Holyfield, Haye and Usyk: Who is the greatest cruiserweight to have won heavyweight gold?

Perhaps not the most glamorous of divisions, boxing’s cruiserweight class has produced several fine champions since its introduction to the sport back in 1979.

Marvin Camel and Mate Parlov were the first fighters to fight for the novel title, and following a draw in their first bout, Camel would win the rematch to become the first-ever cruiserweight champion.

Since that first title fight over forty years ago, the division has produced several outstanding champions, including Britain's own David Haye, who unified the division with a stoppage victory against Marc Mormeck in Paris back in 2007.

In today's article, we're ranking three of the divisions finest champions as we measure up their respective achievements both in the cruiserweight and heavyweight classes.

3) David Haye

David Haye

A divisive character no doubt, Britain's David Haye made his debut in the division back in 2002, but a defeat against veteran Carl "the Cat" Thompson in just his eleventh professional bout did little to derail the Hayemaker who would claim the European cruiserweight title a little over a year on from that first loss.

A devastating power puncher, Haye had already wracked up 18 KO's and 19 wins before he stepped into Lion's den in Paris in 2007. Standing in the opposite corner was the hugely respected WBA, WBC, and Ring Magazine cruiserweight champion Marc Mormeck.

Mormeck, three times beaten but widely regarded as the best in his weight class at the time, floored Haye early in the bout but despite a hostile crowd and underdog status, the Londoner would rise from the seat of his pants to claim a brilliant stoppage victory in the seventh stanza.

In possession of the WBA, WBC, and The Ring cruiserweight titles, Haye would add the WBO belt with a destructive second-round stoppage win in a hotly anticipated bout against Welsh champion Enzo Macarranelli in front of a packed 20,000 crowd at the O2 Arena.

David Haye celebrates after the fight as John Ruiz, front right, leaves the ring

Standing with a 21-1 record, the charismatic and articulate champion had his sights set on bigger prey and a move to the riches on offer in the heavyweight division.

First up, an exciting five-round brawl with American veteran Monte Barrett proved that the Hayemaker could carry his power into the heavier weight class, and with the heavyweight landscape shorn of genuine talent at that time, a world-title shot would be handed to Haye in his very next bout. In the opposite corner, the lurking Russian giant Nikolai Valuev.

Standing nearly a foot taller with a weight advantage of over seven stone, Vlaluev, an undoubtedly imposing figure, had surely been fortunate to keep hold of his title in his previous bout against a ten-years past his best Evander Holyfield and despite the enormous size disparities, entered the bout as an underdog champion.

In a largely lifeless affair, Haye would box his way to a clear enough points decision victory, although a sharp right hand in the final stanza did wobble the giant for the first time in his career. Unable to close the show, Haye had done enough to become Britain's third heavyweight champion in just over a century.

With long-standing champion Wladimir Klitschko in his sights, Haye would first defend his WBA title with a decent enough win over a faded John Ruiz before the scandalous affair that was his "title defence" against a certain Audley Harrison. The less said about that event, the better.

Indeed, Haye would court further controversy by donning a T-shirt depicting the decapitation of both Wladimir and his brother Vitali in an attempt to goad the younger champion into a unification bout. It worked. The showdown was set for Germany with Haye continuing to display no lack of respect for the reigning IBF, WBO, IBO, and Ring heavyweight ruler.

Unfortunately for the Londoner, the hugely hyped (primarily by Haye it must be said) bout would end in an acrimonious defeat and a pinky toe excuse he would surely come to regret in the years that followed. His reputation forever damaged, Haye scored a brilliant KO of Derreck Chisora in 2012 before a series of injuries ensured his best days in the sport were now in his rearview mirror.

Derek Chisora and David Haye

Four years on from that fine win against Chisora, Haye returned with a pair of flattering victories against relative nobodies Arnold Gjergjaj and Marc de Mori before being goaded into a pair of career-ending losses to Liverpudlian loudmouth Tony Bellew.

Despite winning world titles in both the cruiser and heavyweight classes, Haye's career, despite enormous success, never quite reached its expected heights. The anticipated zenith of his bout with Klitschko had instead proved Haye's career nadir. Losses to Bellew only added salt to his many wounds.

Having spoken for years of his intention to retire from the sport at the age of 30, it is perhaps somewhat ironic that Haye´s body seemed to let him down badly as he continued to fight beyond that 30th birthday.

While never quite achieving greatness, Haye had an undoubtedly excellent career and while his reign as cruiserweight king was brief, his power, particularly in that weight class, will not quickly be forgotten.

2) Oleksandr Usyk

Oleksandr Usyk is a former undisputed cruiserweight world champion (Nick Potts/PA)

While it's hard to rank retired fighters versus those still fighting today, there should be little doubt that Ukrainian WBO, IBF and WBA champion Oleksander Usyk has already ensured his position as one of the finest cruiserweights over the last forty years.

Usyk claimed Golds in the heavyweight class at the Baku World Championships in 2011 and the London Olympics in 2012 before retiring from amateur boxing with an exceptional record of 335−15.

Boasting an outstanding amateur pedigree, Usyk turned pro in 2013 and at the age of 27, would be handed his first shot at world honours just three years later when he challenged Polish champion Krzysztof GÅ'owacki for the WBO cruiserweight title in just his tenth professional contest.

Fighting in his opponent's backyard (not literally), The Cat demonstrated his outstanding range of skills to earn a well-deserved unanimous decision victory against the previously unbeaten Pole.

In what has become a pattern of the brilliant Usyk´s emerging professional career, the Ukrainian would face a series of former or current cruiserweight world champions in their home countries - Marco Huck in Berlin, Mairis Briedis in Riga and Murat Gassiev in Moscow - and emerge victorious with all four major divisional and Ring Magazine cruiserweight titles as well as the World Boxing Super Series crown in hand.

Another away day success, this time in Manchester against a tough Tony Bellew ensured Usyk would leave the division behind with a perfect 16-0 record. In little over five years since turning pro, and just two years on from his first world title win, the Ukrainian had cleaned out the cruiserweight ranks in rapid style and a move to heavyweight was now on his horizon.

Bellew Usyk November 2018

Following a simple enough stoppage victory against heavyweight gatekeeper Chazz Witherspoon, Usyk would take a significant step up in class against Derek Chisora and while the veteran Brit would give Usyk some problems early in the contest, The Cat would earn a hard-fought decision victory, thus earning mandatory status for the WBO belt and with it, a shot at all the glory and Anthony Joshua.

In what proved to be another masterful display of boxing, Usyk would largely dominate the fight, bamboozling Joshua with his superior ring smarts and relentless aggression.

Earning yet another UD victory and now in possession of three of the four major heavyweight titles, Usyk´s place as one of the greatest fighters to emerge from the cruiserweight ranks is assured.

Should Usyk successfully defend his titles in the upcoming rematch with Joshua, a shot at Tyson Fury and the undisputed crown would surely enhance his status from "one of the greatest cruiserweights" to "the greatest" of all time.

1) Evander Holyfield

Evander Holyfied

The Real Deal and one of the finest to ever lace them up, Evander Holyfield remains the greatest fighter to emerge from the cruiserweight division.

An Olympic bronze medalist in the Los Angeles Olympics of 1984, Holyfield made his professional debut at the back end of that year and just twenty months later, at the age of 23, would land his first world title shot against WBA cruiserweight champion and former unified light-heavyweight titlist Dwight Muhammad Qawi.

In just his thirteenth paid contest, the young Holyfield would emerge with a split decision victory over a gruelling fifteen rounds. That title bout would be one of the last to go the full fifteen round distance before the change to twelve rounds in 1987.

Holyfield would add the IBF cruiserweight title to his resume with a third-round stoppage victory against Ricky Parkey, and following a fine fourth-round stoppage in a second bout with Muhammad Qawi later that year, Holyfield would win his third cruiserweight title as he overcame the talented Puerto Rican Carlos de León, adding the WBC title to an already impressive haul.

Having cleaned up the division, a move north to the heavyweight landscape seemed inevitable for the brilliant young champion. Having claimed six successive victories against a series of heavyweight contenders, including Pinklon Thomas and James Tillis, Holyfield was expected to challenge Mike Tyson in a potentially mouthwatering clash of unbeaten champions.

However, Buster Douglas put paid to those hopes when he shocked the world with an extraordinary stoppage victory over Tyson in Tokyo in 1990.

With a fight against Tyson dead in the water (for now at least), Holyfield would earn considerably less when challenging and easily defeating a badly out of shape Douglas some eight months later.

Douglas, who had seemed to enjoy the fruits of his undoubted labour in the subsequent months following that now historic win over Tyson, proved no match for Holyfield, who ended the champions brief reign as undisputed heavyweight ruler with a quickfire second-round stoppage.

Now an undisputed heavyweight champion himself, Holyfield would retain his titles with hard-fought decision victories against former champions Big George Foreman and Larry Holmes before losing his titles in 1992 in the first of an outstanding trilogy series against Riddick "Big Daddy" Bowe.

While Holyfield would claim victory in a second bout with Bowe, a heavy stoppage loss in their third and decisive rubber match had appeared to signal the end for the then 33-year old former champion. Holyfield, who had announced his retirement in 1994 following a loss to Michael Moorer and the discovery of a non-compliant left ventricle in his heart, seemed to have seen better days. Yet arguably, the best was still to come.

Just a year on from that painful loss to Bowe, Holyfield, now 34, would claim perhaps the biggest scalp of his career with a memorable tenth round stoppage of WBA champion and former undisputed ruler Mike Tyson.

Largely written off coming into the bout, Holyfield, a 10/1 underdog, boxed the fight of his life to become the first three-time heavyweight champion since Muhammad Ali in 1978, and with it, an outstanding legacy forever ensured.

On this day in 1992: Evander Holyfield and Riddick Bowe do battle in Las Vegas

Despite losing his titles to Lennox Lewis in 1999, Holyfield would claim an unrivalled fourth world title with a decision victory against John Ruiz in what would prove to be the first bout of perhaps the least exciting trilogy series in boxing's modern era.

Now well past his best, Holyfield would continue to regress, suffering damaging losses to the likes of James Toney and Larry Donald in the early '00s. Yet, remarkably, the Alabama native would fight on until the age of 48, earning shots at both the WBO and WBA straps at the ages of 44 and 46.

Indeed, were it not for some desperately poor judging in that 2008 WBA title fight with Nikolai Valuev, Holyfield would have become a five-time world champion. Yet, despite his best efforts, it just wasn't to be.

Still, despite his inability to retire (Holyfield was last seen in a ring in 2021), the Real Deal remains the finest fighter to emerge from the 200lb weight class.

A popular and brilliant champion at his peak, Holyfield's warrior instincts carried him all the way to the top of the sport. While his decline was a painful reminder of the age-old issue of boxers not knowing when to call the final bell on their career, the Alabaman's legacy had forever been cemented with his achievements in both the 80s and '90s. The Real Deal he truly was.

While the man at number two on this list could eventually challenge Holyfield's position as cruiserweight king, there is little argument that as we sit today, Evander Holyfield remains the finest fighter to emerge from the cruiserweight division.

Read more: Top six moments from Sky Sports' boxing show The Gloves Are Off

Latest news