The first semi-final of the World Boxing Super Series (WBSS) took place at the Riga Arena in Riga, Latvia late on Saturday local time.
It was a high quality, fast paced, action packed affair that left me, and many others I suspect, feeling breathless but energised and full of admiration for the combatants.
Oleksandr Usyk and Mairis Briedis put it all on the line in a hard fought encounter that will be in contention for fight of the year honours in eleven months time.
The fans in attendance and those of us watching from further afield were treated to a relentless encounter. As gruelling and career shortening as it was for the fighters, it was thrilling for the viewers. Both men demonstrated an other-worldly will to win as they sought to add their opponent's title belt to their own and in the process advance to May's cruiserweight tournament final.
In the end the judges were required, Oleksandr Usyk being awarded a majority decision win. Craig Metcalfe scored the bout 114-114, his colleagues Robin Taylor and Robert Tapper saw it 115-113 for the visiting fighter from Ukraine.
The judgement means Usyk, now 14-0, 11KOs, added Briedis' WBC belt to his WBO crown. Briedis' record is now 23-1, 18KOs while Usyk moves on to the final where he will face the winner of next week's Murat Gassiev vs. Yunier Dorticos showdown.
Saturday's fight began at a high tempo. I was happy to see Briedis not attempting to grab and spoil as Usyk was doubling and trebling up on his fast jab in the opening half of the round. Briedis was able to land a few stiff counter shots which got the home crowd roaring early. I thought after the promising opening round that we may have a special fight on our hands, but I did wonder if two boxers weighing 200lbs could maintain such a pace. I shouldn't have worried.
The following rounds continued in the same manner with Usyk, in the main, on the front foot but being kept honest by the impressive and eye-catching power counters Briedis was able to land. Both men were also taking chances, targeting the body of their foe and throwing some slick uppercuts when the action got up close. As the early going unfolded the rounds were tight and difficult to score and the fast pace showed no sign of letting up.
In the third round we saw an accidental clash of heads that opened up a small cut above Usyk's right eye but thankfully this didn't play a significant part in the rest of the bout. The first real round of domination for one fighter was the fifth. Usyk was able to weather an early Briedis onslaught, boxing his way back into the round off the back foot with some impressive uppercuts which got him going forward. He closed the round landing at will as Briedis became a bit disorganised, perhaps panicked by how Usyk had handled his best shots in the opening minute of the round. Briedis also suffered some damage to his nose in round five but his corner were able to keep the blood flow under control.
The next three sessions were just as entertaining as the ones we had already witnessed – this was the portion of the fight where I felt Usyk took over. He had firmly established himself on the front foot by now and his constant bouncing on his feet and movement from the waist as he looked to attack from the southpaw stance reminded me of a prime Manny Pacquiao. A 200lb version of Manny Pacquiao. His lightning fast jab was becoming the dominant punch in the fight and although Briedis was having moments of joy he was being outworked and facing an opponent who looked like he was now hitting top gear.
The conditioning of both boxers deserves a special mention. To fight at the pace they did and to absorb the punishment being handed out, and to keep coming back for more, spoke volumes for both men's physical and mental strength. They both needed everything they had left in their respective fuel tanks as we entered the final quarter of the fight.
The final frames flew by. The tenth was typical of the entire fight – back and forth action with Usyk's punch output being the deciding factor on my card. By this stage there weren't as many body shots being thrown. Both fighters were looking to land the one shot that may have given them a conclusive breakthrough or an early finish. It was not to be, though, and Usyk jabbed his way expertly to the eleventh while taking some but avoiding most of the return fire from Briedis. The Latvian mustered a huge effort for the closing round to give hope to the majority in the crowd as we went to the scorecards.
It was not to be for Briedis and his army of fans on the night and I believe Usyk was correctly declared the winner. My unofficial card read 116-112 for the man from Ukraine. It was a fight that no-one who witnessed it will forget for a long time. After the WBSS has concluded it would be great if these two warriors could re-match at some stage down the line. It goes to show that when the best fight the best in a given weight class special things can happen. We need more unification matches so that boxing can get back to somewhere resembling where it was in previous eras.
After the fight we were able to briefly hear from Usyk. Sporting the scars of battle he had this to say via translator: “I want to say that Mairis Briedis is the distant son of his country. We should give him a round of applause. These were the most difficult twelve rounds I've ever had in my career. I will be present at the other semi-final next week and I wish for the strongest man to win.”
That brought proceedings in Riga to an end. After a taxing contest, Usyk does not have much time to recover then go through another camp before the final, but we know he will. We will know next week who Usyk will face for the Muhammad Ali trophy on May 11. Before looking ahead any further it is fitting to end this summary with some more plaudits for Usyk and Briedis. Both men will have gained new fans and they more than played their part in raising boxing's profile, if only for a short while. Two warriors entered the ring and two warriors left it with reputations enhanced but the nature of sport demands there has to be a winner. Usyk was the man tonight and we can now anticipate his appearance in the final while hoping that himself and Briedis can meet again sometime in the future.