By Cliff Rold
When the first iteration of the World Boxing Super Series was announced, it was easy to wonder if it could really all come together. The cruiserweight field looked stronger on paper and proved to be so in the ring. It produced a pair of grueling semi-final matches, four-belt unification, a pound-for-pound player in Oleksandr Usyk, and not a single injury replacement along the way.
It was, competitively, one of the most successful tournaments in boxing history.
The super middleweight field wasn’t quite as deep and didn’t come off quite as seamlessly. The way it was bracketed, with half the field originating in the United Kingdom, there was always a chance it would end with an all-UK showdown. Along the way, Germany’s Juergen Braehmer had to withdraw from the February semi-finals with an illness and the final was delayed until this Friday in Saudi Arabia (DAZN, 1 PM EST).
WBA titlist George Groves (28-3, 20 KO) is recovered from injuries suffered in an impressive semi-final win over Chris Eubank Jr., arguably the most anticipated showdown of the tournament from the time it was announced. He will face undefeated Callum Smith (24-0, 17 KO). TBRB rates them one and eight in the division, respectively; Ring rates them at one and three and will crown the victor their champion.
Regardless of where anyone sees them going in, the winner will exit elevated by having been part of the field. They might not be Usyk elevated, but in terms of success the WBSS is two for two. It’s a little strange to think the all-UK final will happen outside the red-hot boxing hotbed but the victor is likely to have a big return home sooner than later.
By the time they are back in the ring after this weekend, chapter one of the WBSS will have already given way to chapter two.
We’re only a couple of weeks away from the beginning of tournaments at bantamweight and Jr. welterweight followed shortly thereafter by a third tournament at cruiserweight. If they can come off close to as well as the first two tournaments, we’ll be back here a year from now lauding another successful venture.
Here’s the quality we can look for moving forward.
At bantamweight, the field looks as stacked as it did for the first cruiserweight tournament. Five of the TBRB top ten, including the top thee rated fighters (Ryan Burnett, Zolani Tete, and Naoya Inoue), will compete with the WBO, IBF, WBA Super and WBA sub-titles all at play. There isn’t a WBC champion right now so that’s as much as one can ask for title wise.
When this is over, if the field holds together, the likelihood of a widely recognized, true champion of the class is strong. Inoue, the field favorite, has a chance to emerge as big part of the debate about the best fighter in the sport regardless of weight.
Anyone who can upset him could steal that thunder and send it in their direction.
The Jr. welterweight field is stronger than the super middleweight field appeared to be heading into tournament play. Like bantamweight, five of the top ten are involved with the first and third rated fighters (Reigis Prograis, Josh Taylor) included. There is a good chance a consensus choice as division kingpin could emerge because the tournament winner will have more chance to defeat quality opponents than anyone else in the class for the next year or so.
And while it isn’t going to be as heralded as the first iteration, and it can’t be without Usyk, the second cruiserweight tournament is damn strong in its own right. Six of the eight competitors are rated in the top ten by TBRB, including five of the top six. Should Usyk elect to stay at cruiserweight past a fall showdown with Tony Bellew, he’ll have a hell of a leading contender to face from this field.
If instead, as expected, a Bellew win would lead to a move to heavyweight, the WBSS could crown a new, widely recognized champion at cruiserweight for the second time.
As an added bonus, unlike the first two tournaments held apart from one another, fans will be treated to co-mingling of all three fields. For instance, the October 7thInoue fight with former titlist Juan Carlos Payano will share a bill with the opening round Jr. welterweight clash between Kiryl Relikh and Edouard Troyanovsky.
Is there room to quibble about the men who aren’t in the fields, particularly at Jr. welterweight and cruiserweight? Sure. At the former, in a vacuum it would be better to have Jose Ramirez competing. In the latter, tournament runner-up Murat Gassiev going right back into the mix would have been great.
Both are cases where the perfect need not be the enemy of the really good. Boxing fans for years have talked about how great it would be to have regular tournaments in boxing. In the richest divisions, that will probably remain unfeasible. We might get unofficial round robins, or even shorter four man fields on occasion, but the logistics of getting mega-draws like middleweight champion Saul Alvarez or heavyweight titlist Anthony Joshua locked into three fights are difficult in the least.
That’s okay because of what the WBSS can be for the divisions it can capture. The first cruiserweight tournament delivered a star in Usyk with the sort of bona fides he might otherwise have needed a couple more years to build. The winner at bantamweight this time will be as elevated in a way they likely couldn’t be without the WBSS and the same is true at Jr. welterweight with a pool of young fighters who have the chance to emerge as a force.
It’s hard not to be excited as these three tournaments alone make the new DAZN app a destination for hardcore fight fans. Will their quality spill over to broader appeal in the US with better availability this time around? That remains to be seen.
What also remains to be seen is how long the tournaments can be maintained. By the time we get to chapter three, what will be division available to deliver a relative field equal to bantamweight or cruiserweight? Do they eventually run out of real estate?
We won’t have an answer for that until sometime late next year or early into 2020. For now, it’s enough to look forward to the final page of chapter one this Friday in Groves-Smith and the immediate anticipation for chapter two.
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]