By Thomas Gerbasi
By this time next year, the two best cruiserweights in the world will likely be throwing hands among the big boys, just another reminder that in the boxing world, the division above light heavyweight and below heavyweight is always going to be the red-headed stepchild of the sport.
That doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy Oleksandr Usyk and Murat Gassiev while they remain at 200 pounds, especially since they will put their combined 40-0 record on the line and unify the cruiserweight title in the final of the World Boxing Super Series on Saturday.
This is the way it was expected to be when the eight-man tournament was announced in 2017, and in a rare case of the boxing gods shining on us, the two favorites made it through two opponents and into this weekend’s bout, setting up a purist’s Fight of the Year candidate. As for the non-hardcore, they’re still salivating over Manny Pacquiao’s win over Lucas Matthysse and wondering when Anthony Joshua will fight Deontay Wilder.
But if you eat, sleep and breathe boxing, this is the only fight you want to see at the moment, one pitting the Abel Sanchez-trained Terminator from Russia, the 26-0 Gassiev, against the 14-0 killer from Kiev, Usyk.
“I am ready, my team is ready,” said Usyk. “When the strong guys meet, the fights are interesting. “This is what is so great about this tournament. It is necessary for the sport. I have said it before and I will say it again: the fans should expect a beautiful final.”
It is expected but, at the same time, it’s almost appropriate that this is off the mainstream radar, without a major network or streaming service stepping in to grab the U.S. rights, because that’s the way it’s almost always been for the cruiserweight division, with great fights being overshadowed and ignored until the news got out on Sunday morning that something special happened the night before.
Sure, maybe casual fight fans thought the stylistic matchup between Evander Holyfield and Dwight Muhammad Qawi in 1986 was a can’t miss, but who thought they would produce a 15-round war that went to a split decision in Holyfield’s favor? And then there’s James Toney-Vassiliy Jirov, Steve Cunningham-Tomasz Adamek, Jean-Marc Mormeck-O’Neil Bell, and Carl Thompson-Chris Eubank, just to name a few, when it comes to classic cruiserweight matchups.
So why hasn’t the division caught on like practically every other weight class? Maybe it’s because its most talented practitioners have simply used cruiserweight as an introduction, a place to establish a name and pick up a belt or two before bulking up and going after the real money.
Holyfield. Orlin Norris, Juan Carlos Gomez, Jirov, Toney, Cunningham, David Haye. All left the division to go chasing glory and paydays among the heavyweights. And who could blame them? And though some were more successful than others, all of the aforementioned former champions at least got a taste of the big time that they never experienced in the cruiserweight division.
Which brings us back to Usyk and Gassiev. With both around the 6-foot-3 range, they could each pack on a few pounds and still be at a size disadvantage against the likes of Joshua and Wilder, but stylistically, they have what it takes to challenge the best in the sport’s glamour division, Gassiev with his pressuring style and Usyk with his athleticism.
So will they go? Absolutely.
Gassiev has gone on the record saying that should he win the WBSS tournament that he will test the waters at heavyweight, a desire backed up by his trainer, Sanchez. As for Usyk, he has made no secret of his plans to unify the cruiserweight title then chase after gold one weight class north, telling me as far back as 2016 that, “I would like to unify a few of the titles, if not all of them. And I think that by 2018 I’m going to be ready to go fight as a heavyweight.”
It’s 2018. Usyk can wrap up all the belts on Saturday, and still get in a heavyweight fight by the end of the year if he so chooses. The same goes for Gassiev, leaving the cruiserweight division back where it was before this tournament started: with no direction, no attention, and nothing exciting to look forward to. Check the rankings and you’ll see for yourself.
Of course, this is what boxing fans do. We’re so interested in what happens next that we don’t enjoy what’s in front of us. And on Saturday, one of the best – and most important - fights that can be made in boxing right now, regardless of weight class, is taking place at the Olympic Sport Complex in Moscow.
Usyk, 31, a talented southpaw who is so good that he won his first world title in his 10th fight, has to be the favorite. But Gassiev, 24, may not even be in his prime yet, even though he looked like he was in his tourney finishes of Krzysztof Wlodarczyk and Yunier Dorticos. It’s the kind of matchup that will push both fighters to new heights. Usyk has had a tendency to coast when he knows he can take control at any time, but if he does that against Gassiev, he may find himself in a hole he can’t dig himself out of. Or will Gassiev be too patient in stalking Usyk, allowing the Ukrainian to peck and poke from long range, building up an insurmountable lead on the scorecards? Maybe it will just be bombs away from the start, a Hagler-Hearns for the cruiserweight set.
The questions are endless, but they all get answered in the ring this weekend. As for what happens to Usyk, Gassiev and the cruiserweight division on Sunday and beyond, let’s cross that bridge when we get to it, hoping that, at the very least, we’ll get to put Usyk-Gassiev on that aforementioned list of cruiserweight classics.
And then wait for the next one.