After several boxing free weekends, 2018 got underway last Saturday with Errol Spence’s impressive showing against Lamont Peterson in front of a large crowd in Brooklyn. Kicking on from that we now have major boxing events every weekend to take us right through to spring time.
It could be argued that two of the more important contests in this period will take place in Eastern Europe over the next two Saturdays. The World Boxing Super Series (WBSS) cruiserweight tournament has reached the semi-final stage and we have two highly appealing fights approaching.
First up on January 27 in Riga, Latvia, pre-tournament favourite and WBO title holder Oleksandr Usyk (13-0-0, 11KOs) takes on home fighter Mairis Briedis (23-0-0, 18KOs), the man who proudly holds the WBC title.
Then on February 3 the Bolshoy Ice Dome in Russia will host Russia’s own, IBF belt owner, Murat Gassiev (25-0-0, 18KOs) against WBA champion Yunier Dorticos (22-0-0, 21KOs) of Cuba.
The four men remaining in the tournament are all elite boxers. Between the semi-finals and final (scheduled for May) one of them will emerge as the undisputed cruiserweight world champion and the winner of the Muhammad Ali trophy. In the 200lb weight class the WBSS has certainly delivered. Unification fights on consecutive weekends would not be happening without this tournament format. Let’s take a closer look at the participants and the matchups.
Oleksandr Usyk, from Ukraine, may well be the best fighter currently operating in the cruiserweight division. The southpaw possesses the footwork of a much lighter man and his ring intelligence is as you would expect from a fighter who had as lengthy and prolific an amateur campaign as Usyk did. He can use his physicality on the inside when needed, but prefers to control the action at range. He won the WBO world title in his tenth outing as a pro, then in his WBSS quarter-final he destroyed former world champion Marco Huck with ease.
Mairis Briedis is the first world champion boxer from Latvia. The man from capital city Riga won his version of the world crown by outpointing Marco Huck in April 2017. Although the scores on the cards were wide, the fight was a scrappy, untidy affair. Briedis followed up that win by scoring another unanimous decision – this time over Mike Perez in the WBSS quarter-final. The bout with Perez was also not easy on the eye and the referee looked well out of his depth in trying to coax an entertaining fight out of the participants. Briedis was the main culprit in not allowing the action to flow. Briedis will need to show more against Usyk if he wants to remain in contention for WBSS glory.
In thinking about this clash it seems to me that the holding and inside tactics that worked for Briedis against Huck and Perez will not be as successful against the larger Usyk. Briedis may look to drag the Ukrainian into a trench style battle but Usyk, with his ready for the heavyweight division right now physique, would be able to deal with this challenge. Briedis may need to take his chances and try to win a longer range boxing match in this bout.
From Usyk’s point of view a test of just boxing abilities would best suit him. Blessed with the superior movement he could pile up the points by landing his jab, while only unleashing his left when Briedis is in no position to throw a counter of his own. Briedis may be reduced to hoping he lands something significant to disrupt his opponent’s momentum as the fight progresses.
This is how I see Usyk vs. Briedis playing out: In much the same way as he did when he won the title in Krzysztof Glowacki’s Polish backyard, Usyk goes to Riga on Saturday night and exhibits his noteworthy skills, boxing his way to a wide unanimous decision victory.
Usyk will then be awaiting the winner of the February 3 collision between Murat Gassiev and Yunier Dorticos.
At 24 years old, Murat Gassiev is the youngest boxer in this tournament. Turning pro back in 2011 at just 17, Gassiev has developed into a fighter who doesn’t seem to have any glaring weaknesses. Now based in Big Bear, California and trained by Abel Sanchez, the Russian has shown in his last two bouts that he can adapt and thrive against different styles of opponents. Gassiev prevailed in a battle of strength and will against his countryman Denis Lebedev in December 2016 to pick up his piece of the cruiserweight crown. It was a brutal fight which proved Gassiev not only has the skills but also the fortitude needed to prosper at the elite level. He then scored a dominant KO3 victory over the experienced Pole Krzysztof Wlodarczyk in his WBSS quarter-final.
Yunier Dorticos owns the WBA version of the cruiserweight world title and is perhaps regarded as a dark horse to go all the way in this tournament. The 31 year old Cuban holds the highest knockout percentage of the semi-finalists and showcased his power in his quarter-final with Dmitry Kudryashov. Dorticos detonated a monster right hand on Kudryashov’s temple which ended the fight in round two. Boxing in a seemingly laid back manner it appears to me that Dorticos can quickly compute the tendencies of his foes. He is consequently adept at luring opponents into a false sense of security before springing his own attacks. The Cuban has a high ring IQ and will be extremely dangerous in Gassiev’s home land on February 3.
In looking at how this bout may play out I have to acknowledge the possibility of an early chess match taking place. Gassiev’s all round ability extends to his defence and awareness of not getting caught in any of Dorticos’ traps, while the Cuban may box patiently behind his deceptively quick jab in the opening rounds.
As the fight progresses Dorticos will be looking to employ his four inch reach advantage while waiting for Gassiev to make a mistake. This could lead to another one punch finish. Gassiev has legitimate power of his own and if he can work inside and rough Dorticos up he could turn the direction of the fight his way.
It should be stated that either man could get iced at any moment in this bout. While being mindful of this I am expecting a long fight that gets better as each round passes. In what may be regarded as an upset in some quarters I am predicting that after a cagey opening a real war will erupt during the middle rounds only to be ended by Dorticos landing a big right hand sometime in the final quarter of the bout.
On the whole the WBSS has been a breath of fresh air for boxing. The cruiserweight tournament has given us attractive fights and on the whole exciting action, with the best yet to come. It is therefore rather surprising that a TV deal has not been sorted out for the American market. At time of writing it appears that fans in the USA will need to track down a stream if they want to watch the cruiserweight fights coming up. It seems strange to me that the largest and perhaps most important boxing market in the world is effectively being shut-out. If, as seems likely, the WBSS is to continue in other weight classes in the years to come, it is paramount that US broadcasters and the tournament promoters strike a deal. This will benefit the sport and also increase the significance of the WBSS brand.
There doesn’t seem to be any broadcasting issues in other territories around the globe with all major boxing markets catered for – check local listings for the upcoming bouts.
The next two Saturdays will see the four best cruiserweights on the planet putting their records, titles and reputations on the line in pursuit of greatness. Combined records of 83-0 with 68KOs give these semi-final encounters a bit of added spice. After making us wait throughout the early weeks of January big time boxing is well and truly back. The action in the 200lb division over the upcoming weekends will ensure that the waiting was worthwhile. It is almost time for the combatants to step into the light. Soon there will be only two unified champions left standing.