By Cliff Rold
Tournaments in boxing can be a lot of fun. They can also be a hot mess.
Those two things are not mutually exclusive.
The World Boxing Super Series at Cruiserweight has managed to be the former without being the latter and for that alone it deserves kudos. That it will culminate with one of the best fights, on paper, that can be made in any weight division does as well. Oleksandr Usyk-Murat Gassiev is fantastic stuff.
Perhaps more than anything, the fact that the field began with eight and will be looked back on as just eight is sort of extraordinary.
In recent vintage, any proposed field of more than four fighters has almost always run into a snag along the way. The famous 1980s heavyweight unification tournament lost Michael Spinks almost as soon as it started. The Super Six super middleweight tournament ultimately featured eight official entrants and an appearance by Sakio Bika as an unofficial ninth.
The parallel WBSS tournament at super middleweight shows how hard it can be. It had to add an extra fighter to the field in the semi-finals and still has yet to announce a date for the final between WBA titlist George Groves and Callum Smith. It’s gotten to the point where Groves took to Twitter this week to lament the lack of a date, but of course an injury suffered in his semi-final win over Chris Eubank Jr. extended the calendar for the final in the first place.
Again, these are tough to pull off.
Four man fields have been simpler. The middleweight unification tournament in 2001 and the Showtime bantamweight from 2010-11 came off intact, the latter even having room for what amounted to a third place match.
The variables of boxing get in the way at each layer of competition. The WBSS at super middleweight lost Juergen Braehmer to illness. The Super Six lost Jermain Taylor to retirement and Andre Dirrell and Mikkel Kessler to injury. Spinks gambled that he would find a bigger paycheck waiting for the winner of the heavyweight tournament and was right, ninety-one seconds or not.
Boxing followers recognized this cruiserweight field as potentially special from the announcement of the tournament. It was almost too good to be true. With a titlist from each of the four major sanctioning bodies, it promised the possibility of the coronation of a truly undisputed champion at the end.
There were, because it is boxing, technicalities. The WBA representative, Yunier Dorticos, wasn’t the actual lead champion of the organization. He was their sub-titlist despite IBF titlist Murat Gassiev having defeated WBA “super” titlist Denis Lebedev just prior to the tournament. Prior to his semi-final clash with Gassiev, Dorticos was elevated to full titlist just in time for the four-way clash of undefeated titlists the field was seeded for from the start.
The anticipation is high heading into this Saturday’s clash between the IBF/WBA beltholder Gassiev (26-0, 19 KO) and WBO/WBC standard-bearer Oleksandr Usyk (14-0, 11 KO). The way the tournament played out only helps. Even if the final falls short of a classic, the semi-finals provided more than enough thrills.
Gassiev’s last round knockout of Dorticos in February was one of the best fights to date in 2018. Usyk’s win over Mairis Briedis was just damn good. There were no terrible decisions, no lengthy delays for injury, no missed PED tests, and the action in the ring meant both finalists really had to earn their way to the finish line.
So far, this is boxing done right in almost every way.
Make sure someone doesn’t walk under a ladder, step on a crack, or slip in the shower before Saturday and that’s enough to let out a sigh of relief.
Will the next iteration of the WBSS find similar success?
Three tournaments have been discussed with two fields, at bantamweight and Jr. welterweight, already loaded up and ready to go. Both have plenty of talent and intrigue. Of the two, bantamweight is the one that most resembles the cruiserweight version.
While it hasn’t been seeded yet (the ‘draft’ is intended for Friday on the eve of the cruiserweight final) one can wager a pretty educated guess that the beltholders will take the top four slots. Those men are Naoya Inoue (WBA sub), Ryan Burnett (WBA super), Emmanuel Rodriguez (IBF), and Zolani Tete (WBO). The WBC title is currently vacant after Luis Nery lost the belt on the scales, the only hitch for those who want to see undisputed as only having all the belts.
For everyone else, this tournament, like cruiserweight, will crown a crystal clear champion in the class.
Rodriguez is already slated for a mandatory against Jason Moloney and of the other three Tete could easily be matched with WBO lead contender Juan Carlos Payano. That would leave future Hall of Famer Nonito Donaire and 2012 Olympic bronze medalist Mikhail Aloyan for Inoue and Burnett in some order.
How it officially shakes out beyond Rodriguez-Moloney remains to be determined. The chances this could come off as well as cruiserweight is there. Of the men entering with belts, the 30-year old Tete is the oldest. Inoue (25), Burnett (26), and Rodriguez (25) make this a youthful collection.
Youth often means risk, desire, and action. Can the field hold steady at eight? Can lightning strike twice for the WBSS?
This Saturday we get to see it finish striking for the first time.
Cliff Rold is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene, a founding member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, and a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at [email protected]