LONDON: In winning the toughest, highest-profile and most absorbing fight of his career on Saturday night, Ukraine’s outstanding Oleksandr Usyk became the first fighter to progress to the final of the cruiserweight edition of the World Boxing Super Series (WBSS) to be held in Saudi Arabia in May.
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