Murat Gassiev Thunders into the Realm of Cruiserweight Kingpins

MURAT GASSIEV GATECRASHES — Two Russian warriors delivered a knockdown drag-out battle straight from the old school in Moscow last night (Saturday, Dec. 3) in a fight that feels like a true passing of the torch from one generation to the next. Perhaps not quite fight of the year material, both men showed enough guts and toughs for an entire decade.

For those who have an interest in the cruiserweight division, the involvement of Denis Lebedev (29-3) in such a fight can hardly come as a surprise. Win or lose, Lebedev brings his all and the way he boxed on in a losing effort to alleged drugs cheat Guillermo Jones despite a horrific eye injury in May of 2013 underlined his standing as the division’s definitive blood and guts warrior.  Jones was stripped of his strap in the wake of that fight after being found guilty of drug abuses and Lebedev continued to tear through the division as if the beating had never been administered, winning four of four and achieving a #1 ranking with both TBRB and The Ring magazine.

His opponent, now 24-0, was Murat Gassiev. Trained by Abel Sanchez, Gassiev turned professional in 2011 after a perfunctory amateur career, reportedly delighting Sanchez with his ability to absorb information quickly. Nevertheless, he was moved along conservatively, matching no ranked opposition until being lobbed in with the best cruiserweight on the planet on Saturday night.

That seems to be the modern approach to devolving fighters but selecting Lebedev seems especially perverse; he can punch, he is rough, and he is as determined and aggressive as they come.

Gassiev’s nickname is “Iron”. It is accurate. He emerged from last night’s war without a scratch, Lebedev swollen, battered and forced to haul himself from the canvas after taking a knee from a brutal body shot in the fifth.

Gassiev ceded the first round waiting. This is a weakness. Not a counter-puncher in the strictest sense, Gassiev has demonstrated neither the skills to buy the lead nor the imagination to take advantage of naturally occurring punching opportunities. This article will be light on criticism,  but here is one – Lebedev, no defensive genius, made Gassiev miss and presented a target for punches that just weren’t thrown. What this does lend Gassiev is an economy; he wastes little.

He’s there to be hit though, but here’s the kicker — hitting him, and Lebedev landed on him regularly — appears to have very little affect.  Gassiev may be in possession of one of those chins. His reaction to Lebedev’s best work was a curt little nod – “good, good shot” – as he continued to move in behind his guard, eyes on the prize.

All this was in the future in the second round though, which Lebedev won, stepping in neatly with a southpaw jab that looked superior to Gassiev’s orthodox punch. With Gassiev showing him little that appeared genuinely difficult or awkward, Lebedev just used his experience to apply better judgment of the mid-range the two men prefer but it was in this round that an unfortunate truth became apparent – everything Gassiev landed appeared to be harder. So when Lebedev landed two jabs going away and Gassiev landed a single shot on his now retreating opponent, the dust settled upon a question mark: do you like volume or hurt?

I like hurt. Who hurt who is the key question in every round of professional boxing I watch but it doesn’t blind me to good work. Lebedev was doing good work but it wasn’t the good work we’re accustomed to seeing from him. Lebedev was boxing and moving. Hardly balletic, he was walking away from and around Gassiev. I think he was cognitive of an unpleasant fact, namely that his punches just weren’t having the desired effect upon his countryman. We’ve seen this from Lebedev before. Very little he landed on Jones drew much reaction either, but it’s also true that no illegal drugs have been found in Gassiev’s system.

The stalk continued in the fourth, but Lebedev did good work in picking Gassiev off. In the fifth, everything changed. On first viewing the left hook to the body that forced Lebedev down looked almost incidental but replays showed a hurtful punch bang on the money as Lebedev tried to move away. Left hook dialed in, Gassiev served up two more before the round was out, despite the fact that Lebedev’s guard was dropped down around his rib cage.

A top two ranking all but assured him in the wake of this fight, it is hard not to wonder what such savage body-punching might or might not achieve in the wider world of the cruiserweight top ten. There is a lot of damaged goods outside of the top two, including the recently relegated Marco Huck, now ranked #5, who was out-thugged by #3 cruiserweight Krysztof Glowacki.  Huck will have watched this fight with distant eyes, I feel. It’s true that he, too, defeated Lebedev, but that was a long time ago, and the brutal stalking of Glowacki was, if anything, less impressive than that of Gassiev; in his prime, he would not have hesitated, but Huck will sidestep this particular beast I think.

Glowacki would take the fight, he is just that kind of man, but his preference for ring center would play directly into Gassiev’s heavy hands while it seems likely to me that his prestigious punches might not be up to this particular job.

Lebedev’s own prestigious punches were leaving him vulnerable in the sixth, and probably sums up the problems inherent in boxing Gassiev. With 1:50 of the round remaining, Lebedev landed a cracking little punch, only to be caned with a right hand coming back. Lebedev was not even hitting Gassiev hard enough to make him pause. A good puncher in his prime, he may have lost some torque at this point in his career, but either way he did not have the pop to keep Gassiev off him or to set him up for something else. Lebedev stepped out of the furnace altogether in this round, boxing a foraging fight whenever he could steel himself for the inevitably ineffective flurry. Between rounds, Lebedev looked on quizzically as trainer Freddie Roach sounded off a halting but clear message of alarm to an interpreter who in turn provided second-hand advice to the fighter.

Lebedev picked up the seventh with his hit and run strategy but he had to take punishment to do it; he’s just not the running type. Nor is Tony Bellew, ranked #4, and a fighter who could be made for Gassiev, a knockout win for the Russian the only possible outcome I can envisage should the two ever meet. Bellew has his hands full up at heavyweight for the moment, a March date with fellow Brit David Haye likely to provide firm guidance as to his future prospects in that bigger division. Bellew is as well to be hung for a sheep as a lamb and the difference between his being knocked out by Haye or knocked out by Gassiev is probably about 200k.

Back in Moscow, an uppercut to the midriff straightened Lebedev in the eighth as he fell behind on my card, never to reclaim the lead. He was doing well flurrying around the corner of Gassiev’s guard but the aggressor remained unmoved. Lebedev did manage to hurt him momentarily in the tenth, as Felix Cora Jr. did in the ninth round of their 2015 contest; on both occasions Gassiev was back in the box seat throwing hard punches within seconds. Part of the problem is that all but the most talented of fighters have to anchor themselves to throw such punches and anytime either man anchored themselves, Gassiev let them have it. Like Sergey Kovalev he is a walking deterrent, aggression against either one of these men is generally punished.

Unfortunately for Gassiev there is a very talented fighter lurking alongside him in the cruiserweight top two. That fighter is Oleksandr Usyk.  Usyk is stylistic cryptonite for Gassiev. Smooth, quick-footed with a pre-natural balance and a judge of the range normally seen in a much more experienced fighter, it is hard to imagine Gassiev catching him with his normal regularity. Gassiev is robotic in the sense that he is unaffected by what happens to him in the ring; he applies himself in the same method regardless. Adaptability may be the key to beating Usyk and Gassiev hasn’t shown or had cause to show such adaptability. Nevertheless, this is the fight the cruiserweight division is now calling out for, a fight that would begin a new lineage based upon their status as the two best fighters of their weight in the world, a fight where Usyk’s unruffled cool may come under the same pressure as Gassiev’s consistent style.

Lebedev showed style of a different kind in the closing rounds last night, warring his way through eleven and twelve, taking the penultimate round on my card to make the tension that was present as Michael Buffer read out the scorecards of the judges. I saw it close, for all that Judge Pawel Kardyni’s 114-113 for Lebedev, rendering this a split decision, seemed a little off.

The intensity of the fight did not surprise me but the fact that such intensity bore the fighters to the end of the twelfth did. A stoppage seemed inevitable to me after the fifth; the fighters that can absorb such punishment to the body are few and far between. Lebedev was such a fighter and for all that the plaudits rightly belong to Gassiev, who, at just twenty-three, surely has a sparkling future ahead of him, Lebedev has nothing to be ashamed of.

“I’m so proud of you,” Roach told him sans interpreter at the final bell. “It was beautiful.”

It was.

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