We could get used to this. For the second Saturday in succession a unification fight in the cruiserweight division had boxing fans around the world enthralled. Following on from last weekend's battle between Oleksandr Usyk and Mairis Briedis, Murat Gassiev and Yunier Dorticos met at the Bolshoy Ice Dome in Sochi, Russia and gave us a memorable encounter.
Gassiev's IBF title and Dorticos' WBA strap were on the line, as well as a place in the World Boxing Super Series final against Usyk on May 11. That final, taking place in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, will see the winner lift the Muhammad Ali trophy and be crowned the undisputed cruiserweight world champion.
It will be Gassiev travelling east to fight for those spoils. He executed a well thought out game-plan and landed his punches with incredible accuracy as he knocked out his talented and game opponent with just eight seconds remaining in the final round. It was a dramatic ending to a magnificent contest – both men demonstrating their toughness and ability throughout as once again we could only sit on the edge of our seats and admire what was happening in the ring.
The fight began with Dorticos, from Cuba and fighting on Gassiev's home soil, on the front foot as he established his jab early. Gassiev seemed happy to spend the opening session on the back foot blocking and having a look but he did throw and land a couple of eye-catching body shots. The second frame followed the same pattern but we got a glimpse of what was to come as Gassiev threw more in return at the advancing Dorticos while showing defensive poise in blocking many of the Cubans punches.
Dorticos in the main was head hunting and he dominated the third round with his fast jab although the most attention grabbing punch of the session was a solid looking body shot thrown by the Cuban. It would have been a wise strategy to continue with for Dorticos as he may have lowered Gassiev's tight, high guard but, for reasons only he would be able to explain, he didn't really commit to a body attack for the remainder of the contest.
Gassiev, on the other hand, did. Even when he was being backed up and losing rounds in the first third of the fight he was tagging Dorticos with punishing looking body blows from both wings. The first indication of this paying off for Gassiev was in round five. Now on the front foot the home fighter, perhaps confident he had weathered the best of Dorticos, was able to land plenty of his punches. His lead hand uppercut, body shot combination was looking good and Dorticos looked slightly hurt towards the end of the frame.
This seemed to be the spring board for Gassiev to take over the fight. As the rounds progressed it was the Russian who was beginning to dominate proceedings. After being down 3-1 on my card I had Gassiev winning rounds five to eleven before the need for any scoring was put to bed. He was able to block much of Dorticos' offensive output while landing his better placed punches. The variety of punching and accuracy of shots landed by Gassiev underlined his class. Dorticos for his his part seemed to be a little too much in love with his own power. His jab, right hand over the top became a bit too easy for Gassiev to telegraph as the fight wore on. Another flaw from Dorticos was his desire to get in close with Gassiev. The man with the four inch reach advantage would have been better served boxing a more suitable range behind his beautiful jab; instead he was regularly in the perfect position to be tagged by Gassiev's left uppercuts.
As Gassiev took over the fight, Dorticos was beginning to look tired and his punches had less zip on them. Despite this he showed great heart by continuing to try and land something of note on his opponent. It should also be mentioned that Dorticos was taking risks and being caught but his punch resistance is absolutely first rate. Many a fighter would've been stopped earlier by Gassiev's power punches.
When the ending did come it was fitting. We had entered the final round, where I suspect Dorticos was aware that he needed something spectacular to pull the fight out of the fire. He tried, going toe to toe attempting to land a Sunday punch. Gassiev seemed to be relishing the style of fight by this point when a series of knockdowns arrived. Coming in behind his jab, Dorticos then threw his right which Gassiev ducked before landing a huge left hook on his exposed opponent. Dorticos was on his feet surprisingly quickly but the game was up. Gassiev piled in and a combination of some big right hands and another left hook to the head had Dorticos down for a second time. Again he showed great heart by getting up and the action was allowed to continue with 50 seconds remaining in the bout. Gassiev weighed in with more huge right hands against his now wobbly foe and Dorticos went down and fell through the ropes close to a neutral corner with less than ten seconds remaining. The referee had seen enough and immediately waved the fight over.
It was explosive, exciting and final. The home fans in the arena were ecstatic as they celebrated their man's stylish victory. It is worth stating again that in boxing we don't often get to see the best fighting the best, but when it does happen there is nothing better. This bout was every bit as good as last week's tango between Usyk and Briedis – this crop of cruiserweights are exceptional and the more matchups that can get made between the top men in the division, the better.
After the result was made official and Dorticos' belt was handed over to Gassiev we heard from the winner: “I want to thank all the Russian fans for coming today and watching me. It's very important for me, this was my first unification fight. Yunier Dorticos is a great champion. He's really a very hard hitter and I respect him a lot. I hope he's good and good luck for his professional career. There was big pressure all round, he has heart and is a warrior, he took big punches but continued fighting. I hope in the final it is a good fight for all the boxing fans.”
Although defeated on the night, Dorticos (22-1, 21KOs) showed that he belongs at the top table of his division and hopefully he will return to face his fellow elite 200lb fighters in the future. Gassiev (26-0, 19KOs) may well be the best of them all and his final showdown with Usyk is one not to miss.
At just 24 years old Murat Gassiev has learned on the job as a professional and looks like he will be difficult to beat. He ticks all the boxes in that his punch resistance is top grade and tonight he demonstrated patience and perfect tactical understanding in what was his toughest fight so far. In an attacking sense Gassiev throws with devastating accuracy and his uppercut, body shot combination may well be the best one-two offense in the sport right now. It is fair to suggest that his upcoming date with Usyk will present the Russian with an even harder test but it is one he will be well prepared for. It is not long until May 11. On that day the eyes of the boxing world will be on Saudi Arabia. We expect another great contest – we know we will get an undisputed cruiserweight champion.