Usyk vs. Fury was exactly what the sport of boxing has been missing

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- Boxing has always been powered by its heavyweight division, and for 24½ years, multiple men have held claims to the sport's top prize.

The sport endured a lengthy but sometimes uneventful reign from Wladimir Klitschko, a unified champion who lacked the proper foe (outside of his brother Vitali, whom he never fought for obvious reasons).

Tyson Fury ended Klitsckho's run as champion in 2015, but even Klitschko wasn't the undisputed champion. One of boxing's four -- yes, four -- major titles still eluded Fury. On Sunday before a sold-out, impassioned crowd at Kingdom Arena, Fury attempted to collect all four belts against Kiltschko's countryman, Ukraine's Oleksandr Usyk, the Olympic gold medalist who once reigned as undisputed cruiserweight champion.

Fury (34-1-1, 24 KOs) appeared to be well on his way to victory over the first half of the back-and-forth battle. He played to the crowd, tossing his hands behind his back as he evaded Usyk's punches. "The Gypsy King" grabbed the ropes in the corner and dodged a few shots in the opening round, channeling the great Muhammad Ali. When Usyk sunk in a few solid body punches, Fury smirked.

Usyk (22-0, 14 KOs) didn't care. He never allowed Fury's patented mind games to affect him during the promotion in the lead-up to this night, and the 37-year-old wasn't about to let it get to him now. His split decision victory -- 114-113, 115-112 and 113-114 -- earned him recognition as boxing's top heavyweight.

"It's [a] big opportunity for me, for my family, for my country, for history," said Usyk, ESPN's No. 3 pound-for-pound boxer. "It's [a] great day."

The Ukrainian, fighting for his war-torn country, continued to press on. He applied pressure expertly and finally broke through in Round 9 with an overhand left that sent Fury reeling. Thirteen more unanswered shots landed, the last of which sent Fury crashing into the ropes for a called knockdown. And as Fury, 35, did seven previous times, he beat the count and continued to fight.

This was exactly what the sport has been missing: heavyweight championship boxing at the highest level. A fight befitting of the undisputed championship. Not the slugfest between Fury and Deontay Wilder in their trilogy bout that was named ESPN's 2021 Fight of the Year, but boxing skill, heart and courage on display.

Better yet, we're going to see it again. When Turki Alalshikh, the chairman of Saudi Arabia's General Entertainment Authority, cut the deal for this matchup, he made it a two-fight deal. The rematch is slated for Oct. 12. Although Usyk visited the hospital afterward for an MRI, his promoter, Alexander Krassyuk, told ESPN "there's no doubt" he'll be ready for the return bout in October.

After what boxing fans witnessed on this night, the encore encounter will surely be more anticipated than the first fight.

"I believe I won the fight, but I'm not going to sit here and cry and make excuses," England's Fury said. "I believe he won a few of the rounds, but I won the majority of them. What can you do? We both put on a good fight, the best we could do."

Indeed, Fury was exceptional on this night, even if he wasn't good enough. He just ran into a better man, one who has proven to be one of the all-time greats, in Usyk.

Even ESPN's No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter, Terence Crawford, believes Usyk has a case to unseat him.

"Man yall better put some respect on [Usyk] man," Crawford wrote on X after the fight. "He definitely a candidate for #1 P4P fighter in the world. I'm no hater. He beat the man that beat the man in a bigger division, giving what he's already done. Salute brother!"

An Olympic gold medalist. An undisputed cruiserweight champion. And now, the one and only heavyweight champion of the world.