By Alexey Sukachev
At the conclusion of one winter month and at the start of another - the cruiserweights delivered.
This time they delivered in a double package - as part of the semi-finals of the World Boxing Super Series cruiserweight tournament.
As good as the first semi-final was, the second one - which took place in the resort city of Adler, on the outskirts of the rich southern city of Sochi, Russia - was what many considered to be a true gem.
Murat Gassiev (now 26-0, 19 KOs), fighting in front of zealot crowd – thanks to Sochi being not too distant from his native land of Ossetia – produced an epic tactical performance, which reinvented himself and opened many eyes to entirely new aspects of his rich talent.
It wasn’t an easy task.
Gassiev, 24, now a unified WBA and IBF cruiserweight titleholder – was forced to toy with the serious danger of Cuban kayo artist Yunier Dorticos (22-1, 21 KOs).
To get the job done, Gassiev picked a strategy that surprised many experts.
Instead of going toe-to-toe with Dorticos to produce a war, Gassiev outsmarted his opponent. He fought the opening rounds from the outside by moving around, landing only a limited number of punches. He was outdone in terms of activity, but he dominated in terms of the leather that meant something. It wasn’t enough to build an early lead on the official scorecards but it was more than enough to know Dorticos better and to soften him up.
Then the Russian (actually Ossetian) turned the tables on Dorticos and began dominate the second half of the bout. It was still a close fight when Gassiev had finally cracked the unusually strong chin of Dorticos in the twelfth round, by putting him down three times and punctuated another of his breakthrough performances with a memorable through-the-ropes knockout.
It was a helluva fight, and it was a hell of performance by one of boxing’s youngest champions.
WBC/WBO champion Olexander Usyk (14-0, 11 KOs), who was ringside in Sochi, acknowledged and praised Murat’s effort. He was all smiles beforehand – both in public and in studio for a pre-fight analysis with Russian TV pundits. He was all business after that, when he was put face-to-face with the night’s hero. And there was also respect that was earned by the younger and less heralded fighter – in eyes of the division’s leader.
Mark down the date of May 11 with a red pen, and prepare for fireworks in the sacred city of Jeddah.
Expectations are overwhelming for quite possibly the biggest fight in cruiserweight history - as the finale of the WBSS tournament will crown the very first four belt world champion at the weight.
But what exactly should we expect in the contest? Let’s see…
1. No political upside/downside.
It’s easy to label the upcoming collision as a virtual clash between Russia and Ukraine. It makes some twisted sense if one recalls how deep down the relationship between two fraternal nations has gone recently. Thankfully, it has nothing to do with reality.
Still our realm isn’t filled with rainbow unicorns, as there is still a lot of hatred in hearts and minds of locals from both sides of the troubled border.
Usyk has something to say about it. He recently trolled out of his usual philosophical mood by one of Ukrainian's reporters, who continued to play idiot and anger the champion with questions of his frequent visits to his native Crimea, a subject of a war-threatening international crisis in Eastern Europe.
But Usyk, a buddy of Russian's Sergey Kovalev through his friendship with Sergey’s teammate Vasyl Lomachenko, is one, who perfectly understands where the roots of the crisis are. So does Gassiev, who expressed nothing but utmost respect to the Ukrainian champion.
We can expect a frenetic encounter in the ring but there will be nothing frenetic or, it’s better to say, scandalous during the preparations.
2. Body work is the key
Well, okay, not only body work. But it means the world for both combatants. Especially, for Gassiev, who is a renowned body-puncher.
Damaging, stinging body shots led to a sound effect against long-time WBC champion Krzysztof Wlodarczyk. They also helped Gassiev a lot to accomplish his plan of taking Yunier Dorticos out of his way and dissipating the Cuban’s energy.
Usyk can also dig to the body but it is nothing compared with Murat’s strong attention to this aspect of pugilism. On the other side, Usyk moves – at least, on paper – are considerably quicker than the native of Vladikavkaz.
Speed kills – as we know – but it has its own killers. One is timing, another one is body shots. It’s exactly what is expected of Gassiev, especially early on.
3. The fight will be defined by the early rounds
Observe a familiar feature in both semi-final bouts in the WBSS. Both Gassiev and Usyk started slowly, ate some blows (Usyk more so than Gassiev, which one can attribute to a higher level of opponent) before coming back very strong after the mid-point.
For Gassiev this partial revival meant not only a win but a knockout. For Usyk it was a change in work-flow but it wasn't as effective as it was for Gassiev, even though the second-half surge made him a victor as well – albeit by a way-too-narrow (and thus well-too-deserved) majority decision.
Usyk is known as a slow starter. He took his time with different effect against both Mairis Briedis and Krzysztof Glowacki. He wasn’t pressing it early against Marko Huck, and he raised some (ungrounded) doubt when he fought a fringe contender in Thabiso Mchunu.
Oppositely, Gassiev can thrust into a fight like a bull, when he wants to. His vaunted power is specifically dangerous in early goings – those who remember a KOTY-candidate versus Jordan Shimmell will hardly oppose to this notion. He was also huge early versus Wlodarczyk (despite being patient at the same time).
Gassiev has the tools to decide it early, and this means the fight is winnable before the mid-point. But expect an early build of a lead and...
4. Don’t expect a knockout
Seriously, it’s a bold prediction – and I put myself into an uncharted territory – but, yeah, don’t count on one.
On paper, they share together a solid KO percentage – 75%, but the numbers here are imaginary, not real. This is specifically true for Usyk, who despite having a puncher’s statistics is a swarmer more than a slugger or a puncher. He has three “clean” kayos to his resume: aside of Mchunu they were at the very beginning of his career. He is more about stopping his opponents, wearing them down. But if Gassiev fights in the same shape he was against both Dorticos and Denis Lebedev, there’s little to help Usyk’s case
Make no mistake: the opposite is not true. The Caucasian highlander is as hard a puncher as they come. But those who saw Mairis Briedis casting a spell with a crushing knockout of Manuel Charr a couple of years ago, will confirm – Usyk can take a serious punch. And thanks to his superior defense he won’t take many of them – in comparison with Dorticos.
Summary? It’ll go the distance.
5. Expect late bets on Gassiev
No criminality here, as a flamboyant Russian vice-president Vitaliy Mutko used to say. It’s about development and crossroads.
Usyk went into this tournament as a pre-game favorite, maybe an overwhelming one. He looked good versus Huck, but stopped him a round or two too late for many of us. He looked like a mortal and was lucky to survive a hometown decision in the semi-final. It’s not that Usyk is slipping but his progress slowed down as the tournament went on.
Once again, it’s quite opposite for the Russia’s best boxer at the present. He disappointed some experts when he struggled against Lebedev. But he studied at boxing libraries and graduated pugilistic universities after that - and his new found improvements were on full display in his latest fight.
Gassiev is learning very quick. Maybe even too quick – but for whom? For his own body or for Usyk? One of those questions will be addressed in one of Saudi jewels.
6. P4P and FOTY fluids
Aside from multiple titles at stake, the fight will surely produce a very strong candidate for either top five (if Usyk is victorious) or for a second quintet of the pound-for-pound top ten (in case of Gassiev). That’s how big it is.
And it doesn’t stop there. With a such a stylistic match-up – a high-volume boxer-swarmer versus a slugger-boxer with a killer punch – it can (and, hopefully, will) end as a strong Fight of the Year candidate. It surely hits home in terms of its meaning. There are just two or three fights that are bigger at the moment: Wilder vs. Joshua, Garcia vs. Lomachenko, Canelo vs. Golovkin. The latter is a sequel, while the others have yet to be made, and this is a big “yet” or “if”. This cruiserweight battle is sealed.
7. History made
There are so many aspects of it but those historical meanings can even dominate some hot minds.
First, it’ll be the fourth case where a male fighter will take all of four belts needed to produce a truly undisputed champion (sorry, Kevin Lerena). The other three include two Hall-of-Famers in Bernard Hopkins and Terence Crawford and a lucky man in a right place and the right time – known a Bad Intentions Taylor.
Second, there’s a new face of the sport’s most overlooked weight class. And I mean intentionally overlooked even by the boxers.
For years cruiserweight division has been the bastard of the weight division. Not that it was totally unexpected at the time it was created, but it can be argued by those who were behind the new division were in false illusion that it would gain some legitimacy later on. As it nears its 40th anniversary, there’s no full legitimacy for the sport’s second heaviest weight class.
The winner of Usyk vs. Gassiev will provide us with a legitimate face for the cruiserweights and, most importantly, the best fighter in its history since the departure of an all-time great in Evander Holyfield. It doesn’t be any bigger if you ask me.