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The making of Oleksandr Usyk vs Murat Gassiev

Oleksandr Usyk vs Murat Gassiev
Tom Hogan/Hogan Photos/Golden Boy Promotions
The fights that brought us to the Oleksandr Usyk vs Murat Gassiev World Boxing Super Series cruiserweight final

Quarter-final: Oleksandr Usyk vs Marco Huck, September 9 2017, in Berlin, Germany

OLEKSANDR USYK, cheered on by a raucous travelling support, showed us just why he’s been installed as the favourite to win the cruiserweight version of the World Boxing Super Series with a one-sided mauling of Berlin’s Marco Huck in the tournament’s first quarter-final.

An argument can be made for giving Huck the opening round, but once Usyk, who was also defending his WBO title, found his feet the difference in class was there for all to see.

While Huck attempted to land single shots, Usyk bamboozled him with southpaw combinations from all angles. The Ukrainian would step out of range to avoid Huck’s shots, and then fire back immediately with his own, often forcing Huck to the ropes where he would unload with vicious volleys.

Referee Robert Byrd deducted a point from Huck in the eighth round for hitting Usyk after he had tripped.

Defiant to the bitter end, Huck fought back bravely whenever Usyk appeared to be on the verge of overwhelming him, but by the 10th round he was left covering up desperately as Usyk launched another attack. Byrd stepped in to rescue Huck, with pride still intact although thoroughly beaten, at 2-08.

Quarter-final: Murat Gassiev vs Krzysztof Wlodarczyk, October 21 2017, in Newark, USA

AND then there were four. Before a small but enthusiastic crowd at the Prudential Center, Russia’s Murat Gassiev retained his IBF cruiserweight title with a third-round knockout of former world champion Krzysztof Wlodarczyk. But more importantly, the unbeaten 24-year-old Abel Sanchez protégé filled the last spot in the World Boxing Super Series cruiserweight tournament, setting up an early 2018 meeting with WBA secondary title-holder Yunier Dorticos, who provided more drama than the main event when he entered the ring following the bout to issue a warning to Gassiev.

“I really wanted Gassiev to win, because he’s going to taste the power of a real man against me,” the Cuban, who defeated Dmitry Kudryashov last month for his place in the semis, said. “His opponent tonight was past his time, I’m ready to show him what a champion looks like and give him a challenge he’s never faced before.”

For his part, Gassiev was poker-faced and respectful towards his future rival, saying, “Dorticos is a very good fighter with great experience. He’s undefeated and I can’t wait to give all the boxing fans the gift of a great fight against Dorticos.”

They didn’t get that gift in Newark, but a great knockout was satisfying enough, as Gassiev steadily stalked the defence-minded Warsaw native for two rounds before lowering the boom in the third frame with a beautiful left uppercut to the jaw followed by an equally crushing left hook to the body. Wlodarczyk collapsed to the canvas upon impact, with referee Earl Brown tolling the 10-count that ended the bout at 1-57 of round three.

“It’s something we work on a lot,” Sanchez said. “I know that when Gassiev lands a punch correctly, the opponent isn’t getting up.”

It was a Gennady Golovkin-esque finish, and now Gassiev continues his quest for unification, with the winner of his next bout facing the victor of the other semi-final between WBO champion Oleksandr Usyk and WBC belt-holder Mairis Briedis.

Oleksandr Usyk vs Murat Gassiev

Semi-final: Oleksandr Usyk vs Mairis Briedis, January 27 2018, in Riga, Latvia

OLEKSANDR USYK’S victory over Mairis Briedis had everything a sane-minded boxing fan could possibly want from one 12-round bout. Excitement. Bravery. Two supreme, well-matched skillsets. World titles unified. Faultless judging and, in turn, perfect delivery from the ring announcer of the majority decision in Usyk’s favour.

Best of all, perhaps, was the promise of even better things to come.

The World Boxing Super Series always seemed like a good idea (essentially bringing eight of the best fighters together and forcing them to fight each other until one winner remained), and two unbeaten cruiserweight champions being matched together in the first semi-final underlined that promise. It’s safe to say the bout that followed exceeded all expectation.

The most common pre-fight opinion was that Usyk, a big favourite despite being the outsider in Riga where Briedis is something of a superstar, would weather an early storm before cruising to victory down the stretch. To an extent, those forecasts were true, but Briedis’ efforts – from the opening bell to the last – meant that Usyk, despite appearing to be having the time of his life, never came close to merely cruising. In reality, the highly gifted 2012 Olympic heavyweight champion had to endure the most torrid 36 minutes of his boxing career to retain his unbeaten record, his WBO strap and snatch Briedis’ WBC title in the process.

Inside a full to capacity Arena Riga, the Latvian hero started quickly, pressing the action and finding the space to regularly clump Usyk with his left-right in the opening session. The underdog, even better than his gleaming 23-0 record suggested, rarely had trouble hitting the Ukrainian at all, in fact.

But Usyk, perhaps out-punched early on, was never in danger and showed an exceptionally hardy chin. Furthermore, the pleasure Usyk appeared to get from being tagged exhibited his maniacal tendencies in detail – the mad glint in his eyes, the wild Bond villain grin – while also showing off what just might be his most impressive asset.

You see, Usyk wasn’t necessarily asking to be hit, but his guile at zipping into position and placing himself slap bang in the middle of his opponent’s target zone left Briedis with little choice but to take chance after chance. In turn, Usyk took advantage of every little mistake his rival made, however miniscule they might have been. By the sixth, the favourite was landing more, and his southpaw left was tagging Briedis as he attempted to launch his own attacks.

Both fighters went up a gear in the second half of the showdown. Usyk had success with that trailing left off his excellent jab, but the underdog, sporting an incredible engine, would not be dominated as he landed uppercuts and hooks to the delight of his fans. It was close, yet Usyk, who by now seemed to have his rival figured out, had the air of a man in control.

He started the 11th round urgently. Decorating his bread and butter one-twos with eye-catching volleys downstairs, Usyk was relentless. But Briedis, whose stock will rise significantly in defeat, closed the session with a huge right that forced his rival to briefly seek shelter on the ropes. The 12th was a fitting final course to the Sauerland-promoted barnburner, as both rallied urgently with only victory in mind. At the end of 12 fast-paced, and completely engrossing rounds, the combatants celebrated, embraced and examined the bruises which will provide brief souvenirs from an unforgettable bout.

Boxing News scored the contest 115-113 in Usyk’s favour, or seven-five in rounds. It was a tight one alright, and the wait for the decision to be revealed was edgy, as the two fighters stood in ring centre, pre-empting the verdict, their arms ready for take-off. Announcer Dave Diamante suspended that tension perfectly as he read out Craig Metcalfe’s completely feasible 114-114 tally, before two scores of 115-113 (Robin Taylor and Robert Tapper) “for the winner, and still unbeaten, and now the WBC and WBO cruiserweight champion, Oleksandr Usyk” provided a wholly satisfying bottom line.

Semi-final: Murat Gassiev vs Yunier Dorticos, February 3 2018, in Adler, Russia

Watching Murat Gassiev leave his seat at the post-fight press conference to console a distraught Yunier Dorticos, tears running down his face, was a reminder of the special nature of the World Boxing Super Series and the importance of it. You appreciated what it meant to the competitors. You told yourself this is what boxing should be; this is how boxers should behave.

Gassiev, after all, had just spent the best part of 12 rounds trying to methodically destroy the man he now hugged, eventually completing the job with eight seconds left in the 12th. He’d knocked him down three times; outlasted him. He’d disfigured his face and broken his heart. Crucially, he took both his undefeated record and his WBA cruiserweight title (ex-belt-holder Denis Lebedev is now ‘champion in recess’).

As a result, Gassiev, now the IBF and WBA titlist, advanced to the final of the cruiserweight tournament and will meet Ukraine’s WBC and WBO title-holder Oleksandr Usyk. Dorticos, meanwhile, was left to lick his wounds inside the Bolshoy Ice Dome and comprehend what it is to fall short. His tears, both in the ring and at the press conference, revealed how much it meant to him – this defeat, this elimination – and also poignantly summarised the ups and downs of a thrilling contest that covered the full gamut of emotions.

Gassiev and Dorticos, challenged by the epic nature of the other semi-final, the January 27 classic between Usyk and Mairis Briedis, wanted more than to just make it to the final. They wanted to get there in a blaze of glory. They wanted to impress and excite and they wanted to encourage experts high on Usyk to suddenly question this faith and start hedging their bets. Going in, this wasn’t just a fight. It was a showcase.

Dorticos, the man with the pump-action jab and enough power to disconnect Dmitry Kudryashov from his senses in September, started on the front foot, winning the first round, and outworked Gassiev in the early going. Confident and composed, he was allowed to settle and dictate the pace while Gassiev, somewhat out of character, appeared content to box on the back foot and look for his spots only when given the chance to set his feet. When this happened, when Gassiev pulled the trigger, his punches were the more eye-catching, especially those directed at Dorticos’ body, yet still it was strange to see Gassiev, a mauler with 18 knockouts from 25 pro wins, essentially try and outbox his opponent.

Dorticos, however, with 21 knockouts from 22 wins, is a man best handled with care and Gassiev’s careful approach was, in hindsight, a testament to the Cuban’s punch power. It was intelligent, strategic. It offered Gassiev the chance to take the sting out of Dorticos’ shots, feel them on his arms, shoulders and body, and then grow into the bout as the rounds progressed.

By the fifth, a round in which Gassiev hurt Dorticos for the first time, the Russian had well and truly come out of his shell and was matching his opponent punch for punch. A good thing, too, because the variety from both men was something to behold; Dorticos’ jab was impressive, as it often is, but, equally, Gassiev’s hooks and uppercuts inside were textbook and terrifying.

It was competitive throughout, the exchanges tit-for-tat, yet Gassiev, having let Dorticos use a lot of his best stuff early, came on strong in the second half and swept most of the rounds. He outlanded Dorticos almost 2-1 in power punches heading into the 12th (119 to 66), and the more desperate Dorticos became, the more opportunity Gassiev had to find the fight-ending shot he’d anticipated but so far been unable to execute.

Breakthrough for the Russian arrived in the final round. With both tiring, their form now sloppy, Gassiev cracked Dorticos with a chopping right before a huge left hook connected on his chin and sent him falling to the canvas in dramatic and devastating fashion. It looked, for all intents and purposes, a finisher. But Dorticos, in keeping with his personality and performance, somehow made it to his feet and resumed on unsteady legs.

Alas, a second knockdown inevitably followed and then came a third, registered as Dorticos gallantly fired back along the ropes, which put the Cuban out of the ring – only his calves, ankles and feet dangled over the bottom rope – and forced Eddie Claudio, the referee, to call a halt to the carnage with eight seconds left to run.

The Oleksandr Usyk vs Murat Gassiev World Boxing Super Series cruiserweight final takes place on Saturday (July 21) in Moscow

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