OBERHAUSEN – As he’s done for much of his life, Manuel Charr overcame serious obstacles on Saturday night, namely a fifty pound weight disadvantage against a taller, determined and favored foe in Alexander Ustinov.
Charr came back from an early deficit to rattle Ustinov and drop him in the eighth round, following that with enough sustained punishment to capture the WBA “regular” belt before a cheerful, rowdy crowd of around 5,500 at the Konig-Pilsner Arena.
“My plan was to knock him out in the first six rounds but my coach told me I had to box and I’m glad I listened to him,” mused Charr, putting a spin on the old chess match analogy. “It was like playing backgammon, you know, how you try to trap your opponent while letting yourself move as you wish.”
That the venue had been scaled down to half-size didn’t matter, as seats were full of vocal observers despite rumors of weak ticket sales. Those in attendance saw a solid, give and take heavyweight battle.
The smiling, stoic Ustinov weighed in at 281, almost half a flyweight heavier than Charr, 230, who looked noticeably smaller, but used distance well for alternating inside and outside shots.
Ustinov was once considered a possible heir to one of the Klitschko brothers when both were still active and he fought under the K2 banner. While almost no one would argue that either of the contestants would be favored against a true top five heavyweight, both men fought hard in a battle more bloody and bruising than most observers anticipated.
It was pretty much all Ustinov for the first three frames as he came out much more aggressive than usual. Charr’s face reddened from Ustinov’s low-armed jabs and a right opened a cut on Charr’s left brow in round two.
The cut bled for much of the fight, but for Charr, who reportedly was stabbed in the back while working as a 16-year old bouncer in the historically rough port of Hamburg, it was never a distraction.
Ustinov started looking winded in the middle frames while the crowd roared every time Charr landed even a glancing blow.
In the 6th, Charr clipped Ustinov with a good right that made him stumble. Charr then backed him up and got the crowd on their feet with big rights that changed the tone of the fight in round seven.
Charr barely threw anything in the 8th, but when he did it really mattered, as a short left put Ustinov on a knee and opened a slice under his right eye.
The cacophony apparently led to a mass perception that Charr might be doing better than a comprehensive analysis might indicate.
Charr’s offense stalled inexplicably during the final frames as he danced away with his arms raised, as if protecting a huge lead he probably shouldn’t have had on the cards.
Scoring proved that maybe optimism really is infectious. Stefano Carozza had it 115-111, John Porturaj 116-111, and Stanley Christodoulou 115-112.
It was nice to see an eccentric character like Charr gain the spotlight, but my card still read 115-113 for Ustinov. My personal, unofficial punch stats had Ustinov throwing and landing far more, but much of that was in the early rounds and the wildly swinging Charr definitely landed the heavier hands.
A ringside survey was unanimous for Charr.
The vacant WBA “regular” title stakes were finally verified, with Anthony Joshua currently a unified “super” champion, though Fres Oquendo still has something to say about that. The organization released a statement directing Charr to agree to fight terms with Oquendo’s team by December 22nd but we all know such matters are frequently subject to change.
When Charr-Ustinov was initially announced, Chicago-based promoter Bobby Hitz said Oquendo would immediately initiate court proceedings to uphold a court ruling on Oquendo’s right to a title fight, from ongoing litigation after a 2014 fight with Ruslan Chagaev. By now, that’s like beating a dead horse’s skeleton.
As I got to my car I saw a German media friend loading equipment into her car. When I told her my scoring, she smiled and nodded.
“I’ve known Manuel for many years,” she said. “He tries to do the right thing for everyone. I looked through my photos for the times he hit Ustinov and I couldn’t find many, but I had a lot of him getting hit.” But yet we agreed there was no injustice to the evening’s verdict.
Few title-holders have had longer, stranger trips than Charr. Born in Beirut in the middle of a civil war, he lost his father in the Lebanese horror at three years old and became a refugee with his mother and siblings.
Charr took the microphone at a unique press conference held in the post fight VIP hall. It was my first press conference with gourmet pizza, tequila shots and energy drink cocktails, and I hope it is not my last.
Most of Charr’s touching, reflective narrative was in gratitude as he thanked everyone from early trainers for their patience to Angela Merkel for her stance on refugees.
“The haters inspired me. I wish the best for them too. I will try to be the kind of fighter that people have a good reason to respect.”
“I think Joshua is the best and, as they say, I want to fight the best. I like what he says and how he carries himself. So I say to him, hello my brother, you are great but we have to fight and I have to believe I can beat you.”
Charr admits he was never a choirboy, sometimes far from that; but there’s a generally refreshing, celebratory air of redemption about him.
“I am like a cat that has seven lives, and I think I have used up five,” Charr told the press earlier.
He gained one back now, the life of a heavyweight champion (of sorts).
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