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Is Fury vs. Usyk the biggest heavyweight fight ever?

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With boxing having been deprived of an undisputed heavyweight champ for almost 25 years, one could be forgiven for getting carried away by the hype surrounding Tyson Fury vs. Oleksandr Usyk, which takes place at the Kingdom Arena in Riyadh on May 18.

WATCH: Tyson Fury vs. Oleksandr Usyk, live on DAZN

However, it’s difficult not to get carried away. Two unbeaten fighters, both unanimously regarded as the best of their generation, squaring off for every authentic world championship belt in the sport’s glamour division. This one is already off the charts.

But is Fury vs Usyk the biggest heavyweight fight of all time? Opinions will vary on this debate and that’s to be expected.

Before we proceed, it’s important to understand the number one rule of the game: “Biggest” does not mean “richest”. There have been heavyweight title fights that made enormous sums of money at the box office but did little in terms of altering the sport’s trajectory.

Notable omissions from this list include Larry Holmes vs. Gerry Cooney, Mike Tyson vs. Michael Spinks, and Lennox Lewis vs. Mike Tyson. Some might disagree with this take and that’s perfectly fine.

Here are four fights that truly test Fury vs. Usyk in historical terms:

Louis had lost his unbeaten record to Germany’s Schmeling in a humiliating 12th-round knockout defeat two years earlier.

Since that time, “The Brown Bomber” had won the heavyweight championship at the expense of James J. Braddock and defended on three occasions. However, Louis couldn’t consider himself the best until he avenged his lone defeat.

The Schmeling rematch took place with World War II imminent. It was more than a boxing match. Louis was fighting for freedom and democracy, whereas Schmeling reluctantly represented Nazi Germany.

It’s estimated that 70 million people listened to this fight on the radio.

The fight was no contest. Having developed himself into a sublime and ruthless boxer-puncher, Louis decked Schmeling three times en route to a shuddering first-round knockout.

Schmeling was hospitalized, with cracked vertebrae among his injuries.

Result: Louis TKO 1

The first time in boxing history that two unbeaten fighters would contest the heavyweight championship of the world.

Frazier had replaced Ali as champion when the latter was stripped of the title for refusing induction into the U.S. Armed Forces. The Philadelphia powerhouse had claimed undisputed honors by hammering Ali’s friend and stablemate Jimmy Ellis to defeat in February 1970.

Following a three-and-a-half-year hiatus from the ring, Ali was finally granted a boxing license in 1970. He halted both Jerry Quarry and Oscar Bonavena before putting pen to paper for the Frazier fight.

The world stopped on March 8, 1971, as the curtain rose on the greatest boxing rivalry the world has ever seen. Ali vs. Frazier remains the benchmark to which all great heavyweight championship fights are compared.

Frazier’s power and left hook trumped Ali’s speed and combinations in a points victory that was rubber-stamped by a ferocious left hook knockdown in the fifteenth and final round.

Some might put Ali vs. Frazier 3, “The Thrilla in Manila” ahead of this one, but just as is the case with movies, you don’t get a sequel without the original. “The Fight of the Century” was aptly named.

Result: Frazier UD 15

MORE: SN’s top-12 heavyweight boxers

Perhaps the most famous fight in boxing history and one of the greatest moments in all of sports.

Foreman, the champion, was the invincible knockout machine who had posted devastating second-round stoppages over both Joe Frazier and Ken Norton, two men who held wins over Ali.

Although Ali had avenged both of those setbacks and was coming into the fight on good form, “The Greatest” was installed as a prohibitive 6/1 underdog against the ferocious Texan.

This is the fight that gave birth to the rope-a-dope. Relying upon his incredible defensive radar and reflexes, Ali avoided the worst of Foreman’s assaults and popped home counters whenever he saw a gap. For the first five rounds, the challenger did this with his back to the ropes, which looked tactically suicidal.

However, by round six, Foreman had slowed down alarmingly and was sucking in air at every opportunity. Meanwhile, Ali was still sharp and his straight, accurate punches were snapping Foreman’s head back.

In the eighth, Ali broke out of a corner and unleashed a multi-punch combination, punctuated by a perfect straight right, that put an exhausted Foreman down for the count.

Hollywood couldn’t have made this one up.

Result: Ali KO 8

WATCH: Tyson Fury vs. Oleksandr Usyk, exclusively on ESPN+

Holyfield and Lewis faced off in boxing’s mecca to crown the first undisputed heavyweight champion for almost six-and-half years.

When Riddick Bowe defeated Holyfield for the undisputed championship in November 1992, he was obligated to fight Lewis, who was then the WBC mandatory challenger.

However, instead of facing the hard-hitting Brit who had stopped him in the Olympic super heavyweight final at Seoul 1988, Bowe threw the WBC belt in the trash – literally. Soon all the belts would be split and it became harder and harder to bring them back together.

Against incredible odds, Holyfield later won the WBA version of the title from Mike Tyson before avenging a prior defeat to Michael Moorer to lift the IBF crown. Meanwhile, Lewis had picked up the vacant WBC title at the expense of old conqueror Oliver McCall.

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