IN BOXING, tournaments are risky. The 2009 Showtime-funded Super Six was supposed to create a new star in the super middleweight division. But because of injuries and withdrawals, the competition dragged on for two years, and the outcome did little to raise the Q rating of champion Andre Ward.
So the announcement of the World Boxing Super Series in March 2017 was met with skepticism. But the tournament—a pair of eight-man fields in the super middleweight and cruiserweight divisions—succeeded in creating a global star. Despite his '12 Olympic gold and '16 debut world title, Oleksandr Usyk was a little-known cruiserweight titleholder when the WBSS kicked off 14 months ago. Today, he's the undisputed champion—the division's first since '06—and SPORTS ILLUSTRATED's 2018 Fighter of the Year.
The Ukraine-born Usyk kicked off a three-win '18 campaign with a narrow decision over unbeaten Mairis Briedis in the WBSS semifinal. In the final Usyk dominated hard-hitting Murat Gassiev, who had flattened his first two foes in the tournament.
Usyk's win grabbed the attention of Tony Bellew, a popular former champ looking for one more challenge before retiring. Last month, in front of a crowd of 21,000 in England, Usyk fell behind early. But the southpaw battled back in the middle rounds before a straight left hand in the eighth put Bellew on the canvas and ended the fight.
"He is a great champion," Bellew said. "The greatest man I have shared a ring with."
Usyk, 31, is suddenly a hot commodity. If he stays at cruiserweight, he could attempt to lure Ward out of retirement. If he moves up to the heavyweight division, his promoter, Eddie Hearn, is ready to line him up for a shot at unified champ Anthony Joshua. "This was a tough year and an intense year," says Usyk. "But it was the best year of my career."
Indeed. At 15, after a hardscrabble upbringing in Simferopol, Crimea—where, he says, he was a "very good street fighter"—Usyk was invited to a new boxing gym. His first day he sparred with an older man. "He beat the s--- out of me," Usyk says. Undeterred, Usyk returned to the gym the next day, and every day thereafter, hoping for a rematch. A few weeks later Usyk got his chance: "I beat him, badly." In 2019, Usyk—now one of the world's best pound-for-pound fighters—will dish out more beatings, no matter what class he fights in.
SIGN OF THE APOCALYPSE
A PACKERS FAN WITH BEARS SEASON TICKETS IS SUING THE BEARS FOR THE RIGHT TO WEAR A GREEN BAY JERSEY DURING A PREGAME SIDELINE EVENT.
THEY SAID IT
"AND THAT'S HOW I FOUND OUT I WAS DEAD."
Fernando Lafuente Saiz
SOCCER PLAYER FERNANDO LAFUENTE SAIZ, of Irish third-division club Ballybrack FC, on discovering, following a call from his day job, that the team had faked his death to get a match postponed.