Through the bizarre buildup right down to his opponent’s demanding proof of funds just hours before the bout, Ilunga ‘Junior’ Makabu was able to put a cruiserweight belt around his waist in the end.
The veteran contender is now a major titlist after outpointing Michael Cie?lak over 12 rounds Friday evening in his birthland of Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo.
Scores of 114-112, 115-111 and 116-111 were turned in for Makabu, who picked up the vacant World Boxing Council (WBC) cruiserweight title with the win.
Getting to that point was a strange journey, all the way through the in-ring action.
The bout threatened to never get off the ground, after Hall of Fame promoter Don King filed a cease and desists with the WBC to disallow the event on its originally scheduled January 24 date. King signed Makabu to a promotional contract late last year, with promises of bringing his charge to Kinshasa in creating a modern-day ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ more than 45 years after Muhammad Ali’s knockout win over George Foreman in perhaps the most iconic prizefight in modern boxing history.
A deal was eventually reached to allow the show to proceed as planned, although leading to several other issues. Among them were concerns of Poland’s Cie?lak not getting paid, as promoter Andrew Wasilewski demanded cash on hand—going as far as to filming the exchange to just to show everything was on board.
Once the bell rang, a good old fashioned prizefight emerged, though not without its drama.
Cie?lak jumped out to a strong start, working behind his jab and keeping the heavy-handed Makabu at bay. The first sign of the deck being stacked against the unbeaten Polish contender came in round three, with Cie?lak landing a series of heavy blows to hurt the local favorite, only for the round to end a full minute early.
It proved a pivotal—and highly controversial—moment in the contest as Makabu quickly punched his way back into the fight. Cie?lak hit the deck in round four after absorbing two heavy blows, the latter of which appeared to be a clear rabbit punch. It went undetected by referee Michael Griffin who issued an eight-count before allowing action to resume.
Cie?lak returned the favor just one round later, as Makabu was ruled down after touching his glove to the canvas in his best effort to steady himself in round five.
Makabu made up the difference with a strong second half surge, piling up rounds behind a dedicated body attack. Cie?lak did his best to keep pace and counter, scoring with uppercuts and the occasional left hook, though lacking a sustained attack to make an impact on the cards as his early lead slipped away.
Still, the fight was there to be won in the championship rounds. However, it was where the 32-year old Makabu took over, outworking a proven contender who held every statistical advantage—youth, height and reach—but simply could not outwill his veteran opponent.
The feat marks the second straight time Makabu has gone to the scorecards, after having not hearing the final bell in 12 previous starts dating back to 2013. Whereas he was forced to settle for a closer decision than should have been the case versus previously unbeaten Aleksi Papin on the road in Russia last August, the judges got it right in this one.
Makabu advances to 27-2 (24KOs) picking up a major title in his second try. His previous attempt resulted in his last defeat, suffering a 3rd round knockout at the hands of Tony Bellew in their May 2016 clash for this very title which was also vacant at the time.
The belt was made available this time around, after former World cruiserweight king Oleksandr Usyk severed ties with the division in favor of a heavyweight title run. Efforts to fill the vacancy instead resulted in politics eliminating the strap from the mix in a controversial clash between Mairis Briedis and Krzysztof Glowacki last June. A dispute over the assignment of ring officials prompted the WBC to withdraw its sanctioning and thus leaving the belt unoccupied.
It paved the way for Cie?lak to enter his first career title fight, earning the opportunity following knockout wins over veteran contenders Youri Kalenga and Olanrewaju Durodola, both coming in the first half of 2019. The 30-year old Pole hit the road for the first time in his career, heading home empty handed but with a valuable learning lesson which should serve well moving forward.
The cruiserweight title fight aired live on RDC TV in Congo.
Jake Donovan is a senior writer for BoxingScene.com. Twitter: @JakeNDaBox