FAR from the classic brawl we expected an hour ago, the World Boxing Super Series (WBSS) cruiserweight final between Oleksandr Usyk and Murat Gassiev instead ended up being one of the most one-sided fights between elite boxers you’re likely to see in 2018.
It was also, however, as close as you’ll get in this brutal and often barbaric sport to witnessing something like a masterpiece; art form.
Thirty-one-year-old Usyk, a narrow favourite going in, dominated every aspect of the fight, barely put a foot wrong for 12 rounds, and was rewarded for this perfection with a 120-108, 119-109 and 119-109 decision on the judges’ scorecards, as well as the Muhammad Ali trophy (awarded to the WBSS tournament winner) and the WBA, WBC, IBF and WBO cruiserweight titles, two of which, the WBA and IBF, belonged to Gassiev, 24, earlier today.
The fact that fans were deprived of the war they expected yet will come away feeling satisfied is no doubt a testament to Usyk’s performance. Anything but competitive, much less thrilling, the work produced by Usyk on the face and body of Gassiev stifled any chance of chaos yet simultaneously left those starved of chaos – you and I, the bloodthirsty – slack-jawed in awe, wondering not only why we ever deemed this fight, on paper, to be competitive but also now considering Usyk’s chances of doing similar to any number of limited, one-dimensional heavyweights. (The chances are good, very good, by the way.)
For Usyk tonight, it all started with the jab, thrown from the southpaw stance, thrown hard sometimes but consistently at all times. Actually, scrap that. Before the jab came the set-up: the movement, the positioning, the creation of distance. Only then did he start to go to work, give Gassiev something to think about, something to annoy him, something to prevent him sinking his feet into the canvas and unloading shots of his own.
Once this happened, once Usyk found his range and pressed ‘go’ on his right lead, the rhythm was quickly established and the pattern, too. Gassiev, a flat-footed puncher with the ability to end fights with either fist, found himself peppered rather than hurt, but was frustrated all the same. There were jabs. Lots of them. There were pokes and prods, two hands used in combination, and never, ever thrown in the same sequence. There were even occasional uppercuts pierced through the middle of Gassiev’s high-held guard, as close to typical ‘power shots’ as you’re likely to see Usyk throw.
With punches delivered at only 50% power a lot of the time, Usyk used Gassiev’s tension – his need to set, load and explode – against him, and appeared content to touch, touch, touch, and then take his head out, turn, and spin away. Rinse, repeat, it was boxing made to look simple, but was, in reality, quite the opposite. These, in fact, were the moves of a master; half instinctive, half carefully planned, designed to dissect rather than destroy.
Frankly, it was only when Gassiev, 26-1 (19), took a chance and chucked an overhand right in the closing stages of round four that a ‘Fight of the Year’ shoo-in even resembled a fight. This shot, a good one, landed flush on Usyk’s chin and forced the Ukrainian to clinch and kill the final seconds in the relative safety of Gassiev’s embrace. He did just that.
Gassiev, meanwhile, now sensing his punches had enough power on them to unsettle Usyk, strutted back to his corner and winked at a member of his team.
However, on reflection, this was the Russian’s first and only bit of success in the fight. Usyk, if anything, having been given a warning, a reminder, simply tightened up some more, moved with even greater purpose and ensured Gassiev never got another shot at an open goal.
What started as a jabbing clinic soon developed into something greater. There were, for instance, beautiful hooks around the side whenever Gassiev encroached Usyk’s territory or got too heavy on his front foot; there were left crosses fizzing through the gap between his forearms; there were body shots whipped and aimed at Gassiev’s midsection whenever Gassiev chucked one – usually a left hook – of his own, just to reclaim the upper hand; there were pivots and pirouettes, moves that would be deemed fancy if they weren’t the precursor to something so vicious and spiteful.
By round eight, Gassiev returned to his corner shaking his head and shrugging his shoulders, with a what-am-I-supposed-to-do? expression on his face. His mind had given up, even if his body remained in the firing line. There were no winks.
There was no let-up, either. Not when Usyk, who threw a total of 939 punches, had established a lead early on, and not with the finish line in sight and Gassiev (313 punches to his name) totally impotent, his head snapped back by jabs and countless follow-ups. Still Usyk kept pressing buttons and working for openings. Still he looked for the single shot in a combination that might finally make the Russian crack, thus turning a phenomenal points victory into an even more phenomenal stoppage victory.
In the end, given the fact it went the distance, given the lopsided scorecards, and given Gassiev’s performance and the level of expectancy in the build-up, this should have been a boring, disappointing spectacle to behold. Only it wasn’t. Far from it. And the reason nobody will come away feeling let down this evening says all you need to know about the brilliance – nay, genius – of Oleksandr Usyk, 15-0 (11), the unified and undisputed cruiserweight champion of the world.