By Michael Rosenthal
Oleksandr Usyk: Usyk’s handlers probably didn’t expect him to encounter such heavy resistance but they did expect him to end up where he is: in the final of the World Boxing Super Series.
Usyk cruised in the opening round of the cruiserweight tournament, outclassing a past-his-prime Marco Huck in September. His semifinal fight against Mairis Briedis was a completely different story.
The well-schooled Eastern Europeans gave viewers a spirited 200-pound battle Saturday in Breidis’ home country of Latvia, a grueling test of will as much as skill in which both fighters inflicted significant damage and left everything they had in the ring.
Usyk (14-0, 11 knockouts) won a majority decision – 115-113, 115-113 and 114-114 – to advance to the tournament final but Briedis (23-1, 18 KOs) was hardly a big loser. If anything, he exceeded expectations by fighting the tournament favorite on even terms.
Usyk, a Ukrainian trained by Sergey Vatamaniuk, has been billed as the next great 200-pounder and a potential threat to the top heavyweights one day. He might yet become the top cruiserweight but he didn’t look extraordinary against Briedis.
Briedis was able to land clean shots more consistently than other opponents of Usyk. And while Usyk also found his target with enough regularity to win rounds, he couldn’t break down his durable opponent as he had many others. Usyk worked hard for the victory but I think most will agree that the decision could’ve gone either way.
Usyk’s reward will be a matchup in May with the winner of this coming Saturday’s semifinal between Murat Gassiev and Yunier Dorticos, two tough, undefeated fighters who pose a threat to any 200-pounder.
I won’t be surprised as Usyk wins in May to capture the tournament championship. I also won’t be surprised if he doesn’t. I’m particularly intrigued by Dorticos, a product of the Cuban amateur program who has stopped 21 of his 22 opponents.
We’ll see exactly how good Usyk is.
BIGGEST WINNER II
Lucas Matthysse: The 35-year-old Argentine evidently is more focused on big money than a big challenge at this point of his career. That’s why he called out Manny Pacquiao and Danny Garcia rather than next-level 147-pounders.
To that end, his performance against unknown Thai opponent Tewa Kiram on Saturday made him a big winner. His eighth-round KO kept him on track to claim at least one or two more big paydays.
Matthysse (39-4, 36 KOs) looked nothing like the dynamo of years past, as the first seven-plus rounds against Kiram (38-1, 28 KOs) were lifeless. The bigger Kiram jabbed and moved and Matthysse chased him with limited success. Yawwwwn.
The question is why did Matthysse struggle? HBO analyst Roy Jones Jr. suggested that Matthysse had difficulty finding motivation against easy prey and probably trained accordingly. Makes sense. Matthysse also is past his prime and a small welterweight, which isn’t a good combination against elite 147-pounders.
Those factors probably explain why Matthysse didn’t look like Matthysse until the end, when he put a suddenly fragile Kiram down twice and ended the show.
In the end, Matthysse has retained two things: his name, which remains marketable, and the punching power (or perception of it at an unnatural weight) that leads fans to believe his fights can end in an instant.
I like a Matthysse-Pacquiao matchup. I think fans would buy into it because of their track records. They’re at roughly the same state of decline, meaning they aren’t what they once were but remain pretty good. And, finally, they’ve earned the payday after giving the sport so much over the years.
Matthysse also called out Danny Garcia for a rematch of their close fight in 2013, won by Garcia. That’s also a compelling matchup but not a good one for Matthysse, who probably would lose more decisively the second time around.
And no matter what happens in Matthysse’s next fight or two, no one should mention such names as Errol Spence, Keith Thurman or Terence Crawford. Those fighters are in a different league from this version of Lucas Matthysse.
Jorge Linares: Fighters on or near pound-for-pound lists are expected to dominate second-tier opponents to maintain their lofty positions. Linares didn’t disappoint on the Matthysse-Kiram card.
The lightweight titleholder outclassed an extremely durable but limited Mercito Gesta, winning a one-sided unanimous decision and remain in line for another high-profile fight in the near future.
Linares, who I call “the beautiful boxer,” struggled to beat talented Luke Campbell in September, escaping with a split-decision victory. One problem was that he stopped throwing combinations after the first few rounds, which worked in Campbell’s favor.
That didn’t happen against Gesta. Linares (44-3, 27 KOs) used his unusual hand speed, accuracy and willingness to throw hard punches in bunches to pick Gesta (31-2-2, 17 KOs) apart from the second or third round on. The San Diego-based Filipino demonstrated a remarkable chin but had no answers for Linares’ overall game.
The fight wasn’t competitive but it’s always interesting to watch an artist like Linares at work. A real challenge could come soon.
One good option is a lucrative rematch with Campbell, presumably in the U.K. I’d pick Linares to win more handily but I could be wrong. Other potential opponents include Lomachenko (a 130-pounder at the moment) and Mikey Garcia (a fellow 135-pound titleholder), both of which would be extremely tough fights for Linares.
As good as Linares is, Lomachenko is better. And Garcia, while not as athletic as Linares, is a superb boxer with crushing power. I would pick Lomachenko and Garcia to win those fights but I wouldn’t write off Linares. And I’m not alone.
"He can beat any of those guys on a good night,” trainer Freddie Roach, who worked Gesta’s corner, told BoxingScene. “He's a very, very good boxer. I would say it's about dead even. He's a very, very good boxer and he always has been, from the first day he came in my gym to box Manny Pacquiao until now.
“He's a very good technician, he has really good footwork and he puts his combinations together well. He's a very clever fighter.”
He’s one of the very best.
The Matthysse-Kiram fight was not only boring; it also was strange, to say the least. First, California officials reportedly caught Kiram sniffing a small jar (which turned out to be Tiger Balm) before the start of the sixth round. Then came the knockout. Kiram, who is naturally bigger than his opponent, had shown no signs of having trouble with Matthysse’s power when all of a sudden a hard left jab and grazing right put him down. He got up but then hit the canvas again from another jab after an odd delay, which ended the fight. The HBO broadcast team wondered aloud whether Kiram was looking for a way out of the fight. We’ll never know. Maybe Matthysse just punches harder than we realize. … The IBF on Monday ordered Errol Spence to defend his welterweight title against unbeaten mandatory challenger Carlos Ocampo in his next fight, a frustrating example of boxing’s ability to shoot itself in the foot. Ocampo is a fine prospect who might one day become a legitimate contender but he hasn’t earned the right for fight a champion of Spence’s caliber. In fact, no one in the IBF’s rankings – which doesn’t include the likes of Shawn Porter, Manny Pacquiao and Danny Garcia – have earned that right. More important, no one wants to see Spence-Ocampo outside of Ocampo and his handlers. “The best vs. the best” should be more than an empty slogan. On a side note: How the hell did Kiram become the WBA’s top 147-pound contender?