Victory over England's Tony Bellew on Saturday will not only boost Oleksandr Usyk's profile, it will also take him a step closer to a clash with heavyweight king Anthony Joshua.
ESPN boxing writer Nick Parkinson takes a look at Ukraine's undisputed cruiserweight champion, who is threatening to make his move to the heavyweight division...
Usyk shot to prominence in July after winning the World Boxing Super Series with a unanimous points win over Murat Gassiev. With his victory, Usyk (15-0, 11 KOs), 31, became the undisputed world cruiserweight champion.
In the WBSS competition, southpaw Usyk showed how he uses technique, skills and stamina to break down his opponents and nullify them, rather than bludgeon them to the canvas. His win against Gassiev was so convincing that his opponent's trainer, Abel Sanchez, asked his fighter at the halfway stage if he wanted to continue.
Usyk tempted Bellew to prolong his career by calling him out after beating Gassiev and the fight was all but confirmed when he then signed a promotional deal with Matchroom Sport in September, the UK-based promoter that guides Bellew (30-2-1, 19 KOs) as well as Anthony Joshua.
Matchroom now co-promote Usyk along with K2 Promotions, whose figureheads are the former heavyweight champions Vitali -- now the mayor of Kiev -- and Wladimir Klitschko, who sparred with an up-and-coming Usyk three years ago.
Emulating the Klitchkos
With the Klitschkos now retired, it is Usyk, along with good friend and ESPN's pound-for-pound No.1 lightweight Vasyl Lomachenko, who are the new faces of Ukrainian boxing.
Usyk has been likened to a bigger version of Lomachenko, who he has known since their amateur days. Lomachenko won gold at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, while Usyk struck gold in the heavyweight class at the 2012 Olympics after failing to earn a medal in 2008. Lomachenko's father Anatoly has even trained with Usyk in the past, but a spokesperson for Usyk would not confirm who had trained him for this weekend's fight.
Usyk is passionate about his Ukrainian heritage and was born in Crimea, the area that was annexed by Russia in 2014 and which is still in dispute. Although he has since moved to the Ukrainian capital Kiev along with his wife Yekaterina and their three children, Usyk remains fiercely proud of his Crimean roots. In 2014, he declared he would never accept Russian citizenship and in October last year he visited Ukrainian guards on the eastern border.
But Usyk is now careful about commenting on Crimea and no longer wears the distinctive Cossack hairstyle he displayed a few years ago. This is an educated boxer who knows the price of letting your emotions get the better of you, and the merits of staying disciplined -- as he showed against Gassiev.
Pathway to Joshua
A straight-forward win over Bellew on Saturday will leave nothing for Usyk to accomplish at cruiserweight after accumulating the WBC, WBA, IBF and WBO belts.
Usyk might be a cruiserweight for now, but he is a heavyweight contender waiting to happen. When it does happen, he will be attempting to regain the titles once held by the Klitschko brothers.
A showdown against Joshua (22-0, 21 KOs), the WBA-IBF-WBO world heavyweight champion, would be a career-defining fight for both men, and Usyk has already taken steps to try and make it happen.
"I think you can see yourself, I will fight him," Usyk said. "One reason we have agreed to fight Bellew is to get to Joshua."
Joshua has a date at Wembley Stadium booked for Apr.13 but his opponent has yet to be announced. WBC champion Deontay Wilder is fighting lineal champion Tyson Fury in Las Vegas on Nov.10, with the winner tipped to fit the Wembley bill -- although Joshua's London rival Dillian Whyte has also been mentioned if a heavyweight unification fight falls through.
Victory over Bellew on Saturday will only improve Usyk's credentials to be considered alongside Wilder, Fury and Whyte as a genuine contender. He sees a pathway ahead of him leading to the riches of the heavyweight division -- that pathway ends at Joshua.