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Coming off an almost yearlong layoff, recovering from a torn biceps and fighting a short-notice replacement opponent, Oleksandr Usyk on Saturday made a successful heavyweight debut by stopping Chazz Witherspoon at the end of the seventh round.
Witherspoon did not offer much resistance, lackadaisically wandering around the ring and only boxing in short bursts while still getting tired. Though the fight was all about Usyk’s potential heavyweight future, Witherspoon never landed a big enough shot to test the Olympic gold medalist’s chin at the new weight class, and he was not tall enough -- he is listed at 6-foot-4 -- to determine how Usyk would fare while having to pressure a giant like Tyson Fury. On the plus side, he did get his Wikipedia page updated to reflect his more recent fights.
Usyk did not exactly set the boxing world on fire with his performance, though many on boxing social media pointed out he has looked somewhat pedestrian against opponents at cruiserweight before. They pointed out that Usyk did not look great against Mairis Briedis but looked phenomenal in his next few fights. Still, while he weighed only 215 pounds, Usyk applied consistent pressure -- some pundits wanted to see more body work -- and wore down Witherspoon on his way to a seventh-round stoppage.
Can Usyk become a heavyweight champion and possibly even The Man at the weight class? Years ago, 215 pounds would have seemed quite light for a heavyweight, but Deontay Wilder weighs about the same, and it has not affected him; and while 6-foot-3 seems small compared to Wilder, Fury and Anthony Joshua, Usyk is taller than current titleholder Andy Ruiz. The most common name mentioned alongside Usyk is fellow Olympic gold medalist and former undisputed cruiserweight champion Evander Holyfield, so it is interesting to compare their heavyweight debuts and potential weight evolution. In his first bout at heavyweight, Holyfield stopped a washed-up James Tillis in five rounds; it was notable because Tillis had gone the distance with Mike Tyson just two years earlier. Holyfield weighed 202 pounds entering the fight, with trainer Lou Duva telling The Philadelphia Inquirer, “If he’s strong at 212, he’ll stay at 212. If he’s strong at 218, he’ll stay at 218. Whatever feels best and most natural for Evander. Myself, I don’t see him going above 212 or 214.” Holyfield ended up weighing 215 pounds for the first Tyson fight, but the 215-pound Usyk is already talking about getting heavier than he was against Witherspoon.
Holyfield took on a couple of heavyweight contenders before he knocked out Buster Douglas in his seventh fight at the new weight. Interestingly, this is not the path Usyk’s handlers have laid out for him. They want him to win a heavyweight belt as soon as possible and see a possible path about to present itself. Somehow, Usyk is now the mandatory opponent for the winner of the Ruiz-Joshua rematch, but so is Kubrat Pulev. Promoter Eddie Hearn is not making a Joshua-Usyk fight right away, so it is expected that the winner of Ruiz-Joshua 2 will fight Pulev and be stripped of the WBO championship. With the title then vacant, Usyk could vie for it and become a heavyweight champion in only his second heavyweight fight. People are speculating that Joseph Parker or Adam Kownacki would be the likeliest opponents should the WBO belt go vacant. Either of them would tell us a lot about Usyk as a heavyweight, or at least a lot more than Witherspoon did.
Harris Stops Barnes in Fourth
They say that in boxing you need to retire as soon as you start thinking about retirement. That old adage got a boost when Jay Harris on Friday stopped Paddy Barnes with a left hook to the liver in the fourth round.
Considering that he is a three-time Olympian and two-time Olympic bronze medalist, Barnes has a baffling hole in his game. For whatever reason, he is extremely prone to getting hit by body shots. Barnes was dropped body blow in the third round of the fight before another stopped him in the fourth. Remember, Cristofer Rosales stopped Barnes with a right hand to the body in the fourth round just two fights ago. Barnes fought hard, but he has a fatal flaw in his game that is not going to go away at 32 years old. Barnes enjoyed a great amateur career but needs to hang up the gloves. After he lost a decision to Oscar Mojica, he said he was going to do so. Now, he should follow through.
As for Harris, the now 17-0 contender could be in line for a title shot, possibly later this year, though it remains unclear which featherweight champion would give him that chance.
Bivol Cruises Past Castillo for Decision
After his 2018 encounter with Sullivan Barrera, Dmitry Bivol was 13-0 with 10 knockouts. Even more impressive, when he stopped Barrera in the 12th round, it made him the second fighter to beat him and the only fighter to have ever stopped the Cuban veteran, besting the performance of Andre Ward. While he has undoubtedly faced better competition in his four fights post-Barrera, Bivol has not stopped a single opponent. That trend continued on Saturday, when Bivol dominated and dropped Lenin Castillo but never came all that close to stopping him.
In taking a unanimous decision (119-108, 119-108, 120-107), Bivol thoroughly outboxed Castillo, as he dropped him in the sixth round but never really pressed for the knockout. While some boxing fans on Twitter were talking about Bivol failing to grow as a fighter -- and many were making the same “a Russian beating up Lenin” joke), his post-fight comments may tell us more than his in-ring performance. After the fight, Bivol was asked about not getting the stoppage: “I keep my belt and I still have a chance to fight for another belt, to fight the winner of the [Oleksandr] Gvozdyk-[Artur] Beterbiev fight or Canelo [Alvarez]-[Sergey] Kovalev. I can fight them because I won today.”
Whoever manages Bivol has apparently given him the impression that he will secure a big unification fight just by owning the WBA light heavyweight title, as long as he keeps winning. On paper, that may be how it is supposed to work, but boxing is the entertainment business and the fighter who brings in the most fans is the one that controls the fights. Perhaps Bivol is right; or maybe when Alvarez goes back to 160 pounds with Kovalev’s belt and the winner of Beterbiev-Gvozdyk chases a Cinco de Mayo fight with Gilberto Ramirez instead, he will figure it out and start going for the knockout.
Warrington Blows Away Takoucht
With only six stoppages in 29 victories, IBF featherweight champion Josh Warrington was not expected to give his hometown Leeds, England, crowd a Tyson-like early stoppage against France’s Sofiane Takoucht -- a man who had never before been stopped as a professional. However, Warrington seemed much bigger and stronger than his opponent, and almost every punch he threw appeared to wobble his opponent.
After dropping Takoucht twice in the second round, Warrington landed a flurry that spun him around and forced the referee to stop the bout before the Frenchman was seriously hurt. While he has been fighting in his hometown lately -- 11 of his last 13 bouts have taken place in Leeds -- Warrington indicated he was willing to travel for his next assignment. He covets a unification bout with WBC champion Gary Russell Jr. but would also be willing to face Shakur Stevenson or Can Xu. The Can Xu fight would make the most sense, depending on whether or not the WBA makes him its legitimate champion with Leo Santa Cruz moving up to 130 pounds.
Day Left in Coma After Knockout Loss
The same way the media’s increased reporting on crime has resulted in people thinking it is at an all-time high when it’s actually been on a steep decline since the 1990s, boxers may be ending up in comas at the same rate as always. However, it seems as if the media is more sensitive to it. Whether that is the case or PEDs have made guys hit harder or commissions are not as stringent in their pre-fight testing or some other factor, it sure seems like this is happening more often than it used to.
Such was the case on Saturday, when Patrick Day, a 27-year-old 154-pound fighter competing on the Usyk-Witherspoon undercard was knocked out by undefeated prospect Charles Conwell with a big left hook. It resulted in his having to undergo emergency brain surgery, and he reportedly is still in a coma.
Immediately, people within the boxing world came out to talk about Day as a great person and to pray for his recovery. While you may think this is simply speaking well of a man who is literally fighting for his life, the reaction to Adonis Stevenson when he found himself in the same situation was, while sympathetic, markedly different. Hopefully Day pulls through, because by essentially all accounts he is a tremendous human being.