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Khurtsidze Steals the Show – BETHLEHEM, Pa. Let us make one thing perfectly clear to American boxing fans who, until Saturday night, might have been totally unaware of or only vaguely familiar with middleweight Avtandil Khurtsidze. The principal architect of what to date might be the most fan-friendly, action-packed bout of 2016 did not exactly come out of nowhere. A native of Georgia (the former Soviet republic, not the Deep South state) Khurtsidze now resides in Brooklyn, N.Y., and his last five bouts have been in the United States. He’s the WBC’s No. 9-ranked middleweight and is rated No. 12 by the IBF. He also has won nine straight and 25 of his last 26. Not a bad resume by any measure.

But, unless someone is paying close attention, it is understandable that Khurtsidze might be overlooked, and not just because he’s only 5-foot-4. He is as squatty as a fire hydrant and his fighting style is … well, let’s just call it inelegant. His face, with a nose obviously reconfigured by having been punched hard and often, won’t remind anyone of such pugilistic glamour pusses as Oscar De La Hoya or Michael Olajide.

Despite all that, there sometimes is an undeniable attraction to a fighter who plays the role of plowhorse to his opponent’s thoroughbred, as the 36-year-old Khurtsidze did here against the silky smooth Antoine Douglas, 23, and yet somehow manages to confound expectations. Khurtsidze (32-2-2, 21 KOs), a 3½-1 underdog who took the bout on less than three weeks’ notice as a replacement for the injured Sam Soliman, stole the Showtime-televised thunder here at the Sands Bethlehem Casino Resort, stopping Douglas (19-1-1, 13 KOs) in ten primal rounds. As they say in golf, the fight – which was supposed to be the set-up act for the main event, in which junior middleweight sensation Julian “J-Rock” Williams (23-0-1, 14 KOs) scored a seventh-round technical knockout of Italy’s Marcello Matano (16-2, 5 KOs) – is now the early leader in the clubhouse for Fight of the Year. It will take one hell of a scrap to dislodge it from that position.

Asked if he considered himself an “old school” fighter, Khurtsidze, who comes forward with both gloves tucked under his chin, a la Mike Tyson, demurred from putting labels on himself. Although he is effectively awkward, at various turns looking a little bit like Dwight Muhammad Qawi, Gene Fullmer and the Wild Man of Borneo, this bruised and bruising Georgia Peach simply considers himself an honest workman who doesn’t have the time or the disposition to engage in unnecessary theatrics.

“Whoever it is, that’s who I want,” Khurtsidze, his words filtered through a translator, replied when asked what he could expect next. “Titles, anything. Whoever they put in front of me, that’s who I want. I love fighting. Whoever will fight me, I will fight.”

Well, maybe not WBA “regular” middleweight champion Daniel Jacobs, who is trained by Andre Rozier, as is Khurtsidze. “Jacobs is a no-go,” Khurtsidze was quick to point out, but any other 160-pounder presumably is fair game.

What about Kazakhstan’s Gennady “GGG” Golovkin, widely considered the best and most dangerous middleweight in the world, and the holder of the WBA “super,” IBF and IBO titles?

“He is a friend of mine, too, but in boxing you have no friends,” Khurtsidze allowed. “When you get in that ring, you put friendship aside.”

In what many had incorrectly presumed would be something of a coming-out party for Douglas, who came into this world as a premature baby born to a crack-addicted mother in Washington, D.C., the script flipped only seconds into the opening round when Khurtsidze bull-rushed the rising young star with a barrage of power shots delivered at close quarters. At that moment Douglas had to be wishing that Soliman, a 42-year-old Australian and a former IBF middleweight champ, hadn’t injured his knee in training and been replaced by this relentless crazy man with the hard-to-spell name.

By the second round, Douglas was cut over his right eye. He went down for the first time, in the third, from a big left hook, and although he managed to fight at a distance more suited to his skills in the fourth and fifth rounds, which he won on all three judges’ scorecards, it was a lull before the storm resumed. Khurtsidze came out for Round 7 eager to seal the deal, and he quickly decked Douglas with another crushing hook. Although Douglas beat the count, he was nearly defenseless along the ropes and taking punishment when referee Benji Esteves jumed in and waved it off after an elapsed time of 33 seconds.

Khurtsidze was ahead on all three official scorecards at the time of the stoppage – Steve Weisfeld had it 88-81 and Ron McNair 87-82, which seemed about right, although Tom Schreck saw it much closer at 85-84 – but the punch statistics compiled by CompuBox told the true tale of the winner’s level of dominance. Khurtsizde connected on 282 of 841 blows to just 183 of 525 for Douglas, and the gap in power shots was even wider (276 of 813 to 173 of 437).

“He definitely had a better day today,” Douglas, who was taken to a hospital to be examined after complaining of dizziness, told Showtime’s Steve Farhood in a brief postfight interview in the ring. “Naturally, I’m crushed. It’s back to the drawing board.”

While saluting Douglas as “good kid,” Khurtsidze noted that “he’s not strong, not powerful. He doesn’t hit hard. I knew he was going to get tired and I would catch him.”

By virtue of his anticipated stoppage of Matano, who was fighting for the first time as a pro outside Italy in the IBF elimination bout, Williams was elevated to that organization’s No. 1 ranking and thus becomes the mandatory challenger to IBF junior middleweight champion Jermall Charlo (23-0, 18 KOs). Williams has insisted that Charlo, and other top 154-pounders, have been ducking him as if he were a low overhang or the spreader of a communicable disease.

“Does (Charlo) want to be a great fighter or does he want to keep fighting the rookie campers of the world, guys I was beating when I was 12-and-0?” Williams said after he had finally put away the pesty but overmatched Matano.

Khurtsidze Steals the Show

No doubt aware that he had a tough act to follow in Khurtsidze’s bravura performance only minutes beforehand, Williams, a resident of West Philadelphia who views himself as his hometown’s logical successor to such champions as Bernard Hopkins and Danny Garcia, resisted any temptation to deviate from his carefully mapped-out fight plan. He broke down Matano little by little, until the seventh when the inevitable happened and he twice wobbled the Italian with Philly’s signature punch, the left hook, prompting referee Gary Rosato to step in at the 2:24 mark.

“He’s not coming from halfway around the world to just lay down because I’m fighting in my hometown (a bit of a stretch; Bethlehem is 65 miles or so from West Philly) and my name is Julian Williams,” the victor said. “I knew he would come out with some kind of game plan. But over time, class shows itself, and I’m the classier fighter.

“(Matano) fought a pretty solid fight for having such limited ability. I’m not going to pretend he was a top 10 junior middleweight because he wasn’t, but I knew he would be scrappy. But I handled business like I should.”

Williams said it might have been to his advantage to not win spectacularly, as it might entice some of the division’s elite to face him where it counts, inside the ropes.

“Hopefully, they’ll say, `Oh, I see a little chink in his armor,’” Williams observed. “Maybe some of those guys will come up from under the rock now and get some of this West Philly work.  I don’t want to say no man’s afraid of another man, but there’s some reason I’m not getting no fights and I got to pull some guy all the way from Italy to come fight me. I don’t know what it is. Maybe (Charlo) will step up now. I mean, he’s got to do something. He either has to fight me or vacate (his title).”

In the opener of the three televised bouts, Detroit middleweight Tony Harrison (23-1, 19 KOs) registered a sixth-round TKO of Fernando Guerrero (28-4, 20 KOs), who was floored in the second and sixth rounds. Harrison said he would have finished Guerrero earlier had he not “fallen in love” with the straight right hand, which kept landing but to the exclusion of other weapons in his arsenal.

“I kept single-shotting it,” Harrison said. “Had I thrown combinations off of it, it would have ended a lot quicker.”

Harrison hoped his next bout would be against the only man to have defeated him, Willie Nelson, who stopped him in nine rounds on July 11, 2015.

“I want the Willie Nelson rematch,” Harrison said. “I’m better now than when I fought him the first time. What’s not to like about me? I’m exciting.”

 

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