Trainers’ take: Can Oleksandr Usyk succeed as a heavyweight?

Former unified cruiserweight champion Oleksandr Usyk makes his heavyweight debut against late replacement Chazz Witherspoon at Wintrust Arena in Chicago on Saturday.

Usyk was scheduled to face Tyrone Spong, but Spong tested positive for banned substances in two urine samples and Witherspoon was selected as his replacement just a few days before the fight.

We asked a panel of noted trainers about their thoughts on how the 6-foot-3 Usyk will fare in his move up to the “land of the giants.”

How tough is the transition to heavyweight?

Ronnie Shields: I know he’s a big guy — but he’s not a real big guy. What he’s going to experience is how big and strong these [heavyweights] are when they lay on you. I mean, these guys, they tire you out. That’s what Evander Holyfield complained about a lot when he moved up from cruiserweight [to heavyweight]. And he’s going to realize, you hit these guys and they will look at you and smile, sometimes. That’s the difference. He’s going to feel a lot more power than he’s ever felt before in his life. So that’s going to be a different thing for him, power and how strong a lot of these guys are physically when they lean on him.

Johnathon Banks: I don’t think there’s much of an adjustment because he’s already, physically, a big guy. I mean, he’s not physically bigger than most heavyweights, but at the same time he’s physically strong. So I don’t think his adjustment will be too difficult at all.

Abel Sanchez: I think the biggest adjustment is that he needs to work on having a little more power, more strength; he’s a heckuva boxer, he’s got great legs. But the weight advantage that these big heavyweights are going to have is going to be too much in a 10 or 12 round fight. It may have worked for him in the amateurs, but the amateur [fights] are three rounds. Twelve rounds is a long time.

Freddie Roach: The heavyweights today are bigger, stronger and it’s just a different age. I remember when heavyweights were 6-foot-3, 225, 230 [pounds]. They are really big guys nowadays and they’re really strong punchers and they can fight. He should concentrate on a comfortable weight, that’s when fighters are at their best, when they’re not cutting weight, or bulking up, just being at a weight that is natural to you, and your body is used to it.

Andre Rozier: The weight disparity, the guys in the heavyweight division now, are no longer 6-foot-2, 6-foot-3 guys, these guys are monsters. 6-foot-6, 6-foot-7, 240, 250 [pounds], they’re really big guys and he’s going to have to learn how to navigate that. As good of a boxer as he is, it’s going to be a different category: bigger punches, stronger men. He’s not going to be able to hurt these men like he did at cruiserweight. And he’s going to have to really be ready to be a lot faster than he was.

Does Usyk has any advantages coming up in weight?

Shields: He’s a good boxer and he’s kind of got a good punch. He’s beat some great guys in the cruiserweight division already, and in the amateurs he beat up a lot of guys. So he’s got a lot of experience and that takes you a long way. It’s not all about power, all the time, but mostly, in the heavyweight division, it is. So fighting these big and strong guys, he has the experience to know how to deal with these guys. Most of these guys are going to be slower than he is — he has that speed, and speed kills.

Banks: He has a speed advantage — most heavyweights are normally slower than cruiserweights. He’s not going to become a power puncher, [because] he wasn’t that at cruiserweight. So he’s not going to be a one-punch knockout artist at heavyweight. But the asset he would bring to the division, where it’s going to make it more interesting and will allow him to continue to win, is his volume punching. Heavyweights don’t punch in volume. He’ll be fine.

Sanchez: He’s an exceptional boxer, good hand speed, good choices in the ring. I think he’s got a lot of pluses, but the minuses will outweigh the pluses at the bigger weight. His weight will probably be around 220, 225 pounds, somewhere in there, like an Evander Holyfield. But I don’t think he has the grit that an Evander had. He’s an exceptional fighter, but the weight is going to be a difference.

Roach: He’s a very good boxer, and he looks like he’s slick enough to handle some of those heavyweights, but not all the heavyweights. The bigger, stronger ones might be too big and might blow him away.

Rozier: If he carries his fluidity, his boxing capability, that’s going to be good. I never saw him as a big puncher so I don’t know what he’s going to do as a heavyweight. His ring knowledge, he’s going to have to rely on that heavily because now it truly becomes a physical sport at the heavyweight level.

Who can give him trouble as a heavyweight?

Shields: As a cruiserweight champion, he has a name over there, but not over here. So he’s not just going to run and jump and fight for the world title fight with [Tyson] Fury, [Deontay] Wilder or [Andy] Ruiz, that just ain’t gonna happen. You gotta get there first, you’ve got to get through all these other guys so you can get there. There’s a lot of bad matchups for him. Daniel Dubois is a bad matchup for him, I think Efe Ajagba is a bad matchup for him. I know he fought Joe Joyce in the amateurs, but now that Joe Joyce has a lot more experience, and [he’s] a strong guy — [he] can punch, can lean on you, tire you out.

Banks: He might have problems with any heavyweight because all these guys out here now, nobody is a walkover, from AJ [Anthony Joshua] to Tyson Fury, definitely Deontay Wilder because of how hard Wilder can punch. So all these guys pose a threat to one another, each and every last one. As we’ve seen with [Andy] Ruiz Jr.-Joshua, all it takes is one punch to change things.

Sanchez: I think the guys who are the most mobile, I don’t think he would deal with Fury well. Wilder would give him troubles because he’s got big pop and he’s a decent boxer, he’s got good speed — not only with his feet, but his hands. Some of the slower guys, like Joe Joyce, he fought him in the amateurs, that’s a fight that could probably be made again and I think the Joyce people think he could win it. At a heavier weight, Joyce might have a better chance than he did in the amateurs. Anthony Joshua would be a difficult fight. Ruiz would be a terrible fight for him because Andy will be just as fast as he is [with his hands] and carry the bigger punch.

Roach: Wilder, Fury, Joshua, they will give him problems for sure. They’re big heavyweights and they’re big punchers.

Rozier: All the big guys. Fury, Wilder, Joshua, I mean, between Fury and Wilder alone, Wilder has the ability to stop him before he even gets started in the first round with a KO. Fury can dictate and push him around and make him uncomfortable. I’m not done with Joshua yet — I think he’s going to redeem himself, and if Usyk was to fight him, it only takes one shot and he’s gone.

How successful will Usyk be at heavyweight?

Shields: I think he fares really good, I really do. Once he gets the experience of the top-echelon guys, once he fights one of those guys, he’s going to know and understand these guys, he’s going to figure out what to do, and he should beat these guys.

Banks: I think he does fine; I believe he can gain a heavyweight title. He could definitely be a top-six heavyweight, no doubt. I think he’s top 10, right now. And when I say top 10, I’m talking about as far as the skill set and that’s basically what you’re going off of. Far as that, he’s top 10, right now.

Sanchez: If he’s managed and matched correctly, he can be a heavyweight champion. There’s always a champion out there, so many titles, that there could be a title with a guy who’s not maybe on the elite level, where he can win a belt. But against the elite guys, he’s going to have a difficult time.

Roach: Overall, I hope he does well, he looks really good physically and so forth. But again, moving up in the heavyweight division, like with Michael Moorer, he was 17-0 with 17 knockouts, as a light heavyweight, and it was a whole new book.

Rozier: Well, we’ll have to see, we don’t know just yet. I’ve seen him box very well against cruiserweights, but once again, he went through decisions and these guys, they’re not going to falter against what he’s bringing to the ring. So we just have to see what goes on. It’s going to be a reckoning. We have to see where he’s at with his ability at this new weight class.