They are the two best heavyweights in the world. Neither man has ever lost a fight as a pro. That doesn’t mean Tyson Fury and Oleksandr Usyk had an easy path to get here. 

The road to their fight this Saturday has included several obstacles along the way. They have been significant and varied, mental and physical, internal and external. 

Every fighter has a journey. Almost every journey has adversity. 

That is part of what makes our sport so special. Each boxer has their own storylines going into a bout, both their career trajectory and their life story. Every match has the potential for twists and turns, action and drama. And almost every result matters. The triumphs and standout performances move a fighter forward bit by bit or in leaps and bounds. And the defeats are often setbacks, running the spectrum from disappointing to devastating.

Fury’s and Usyk’s journeys have brought them to the Kingdom Arena in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia, where they will fight to become the undisputed heavyweight champion, one of boxing’s greatest accomplishments in one of boxing’s most storied divisions. They will headline a pay-per-view streaming on ESPN+, DAZN and 

For Fury, 35 years old, 34-0-1 (24 KOs), this is the story of a child whose future was both unexpected yet foretold from birth. He was very premature and very small, but his father, a professional boxer, says he saw his son’s fighting spirit and named the boy after heavyweight champion Mike Tyson.

This is the story of a prospect whose rise was predicted by legendary trainer Emanuel Steward, the story of a contender who fulfilled that prophecy three years after Steward’s passing by dethroning one of Steward’s prized pupils, and the story of a champion who then dethroned himself with his own struggles and self-sabotage.

This then became the story of how Fury returned, the ups and downs — literal and figurative — he’s experienced since. Where his story goes next depends on what happens with this latest chapter, against Usyk. 

For Usyk, 37 years old, 21-0 (14 KOs), this is the story of a talented amateur who fell short in his first Olympics but won gold four years later. This is the story of a talented pro who took the idea of “world champion” seriously, traveling from country to country to defeat hometown heroes and collect titles until he was the undisputed king of the cruiserweight division. And this is the story of yet another cruiserweight setting his sights on the heavyweights. 

This then became the story of how Usyk struggled a bit early at heavyweight, how he adjusted, the glory that has come since, and how he has served as inspiration for — and been inspired by — his friends and family and countrymen who are fighting to survive amid an ongoing war. 

Usyk will arrive in the ring this Saturday bearing three of the four major world titles in the heavyweight division. He is one person, one fight, away from winning the final one — or losing them all. 


Fury once had almost all of the titles, too, then lost everything without even losing a fight.

In 2015, he’d befuddled and out-boxed Wladimir Klitschko, the longtime heavyweight champion who had held at least one world title for nearly a decade, who had made 18 consecutive successful defenses, added two more belts to his collection and established a new championship lineage along the way.

Beating Klitschko by unanimous decision earned Fury those three world titles and made him the lineal champ, the man who beat the man. Fury was stripped of the IBF belt almost immediately because he had agreed to a rematch clause with Klitschko, which meant he couldn’t defend against the sanctioning body’s mandatory challenger.

The Klitschko rematch never happened. Fury ultimately gave up the WBA and WBO titles, too. He wouldn’t fight again for more than two-and-a-half years. Some felt the time away meant the end of Fury’s recognition as lineal champ. Others disagreed.

No matter your stance, Fury was dealing with a lot outside of the ring during that time away. An ankle injury postponed the Klitschko rematch. Mental health struggles canceled it. He was struggling with drugs and alcohol. His weight ballooned and reportedly approached 400 pounds. Oh, and he’d tested positive for a banned substance called nandrolone. 

The drug test actually dated to a February 2015 win over Christian Hammer, whom Fury had faced nine months before meeting and beating Klitschko. Fury claimed it was the result of eating an uncastrated boar. The United Kingdom’s byzantine anti-doping process meant that the case didn’t conclude until the end of 2017, when Fury agreed to a back-dated two-year ban.

Fury returned in June 2018.

He shook off some rust, stopping Sefer Seferi in four rounds. He was back in the ring again in August, going the 10-round distance while shutting out Francesco Pianeta. Neither was a notable heavyweight. Coming next, however, was one of the best of the big men.

Deontay Wilder was, at the time, one of boxing’s longest-reigning titleholders. He was the sport’s most powerful puncher, the epitome of what is often said about heavyweight boxing and how it only takes one shot. 

Fury had gone from dipping his toes into the pool — gauging the temperature of how he performed in the ring — to diving right into the deep end. Although Fury was more skilled, Wilder was always dangerous. Wilder had a trademark of yelling out “Bomb Squad!” But it was Fury who was tasked with trying to defuse him.

Fury mostly succeeded with out-boxing Wilder. The potential problem: “mostly” might not be enough. Wilder caught Fury in the ninth round, depositing him on the canvas. Fury got up, fought back and won the next two rounds. Then Wilder struck again in the 12th — and disaster nearly did the same. Fury looked as if he wasn’t just down, but out. 

Then he opened his eyes. 

Then he started to get up.

And then he beat the count.

It was one of the most dramatic sequences ever in boxing. Wilder nearly ended the fight. Fury survived that, sustained a few more heavy blows afterward, then began to come forward and land hard shots of his own. The fight ended in a draw. The conclusion was debatable. No matter the result, a rematch was called for.

In 2019, however, Fury and Wilder remained in separate orbits. They each had intervening bouts, Wilder making short work of Dominic Breazeale in May, Fury doing the same with Tom Schwarz in June. Fury and Wilder then agreed to a rematch, announced in August 2019 for February 2020

They both had one more fight to get through before then. And they both struggled. In September, Fury met Otto Wallin and suffered a nasty cut in the early rounds. The ringside physician never stopped the fight, which would’ve put a considerable damper on Fury-Wilder 2, if not annulled it altogether. Fury fought through the injury and prevailed by decision. Then, in November 2019, Wilder met Luis Ortiz in a rematch of their 2018 firefight. Ortiz was ahead on the scorecards after six rounds. The scorecards didn’t matter. Wilder knocked Ortiz out with one shot in the seventh.

Fury-Wilder 2 was set. And it was a stunner. 

Fury was now being trained by SugarHill Steward, the nephew of Emanuel Steward. They knew that it was no longer advisable for Fury to try to avoid Wilder for 12 rounds. Instead, he opted to be the aggressor, something Fury said he’d do ahead of time. Many questioned beforehand whether it was madness to fight fire with fire. But fighting fire with fire served to douse Wilder. Fury downed Wilder once in the third round, again in the fifth round, and had him hurt enough in the seventh that one of Wilder’s trainers threw in the towel.

That angered Wilder, who preferred to go out on his shield. Wilder had a rematch clause, mandating a third fight. Fury wasn’t intent on honoring it. 

When the pandemic restrictions began to lift in 2021, Fury announced a fight with fellow British heavyweight Anthony Joshua, a superstar who’d regained the three world titles he’d shockingly lost to Andy Ruiz in June 2019. With Fury the new WBC titleholder, the winner of Fury vs. Joshua would be undisputed. Wilder was disputing it, though, and for good reason. He took Fury to arbitration and won. Fury-Wilder 3 was set for October 2021.

(That wound up opening a door for Usyk. More on that later.)

Fury and Wilder saved the best for last. They both rose to the occasion. They both dropped on more than one occasion. In total, there were five knockdowns over the course of 11 rounds. Fury put Wilder down in the third. Wilder responded by scoring a pair of knockdowns in the fourth. Fury landed heavy blows in the seventh and eighth, then floored Wilder in the 10th and finished him in the 11th.

It’s been more than two-and-a-half years since. Fury took care of a mandatory defense, stopping Dillian Whyte. He wrapped up an unnecessary trilogy with Dereck Chisora, winning by technical knockout. And in his sole fight of 2023, Fury fought in Riyadh against one of the best heavyweights in mixed martial arts, Francis Ngannou, who was making his pro boxing debut.

That was the last we saw of Fury. And it was definitely not the best we saw from him. Fury seemed to take Ngannou lightly.. He suffered a surprise knockdown in the third round and barely escaped with a split decision victory. (Joshua would wind up doing what Fury couldn’t, obliterating Ngannou in two rounds this past March.)

Fury is back in Riyadh for this fight. Same place, different approach. He knows he must take Usyk seriously.  


Usyk has undoubtedly earned that respect. His reputation precedes him.

In 2008, Usyk competed in the Olympics representing Ukraine but lost in the quarterfinals to Clemente Russo. Russo went on to earn a silver medal at heavyweight  — the amateur weight class that comes before “super heavyweight” and is essentially equivalent to pro boxing’s cruiserweight division.

In the 2012 Olympics, Russo picked up the silver again. That’s because Usyk defeated him and won the gold. After half a dozen fights in the semi-pro World Series of Boxing, Usyk turned pro in November 2013 and promptly worked his way up the cruiserweight ranks.

Within three years, in September 2016, Usyk had won his first world title, traveling to Poland to defeat Krzysztof Glowacki, the undefeated WBO titleholder who had ended the long reign of Marco Huck in 2015. Over the next two or so years, Usyk would put together an impressive campaign, facing several of the best fighters in the 200-pound division, winning the remaining title belts, and often traveling to hostile territory to do so.

First came a pair of appearances in the United States, where he knocked out Thabiso Mchunu and outpointed Michael Hunter, an unbeaten American prospect who’d also competed in the 2012 Olympics. Then came the World Boxing Super Series, an eight-person tournament that would culminate with the victor capturing all four world titles.

Usyk started off by going to Germany and stopping Marco Huck. He followed that with a visit to Latvia, took a close majority decision over Mairis Briedis and added the WBC belt. For the finale, Usyk journeyed to Moscow and met up with Murat Gassiev. Usyk won a wide decision, picked up the IBF and WBA titles and exited as the undisputed cruiserweight champion. And for his final act, Usyk wrapped up 2018 with a journey to Manchester, England, where he was behind on the scorecards after seven rounds before putting away Tony Bellew in the eighth.

The cruiserweight division has only been around since 1979. The history of boxing, however, features many fighters who migrated from there, or from light heavyweight, to take on the biggest of opponents for the larger paychecks and greater glory.

When it comes to the cruiserweights, only a few have won world titles at heavyweight. 

Evander Holyfield was the first undisputed cruiserweight champion — back in the era when only the IBF, WBA and WBC were recognized as major sanctioning bodies — to also become the undisputed heavyweight champion. If Usyk wins, he would become the second ever, and the first in this four-belt era. (David Haye was the lineal cruiserweight champ and won the WBA title at heavyweight. James Toney was a cruiserweight titleholder whose win over John Ruiz for a heavyweight belt was overturned when Toney tested positive for a performance-enhancing drug.)

Usyk’s time at heavyweight began in 2019 with a technical knockout of Chazz Witherspoon. Then came a 2020 fight with Chisora in front of Chisora’s hometown fans in London. In the early rounds, Chisora’s relentless aggression seemed to give Usyk some trouble. Usyk adapted and picked up the decision victory, though it was reasonable to wonder whether moving onward meant he was biting off more than he could chew.

Instead, Usyk had wisely used these first two heavyweight fights to acclimate to this new division, to feel what it was like for his body to carry the additional weight, and to experience what it was like to face bigger foes. Now he was ready to challenge for the heavyweight title, or rather for three of them. When Fury was ordered to fight Wilder for a third time, that left Joshua available. Usyk returned to London to face the United Kingdom’s biggest star in September 2021.

Usyk won that fight, and the titles, in a clear unanimous decision. Joshua had a contractual right to a rematch. Usyk had gone back to Ukraine after Russia launched its war on his homeland in early 2022 but then was granted permission to return to boxing, to be symbolic motivation for his compatriots. So Usyk and Joshua met once more in August 2022 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Usyk triumphed again, this time via split decision.

The heavyweight division had once been headed up by three claimants to the throne: Fury, Joshua and Wilder. Fury had removed Wilder from the equation. Usyk had done the same to Joshua. Now we just needed Fury and Usyk to meet.

We just needed to wait some more.

In lieu of a Fury fight in 2023, Usyk owed a mandatory defense against challenger Daniel Dubois. Their fight took place in Poland, where many Ukrainian refugees have relocated.

Those who just look at the record books will see that Usyk stopped Dubois in the ninth round and was well-ahead on the scorecards when that happened. However, the fight was not without controversy. Early in the fifth round, Dubois aimed a right hand for the body. Usyk dropped to the canvas. The referee ruled it a low blow. 

Even with the benefits of replay, even with different camera angles and people isolating single frames of video, there remains a debate about whether the shot was legal or had veered into foul territory, as if this were boxing’s version of that one dress looking either blue and black or white and gold. Usyk proceeded to put Dubois down for the count in the ninth round. 

* * *

Tyson Fury and Oleksandr Usyk are the two best heavyweights in the world. They also both had moments of vulnerability in their last outings. Then again, every fighter has a journey. And almost every journey has adversity. 

Plenty of people have stood in their way. Fury and Usyk have overcome them all. They’ve encountered plenty of other obstacles along the road here. Yet it would be an oversimplification to say they have overcome it all. Not every difficulty disappears or even diminishes. Instead, they sometimes had to succeed amid their obstacles and despite them.

Their stories aren’t over. But the climactic scene is approaching:

For 12 rounds or less this weekend, Fury and Usyk will fight to become the undisputed heavyweight champion. Years of life, a career’s worth of feats, all distilled into paragraphs, all leading to this moment. 

Follow David Greisman on Twitter @FightingWords2. His book, “Fighting Words: The Heart and Heartbreak of Boxing,” is available on Amazon.