking rematch. That didn’t work out very well for “The Easton Assassin.” He dropped another close decision to Spinks and found himself sidelined, out of the title picture completely, and put out to pasture. At least for a while.
A possible Usyk vs Joshua II scenario would be different from Holmes vs Spinks II primarily because today’s bout was not particularly close at all. One is hard-pressed to find more than three rounds to score for the defending champion, whereas back in ’85 all agreed that the first Holmes vs Spinks bout was highly competitive, with some ringsiders of the opinion that Larry was in fact the rightful winner. Today, no one can make any kind of case that Joshua deserved a better fate. It was a clear-cut win for Usyk and the southpaw will be the betting favourite to turn the trick again in a return.
Spinks was already a lock for the Hall of Fame when he challenged Holmes. He had been a dominant force in the light heavyweight division, undefeated, his record boasting wins over such tough customers as Marvin Johnson, Yaqui Lopez, Eddie Mustafa Muhammad, Eddie Davis and Dwight Muhammad Qawi. Usyk’s road to heavyweight glory has been shorter, only sixteen fights before he moved up in weight, but today’s huge upset victory vaults him to something beyond elite status. Indeed, at present his only serious rivals for the mythical “pound-for-pound” summit are Canelo Alvarez and Naoya Inoue. Should he keep winning and add the names of Tyson Fury or Deontay Wilder to his record, then he has to be regarded as a latter-day great, just as Michael Spinks is rightfully viewed as one of the very best boxers of the 1980’s and an all-time great at 175 pounds.
It’s not too soon to have that discussion. Clearly Usyk is something very special. He’s surprised us today, his convincing win over Anthony Joshua sending some serious shockwaves through the sport, and one can’t help thinking that more surprises, and more impressive performances, may be in store for us in the near future.
— Neil Crane