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Oleksandr Usyk faces Tony Bellew, eyes heavyweight division next

Oleksandr Usyk, left, defends his cruiserweight championship against Tony Bellew in Manchester, England, on Saturday. Nick Potts/PA Images via Getty Images

Undisputed cruiserweight world champion Oleksandr Usyk, boxing's ultimate road warrior, is a man of the world.

He fought eight of his first nine professional fights at home in Ukraine, with one in Germany. But since then -- and when he began facing more and more difficult opponents -- he has fought the rest of his bouts away from home and typically on his opponent's home turf, and that's not about to change.

Usyk would draw large crowds for his fights in Ukraine; it wasn't like he had to travel. But the opportunities to fight top-flight opposition were more plentiful if he grabbed his bags and hit the road. His last six fights in a row, including all of his world title bouts, have been away from home, as will his undisputed title defense against England's Tony Bellew, the former cruiserweight world titlist he will meet Saturday (DAZN, 1 p.m. ET) at Manchester Arena in Manchester, England.

"During my career, all my most fruitful victories have been on the opponents' territories, so the support of the British fans to Tony Bellew doesn't bother me a lot," said Usyk, one of boxing's top fighters pound for pound. "I also understand that British fans appreciate boxing and they will first of all cheer for the beautiful boxing.

"In the end of the day, it's only three of us in the ring -- me, him and the guy in the white shirt who will observe the fight and make sure that it goes according to the rules."

Usyk traveled to Poland to challenge Polish star Krzysztof Glowacki for a world title in September 2016 and came away with a lopsided decision. With that victory, Usyk won a cruiserweight belt in only his 10th professional fight, breaking the division record for fewest fights needed to win a world title. He surpassed the mark held by Evander Holyfield, who did it in his 12th fight by outpointing Hall of Famer Dwight Muhammad Qawi in one of boxing's last great 15-round slugfests.

Usyk made his first two defenses in the United States, knocking out Thabiso Mchunu in the ninth round and outpointing Michael Hunter.

Then Usyk, a 2012 Olympic gold medalist, accepted an invitation -- and the top seed -- to participate in the first season of the World Boxing Super Series and won all three of his tournament fights.

He knocked out former long-reigning titlist Marco Huck in the 10th round in the quarterfinals in Huck's hometown of Berlin; unified two belts by outpointing Mairis Briedis in his hometown of Riga, Latvia in January; and then cruised to a near-shutout of Murat Gassiev to unify all four major belts in Gassiev's home country of Russia on July 21.

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Although Usyk harbors intense ambition to move up in weight to heavyweight and go for a world title in boxing's marquee division -- as so many previous cruiserweight titleholders have attempted, including Holyfield -- he decided not make the move just yet.

The fight with Bellew was an opportunity for a major event and a big payday if he would remain in the division for at least one more fight.

Bellew, a hugely popular fighter in England, won a cruiserweight belt in 2016 and made one defense before moving up to heavyweight for a big-money grudge match with rival David Haye, whom he knocked out in back-to-back fights in March 2017 and May 2018.

"It's not going to be an easy walk in the park," said Egis Klimas, Usyk's manager. "As we know, Tony is a very good fighter. Both of these guys want a challenge. Oleksandr doesn't just want to defend his belts; he wants a challenge, just like Tony did during his age. He was the best cruiserweight and there was nobody left for him to fight, so he stepped into the heavyweight division. That says a lot. Now that he has a challenge, he says, 'Screw it, I'm coming down. I want a challenge and I want those belts.' That's why I think this is going to be a very good bout."

Bellew (30-2-1, 20 KOs), 35, considered retirement after his second win over Haye, but the lure of a shot at all of the cruiserweight titles against Usyk (15-0, 11 KOs), 31, and the chance to do it in front of his crowd, was too much to pass up. Bellew said win or lose, the fight on Saturday will be the last of his career.

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"I know what people are thinking, but I've heard it all before. I've come too far and sacrificed so much to not take advantage of this opportunity, and I'm going to become the man who's got all four belts," Bellew said.

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"I came into this sport wanting a world title and to secure my family's future and I can walk out at any moment and be satisfied with what I've achieved. This fight against Usyk though is all about something else. This is the chance to be remembered as a legend and my legacy. When I'm in that ring holding all four belts, [it] is going to be something else."

It was Usyk who, while still in the ring after his victory against Gassiev, suggested that he would be interested in a fight with Bellew. It did not take long for their teams to make a deal.

In fact, Usyk promoter Alex Krassyuk of K2 Promotions quickly ironed out a deal with Bellew promoter Eddie Hearn of Matchroom Boxing to co-promote Usyk.

"It's flattering to know that he's just won a massive fight on a big stage and the first thing he does afterwards is mentioned my name," Bellew said. "It's a challenge that I accepted immediately without a second thought and it's the type of challenge I needed to keep the fires inside burning. There were plenty of routes that I could've took with several fighters wanting to fight me, but it needed to be something big and something where I could prove the world wrong yet again, and that's why it's Usyk.

"People say he's the best and he's this monster, but that's what I love to hear. When you write me off it just makes me better and I'm confident you'll see that when we fight. ... I know I can beat him. I can beat any cruiserweight in the world. There's only one cruiserweight that would have whooped me and he's long gone and that's Evander Holyfield."

Bellew is a significant underdog going into the fight. It is Usyk who has giant plans should he win. That was one of the reasons he and Krassyuk brought in Hearn as a co-promoter.

With Usyk -- a close friend of Olympic teammate, pound-for-pound king and lightweight world champion Vasiliy Lomachenko -- planning to move up to heavyweight, they viewed Hearn as somebody who could deliver the major fights Usyk wants, beginning with Bellew

Hearn also promotes unified heavyweight world titlist Anthony Joshua, Usyk's ultimate opponent, not to mention contender Dillian Whyte and Jarrell "Big Baby" Miller, whom he co-promotes.

So if Usyk defeats Bellew, he will look to crash the heavyweight division. Hearn, a close friend of Bellew's besides just being his promoter, has his heart with his friend but knows there is big business looming with an Usyk victory.

"If Usyk wins he will fight at heavyweight after the Bellew fight, no doubt," Hearn said. "That's the plan. We signed a three-fight deal with him. The plan is fight Bellew. If he wins, fight one fight at heavyweight, win and then fight Joshua.

"That's the plan. Usyk's plan is to move up to heavyweight and fight Joshua."

England's Joshua (22-0, 21 KOs) is one boxing's biggest stars and regularly draws crowds of 80,000 or more for his fights at stadiums in the United Kingdom.

So should the fight with Usyk materialize, it will undoubtedly be in the U.K.. And as Usyk has shown, that is music to his ears.