The cruiserweight edition of the World Boxing Super Series (WBSS) has really got fans excited about what has historically been an overlooked weight class.
The 200lb division has been recognised by the WBC since 1979 and the WBA since 1982. Other sanctioning bodies followed suit but on the whole the boxers plying their trade just south of heavyweight have never received the same level of attention from fans and media as those who box at welter, middle or heavyweight.
The advent of the WBSS this year has changed this trend. Cruiserweight is challenging the traditional glamour divisions for column space and television slots. Now the men who throw leather at the elite end of the division have been thrust firmly into the spotlight.
For those unfamiliar with it, the WBSS is a knockout competition beginning with an eight man field. Quarter-finals, semi-finals then a final will take place between September 2017 and May 2018 to determine a winner. The last man standing will be the recipient of the Muhammad Ali trophy and a significant amount of money. Due to the makeup of the cruiserweight tournament the winner will also be crowned the undisputed world champion.
A joint venture between Sauerland Promotions and Richard Schaefer of Ringstar Promotions, the WBSS has been a breath of fresh air for boxing. The organisers knew what they were doing when they selected the 200lb division to make up one of their inaugural tournaments (super-middleweight being the other). They then got lucky when all four of the major world title holders put themselves forward for inclusion.
Oleksandr Usyk (WBO), Mairis Briedis (WBC), Yunier Dorticos (WBA) and Murat Gassiev (IBF) entered the competition as the top four seeds. Getting these title holders to enter ensured that every WBSS matchup would be a world title fight and that a unified champion would be crowned at the conclusion of the competition. As all contests are under the umbrella of the WBSS no boxing politics can get in the way – the winners will advance and face each other.
The tournament got underway on September 9 in Berlin, Germany when highly fancied Oleksandr Usyk dismantled Marco Huck en route to a TKO win in the tenth round. Usyk now awaits the winner of this weekend's fight between Mairis Briedis and Mike Perez – more on that later.
This past weekend the second quarter-final took place. Knock-out experts Yunier Dorticos and Dmitry Kudryashov faced off in San Antonio, Texas. The two heavy hitters combined for a 98 per cent KO ratio so an early night was more or less guaranteed. And so it came to pass. Dorticos, of Cuba, took one round to fathom out his Russian opponent's tendencies before sending him crashing to the canvas with a huge right hand in round two. Fight over. This impressive showing from Dorticos announced him as a genuine contender to lift the trophy next May. He will face the winner of the Murat Gassiev-Krzysztof Wlodarczyk contest which takes place in New Jersey on October 21.
That brings us to Saturday's fight between WBC title holder Mairis Briedis and Cuba's Mike Perez. Briedis will enjoy home advantage as the bout will take place in Riga, Latvia. Perez is the one man in the cruiserweight lineup who brings something of the unknown to proceedings.
Mike “The Rebel” Perez (22-2-1, 14KOs) is a name known to boxing fans although many would be forgiven for thinking he had given up the sweet science. Perez previously fought as a heavyweight and his campaign in that division gained some serious traction and came off the rails on the same evening.
Back in November 2013 Perez faced off against Magomed Abdusalamov in a battle of undefeated heavyweight contenders looking to take the next step toward a world title. The fight took place at Madison Square Garden's Theater. As expected the action was relentless and at the end of ten bruising rounds Perez deservedly took a unanimous decision.
What was not expected was the incompetence shown by the New York State Athletic Commission officials after the bout when Abdusalamov complained of feeling unwell. The Commission's medical professionals did not diagnose him correctly. The boxer had suffered a serious brain injury and is now wheelchair bound and paralysed on his right side. Through no fault of his own, Perez's best win to date will forever be tainted with tragedy.
Understandably Perez was affected by the terrible outcome at The Garden and his next four outings in the ring reflected that. Gone was the fast, powerful, skilled southpaw we had enjoyed watching. Instead we saw a fighter who looked short of motivation and reluctant to fight. Perez went 1-2-1 in his heavyweight contests post Abdusalamov. This poor run was finished off with an exclamation mark when Perez suffered a humiliating first round knockout at the hands of Alexander Povetkin in 2015. Perez looked like a man with no love for the fight game. He looked like he was finished with professional boxing.
A long break from the sport followed. Since his defection from Cuba Perez has been based in Cork, Ireland. While it may have been assumed he had left boxing behind to enjoy life in that nice part of the world, Perez was working hard behind the scenes. Often as a heavyweight Perez was in excess of 235lbs – unknown to most he was implementing a plan to shed some weight and re-invent himself as a sub 200lb fighter.
In June of this year, just over two years since his defeat by Povetkin, Perez returned to the prize ring. Looking toned and fit he weighed in at 198lbs for his cruiserweight debut. Perez knocked out his opponent in 29 seconds that night and now finds himself in the tournament with a chance to win the WBC title.
Mairis Briedis (22-0-0, 18KOs) presents a much sterner test. The hard punching Latvian fighter won his title the last time he gloved up, against Marco Huck, in April. That fight was a disappointment as Huck, respectful and possibly fearful of Briedis' power, refused to engage for the duration of the bout. We had to endure twelve foul filled rounds (thanks Marco) before Briedis was confirmed as the new title holder via a wide unanimous decision.
Perhaps there was some justification for Huck's spoiling tactics as Briedis had previously demonstrated his power by scoring five knock-outs over heavyweight fighters in the early days of his professional career. The most impressive one being when he turned 245lb Manuel Charr's lights out in a fight that took place in 2015.
On Saturday we will find out just where Perez is mentally in terms of his boxing. It should be clear in the early stages if he is prepared to stand up to the formidable challenge that Briedis presents. If he has been able to rediscover his pre-Abdusalamov mindset then we may be in for a treat. Briedis will want to match Usyk and Dorticos by winning in a dominating fashion while defending his title as well as impressing the fans in his home town. Perez will hopefully be determined to show he is worthy of his place in this competition and announce himself as being back as an elite boxer.
If you haven't watched a WBSS matchup yet I'd recommend you start on Saturday. The production is high quality and ring announcer Jimmy Lennon Jr. really earns his money during the longer than usual ring walks. If the action isn't televised where you live it can be viewed on the WBSS website.
The tournament is gathering momentum. Briedis vs Perez looks like a solid matchup which will surely deliver in the ring. It will also provide us with some insight as to how this second part of Perez's professional journey may play out. Don't rule out an upset win for “The Rebel” as he looks to capture a world title in his new weight class. Oleksandr Usyk, scouting his semi-final opponent, will be an interested spectator – make sure you are too.