Nothing but good can come from any tournament which seeks to crown a single fighter as the king of their respective weight class and the World Boxing Super Series is currently making sure this happens for both the super middleweight and cruiserweight divisions. After Oleksandr Usyk dominated Marco Huck, and Mairis Briedis struggled with Mike Perez, it was time for a showdown between the WBO and WBC cruiserweight champs, the match taking place in Briedis’ backyard of Riga, Latvia.
Many saw Usyk as a clear favourite to win and move on to the tournament finals, but no one could discount the chances of Briedis, the more experienced of the two at the pro level. Most agreed the styles of the two men were such that Usyk vs Briedis promised to be a highly competitive showdown.
And that’s exactly what boxing fans got, as the two belt-holders submitted an early candidate for 2018’s Fight Of The Year. It was an intense, fast-paced battle from first bell to last, with both men turning in superlative performances, demonstrating impressive stamina, conditioning and durability. Many, if not most, of the rounds were razor close and difficult to call as there was virtually no clinching or wrestling and both men maintained a relentless pace. Usyk appeared the more aggressive and busier of the two overall, while Briedis countered effectively, was more economical and often landed the more telling blows. Both fighters mixed up their punches well to both body and head and for long stretches neither had a decided edge.
In the early going Briedis got off to the better start, beating the taller and longer man to the punch and landing heavy shots to the body. But in round five “The Cat” asserted himself as he took one of the few decisive rounds in the contest. Briedis edged round six with the cleaner work and harder shots, but the Ukrainian rebounded and overall appeared to get the better of the fight in the second half. It looked to this observer as if Briedis needed a big finish in the final three minutes but it was Usyk who seized the momentum and assumed control through most of the round. The final result was a majority decision for “The Cat,” with all three judges turning in respectable cards.
In all honesty, either man could have legitimately taken the win and it was perhaps surprising that Briedis did not get a close decision in his home city. Props to Usyk, who has faced three world champions on their home turf and emerged victorious in all three matches. One gets the feeling that the former Olympic gold medalist may be on the cusp of a truly historic run.
The IBF and WBA cruiserweight titles will be on the line in one week when Murat Gassiev and Yunier Dorticos throw down in the other WBSS semi-final in another excellent match-up. But after this latest win, Usyk has to be seen as an odds-on favourite to eventually triumph and take the Muhammad Ali Trophy and become boxing’s first ever unified cruiserweight champion.
Anything can happen of course, but, in my view at least, Usyk presents a truly formidable combination of size, strength, quickness and boxing smarts that figures to be too much for anyone below 200 pounds, with the exception of, well, Mairis Briedis. And once the WBSS tournament is over, the Latvian definitely deserves a rematch with “The Cat.” — Neil Crane