Oleksandr Usyk fight in Jeddah will be a treat for Saudi Arabian boxing fans
Oleksandr Usyk fight in Jeddah will be a treat for Saudi Arabian boxing fans
He may have been fighting for only the 14th time as a professional, but in outclassing Latvia’s Mairis Briedis in Riga, he added the WBC world title to his WBO belt, furthered his reputation as one of the world’s finest fighters, and perhaps even established himself as the greatest cruiserweight since Evander Holyfield. Fight fans in Saudi Arabia are in for a treat when he comes to town.
Russia’s Murat Gassiev and Yunier Dorticos, of Cuba, will fight in Sochi on Saturday for the IBF and WBA titles and the chance to face Usyk in Jeddah. The winner of that will receive $10 million and be crowned the cruiserweight division’s first undisputed champion. Despite being tested by Briedis in a way that he never previously had, Usyk will be the overwhelming favorite.
Not since Holyfield’s two victories over Dwight Muhammad Qawi in 1986 and 1987 had there been such an entertaining cruiserweight title fight as Usyk’s semifinal against Briedis, and neither has there been a champion so respected since David Haye in 2008.
When the 31-year-old Usyk fights the winner of Gassiev-Dorticos in May, he will not only be doing so for the sixth consecutive time outside of Ukraine, but will also be presented with the opportunity to hold all four of the 200lb world titles, something neither Holyfield nor Haye ever achieved.
The 200lb division has never previously been among boxing’s most glamorous but it has been boosted by the emergence of four high-quality WBSS semifinalists. Each of the competition’s final four arrived undefeated, at their peak and in possession of one of the division’s four world titles.
Usyk is the stand-out. He won Olympic gold at heavyweight at London 2012, and so natural is his talent that he is already being spoken of as a threat in the professional heavyweight division as a well as a potential challenger to Anthony Joshua should he succeed, as expected, in Jeddah. That the super-featherweight Vasyl Lomachenko, widely considered the world’s finest fighter, is a long-term friend and stablemate serves only to broadens his appeal. The two have fought on the same cards in the US, and, in the same way that proved effective with Gennady Golovkin and Roman Gonzalez, have often been billed as a double attraction on influential television network HBO.
Despite not securing the one-sided defeat of Briedis that had so widely been predicted — he won a majority points decision via accurate scores of 115-113, 115-113 and 114-114 from the three judges — it was the Latvian’s reputation that was enhanced, and not Usyk’s undermined.
The suspicion remains that, for all of Briedis’ physical strength, punch resistance and desire, the Ukrainian could have won more convincingly had he chosen to use the full extent of his skills, but he instead relished the high-quality physical affair it became and also recognized that providing a more primal form of entertainment would enhance his popularity. When he could have defended himself amid the 33-year-old’s pressure, he remained relaxed, changed the angle at which he was fighting — similarly to Lomachenko, his remarkable relentlessness and mobility makes him so different from almost all of his potential rivals — and immediately fought back.
That he showed he could be hurt — as he did on more than one occasion, particularly in the 12th and final round — also challenges the perception the WBSS represents a victory procession for him and will increase Gassiev’s and Dorticos’ belief, given both possess power and are particularly dangerous early.
The retired Wladimir Klitschko had traveled to Riga to support Usyk, his compatriot, on the road to Jeddah, and now that he has succeeded will be expected to again follow him there in May. It could be quite a night.
World Boxing Super Series semifinal
Murat Gassiev (RUS) v Yunier Dorticos (CUB)
IBF and WBA cruiserweight titles
Feb. 3, Bolshoy Ice Dome, Sochi, Russia
World Boxing Super Series final
Oleksandr Usyk (UKR) v Murat Gassiev/Yunier Dorticos
WBC, WBO, WBA and IBF cruiserweight titles
May, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
Three key duels in the Champions League final between Real Madrid and Liverpool
- Marcelo will have to find a way to stop Salah
- Ronaldo will come up against the mountainous van Dijk
The two highest scoring sides in this season's Champions League face off for the title when defending champions Real Madrid and Liverpool go head-to-head in Kiev on Saturday. With goals seemingly guaranteed in the Ukrainian capital, we look at the key matchups where the game could be won and lost.
Virgil van Dijk vs. Cristiano Ronaldo
Ronaldo is looking to join an esteemed group of 10 players to win five European Cups by scoring in his fourth separate final.
After a slow start to the season, the World Player of the Year has been in stunning form since the turn of the year, scoring 30 goals in 23 appearances for club and country in 2018.
Ronaldo leads the Champions League goalscorers charts for the sixth consecutive season with 15, but will come up against the world's most expensive defender in £75 million ($100 million) Dutchman Virgil van Dijk in Kiev.
Van Dijk already looks worth the massive price Liverpool paid Southampton for his services in January, as much for the improvement he has inspired in those around him as his own performances.
"I feel also personally much more confident when you know you have a really good partner next to you," said Liverpool centre-back Dejan Lovren.
"He's a leader, he takes control," added right-back Trent Alexander-Arnold. "He's really got authority."
Mohamed Salah vs. Marcelo
Salah has been the star turn of Liverpool's season, scoring 44 goals in his debut season at Anfield to plunder a series of individual Player of the Year awards.
The Egyptian should get plenty of space to showcase his blistering pace and new-found calm in front of goal in the space normally left unoccupied by Madrid's cavalier left-back Marcelo.
Salah exploited the gaps left by the Brazilian on numerous occasions when Roma were eliminated by Madrid from the Champions League two seasons ago, when Salah lacked the killer finishing touch he has demonstrated this season to take his chances.
Bayern Munich right-back Joshua Kimmich scored in both legs of this season's semi-final against Real with Marcelo caught out of position.
However, the Madrid vice-captain, now in his 11th year at the Bernabeu, makes up for his defensive liabilities by bombing forward at every opportunity to wreak havoc at the other end.
"I know exactly how I have to play," insisted Marcelo on Friday.
The flying full-back has scored against Paris Saint-Germain, Juventus and Bayern on route to the final, and also has plenty of positive experience in Champions League finals having netted in 2014 and 2016, in a penalty shootout, against Atletico Madrid.
Roberto Firmino vs. Sergio Ramos
Overshadowed by Salah's sensational season, Firmino also has 10 Champions League goals to his name this season and is the key starting point for Jurgen Klopp's pressing game.
"He's not bothered about hard work, which is another important thing," said Klopp when Firmino recently extended his contract to 2023. "For an offensive player that is pretty rare in world football."
Described as a cross between a goalscoring number nine and creative number 10 by Brazil coach Tite, Liverpool will hope Firmino's movement can drag another Madrid Champions League specialist in Ramos out of position.
Madrid captain Ramos embodies this Real side as he tends to save his best for the big occasion.
The Spaniard started Real's recent run of European dominance with a stoppage time equaliser against Atletico in the 2014 final and also scored against Real's local rivals two years later in another all-Madrid showpiece.