The time is near for undisputed cruiserweight champion and 2018 ESPN.com fighter of the year Oleksandr Usyk to make a decision on what comes next for him, and it is not necessarily the move up to heavyweight that most expected.
After Usyk, the 2012 Olympic heavyweight gold medalist for Ukraine, won the World Boxing Super Series and unified all four 200-pound titles in the final with a virtual shutout decision against Murat Gassiev on July 21 on Gassiev's turf in Moscow, Usyk defended all four belts with a sensational one-punch knockout of former world titlist Tony Bellew on Nov. 10 in Bellew's home country of England.
After that fight, many assumed Usyk (16-0, 12 KOs), a 31-year-old southpaw, would do what most other top cruiserweights have done: Move up to heavyweight. And while that is definitely in the plans for Usyk, it just might not be next, according to co-promoter Eddie Hearn of Matchroom Boxing.
"We have a meeting in New York next week to decide his next fight and date," Hearn told ESPN on Wednesday. "He either stays at cruiserweight and fights [former world titlist Denis] Lebedev or moves up."
Hearn also said there have been "light" discussions about a possible fight later in 2019 against light heavyweight titlist Artur Beterbiev, who has interest in moving up to the cruiserweight division to challenge Usyk.
Lebedev (32-2, 23 KOs), 39, of Russia, vacated one of the cruiserweight belts that Usyk eventually won in the World Boxing Super Series and is coming off a one-sided 12-round decision over Mike Wilson in November. Lebedev is the most notable fighter in the division whom Usyk has not yet faced.
Beterbiev (13-0, 13 KOs), 33, a two-time Russian Olympian fighting out of Montreal, has made one successful light heavyweight title defense. He would have to beat Joe Smith Jr. in a defense that is supposed to take place in the next couple of months to keep himself in position for a possible shot at Usyk later in the year.
If Usyk elects to move up to heavyweight, there also is likely to be big business waiting for him in that division.
Hearn envisions Usyk eventually challenging three-belt world titlist Anthony Joshua (22-0, 21 KOs), whom Hearn also promotes, in a major fight. But Usyk, who also has said his goal is to eventually fight for a heavyweight world title, would fight at least one heavyweight first, and it could come against one of the top contenders in the division.
"We have two more viable positions with Alexander Povetkin and Luis Ortiz, two of the best heavyweights of today," K2 Promotions Alexander Krassyuk, Usyk's co-promoter, said.
In his most recent fight, Povetkin (34-2, 24 KOs), 39, of Russia, suffered his first loss in five years when Joshua knocked him out in the seventh round of their heavyweight world title fight.
Ortiz (30-1, 26 KOs), a 39-year-old Cuban defector who fights out of Miami, has won two fights in a row since he was knocked out in the 10th round challenging world titlist Deontay Wilder in March in one of the best fights of 2018.
Krassyuk said there was a "70 percent chance" that Usyk would fight one of them in his next contest at heavyweight, possibly as soon as March.
"If those options fail, we can defend the cruiserweight titles against Denis Lebedev in March," he said. "We plan to meet with Eddie Hearn at the end of next week to discuss our options."