Firuza Sharipova and Djemilla Gontaruk meet this weekend in Almaty, Kazakhstan for a vacant strap at the women’s super-featherweight limit; on the undercard, a return which is currently of small note but may matter more by the end of next year: Ali Akhmedov is going home.
He has already fought five times in 2017, but this Saturday is his first hometown jam since late 2016. In an effort to step up that first level in competition this light-heavyweight prospect and storied amateur moved from 5-0 to 10-0 in a year that may have slipped under the radar of many, but which saw him steal three unbeaten records from fellow prospects. The big leap might not be ordained at this time, and Akhmedov is so active as a fighter that another quick outing in Almaty is far from unlikely, but this might just be his last visit to his birthplace in a professional capacity.
His first stop this year was Poland, the opponent, Gambian journeyman Patrick Mendy. Mendy will be familiar to some for his teak-tough efforts in extending Hassan N’Dam N’Jikam the full eight last March although equally memorable was his one-round dismemberment at the hands of Callum Smith way back in 2013.
Mendy was erring on the side of teak-tough when he met with Akhmedov. The Kazakhstani won every round (as did N’Jikam) and for me, it was a treat. Akhmedov’s professional career to date had consisted of four first round knockouts and a six round decision over an unheard of Pole, footage of which I had been unable to track down; seeing him box for eight rounds told a story.
Akhmedov is fast. For a light-heavyweight, I suspect he is very fast. Quick, quick hands foster a really good jab that could easily become a great one. He holds his hands low, but quick feet and a hard punch make his style a sort of dare. Akhmedov, at this level, does not have to worry about tricking opponents because they’re going to punch in keeping with their gym training so all he has to do is maintain pressure and wait for the opportunity.
Those quick feet foster that pressure and power in either hand fosters a virtual threat that will make mid-level fighters reluctant to lead; this should allow Akhmedov to dictate rhythm and tempo against some very decent opponents.
Certainly, by the end of his meeting with Mendy, he had shipped little, dominating on the outside with that quick jab and adjoining shots and inside with a combination of sublime balance and solid grunt work. In running the ruler over Arsalanbek Makhmudov last week, my biggest complaint was a lack of physical co-ordination, of joined up thinking; there is no such concern here.
In June, Akhmedov landed in America for the first time as a professional. He shall return, many times at a guess. His opponent was prospect Kent Holland, who, despite the fact that he weighed in at over 180lbs, was fighting Akhmedov for something called the NABF Junior Light Heavyweight title. Anyone who visits The Sweet Science regularly knows full well that the “logic” that dictates who fights for what regional title is of the magical variety. That said, it must be acknowledged that the ABC leeches take heed of these belts and so it can be said with this fight that Akhmedov began the awkward and indeterminate climb towards his first strap. His team seems to be leaning towards the WBC.
Akhmedov lay the first paving stone on his way to that title challenge in a small hall in Missouri with two hideous right hands – even on camera phone footage, they sound terrible – and perhaps a short clipping left hook as the canvas rose up to meet his opponent. Holland was unbeaten no longer.
A little under two months later, Akhmedov traveled to Texas for another step up in the shape of unbeaten prospect, Curtis Hill. Hill had been very carefully nursed to his ledger of 10-0 and given that his best opposition until this point had been Cory Dulaney, then 5-3-1, the decision to match him with Akhmedov strikes me as an odd one; certainly it must have seemed odd to Hill as Akhmedov proceeded to belt him all over the ring and stop him in four.
Hill fought like an awkward Mayweather clone, all neat touches and quick dips. Unfortunately they seemed almost arbitrary and Akhmedov was not fooled for a moment. In the fourth, the inevitable disaster struck. Akhmedov by now had control of his man by way of the jab and used it to shepherd him from rope-to-rope before detonating that zinging right hand upon his opponent’s chin. Hill bravely rose but was mercilessly battered across the ring until unconsciousness found him. I thought the referee was late to intervene on behalf of an opponent rendered unable to defend himself.
In September, Akhmedov took another shuffle forwards in Astana against American Justin Thomas. Thomas was 18-2 going in, having just dropped a narrow decision to light-heavyweight prospect Mike Lee. An American opponent probably didn’t help Akhmedov’s profile, the contest being buried on an undercard on a distant shore, but Akhmedov did shine.
Or perhaps shine is not the right word; rather he impressed in his nonchalance. Akhmedov is not yet comparable to Oleksandr Usyk as a talent, nor does he have equivalence with the Ukrainian if we compare relative stages of their careers, but both share the same relaxed approach to combat at an early stage in their careers. This absence of tension is invaluable.
That said: Akhmedov got hit in this fight. Only, really, in the first round, by trailing straight lefts out of the southpaw stance, something every fighter has to learn to deal with. But it does bring us neatly onto Akhmedov’s weaknesses.
He was stopped by punches in the amateurs; not often, and never by powderpuff punchers, but it did happen. That’s certainly nothing to worry about as far as his ability to summit is concerned – Anthony Joshua is the latest in a long, long line of fighters to prove that. But the problem is compounded by his defensive style, which is concerning.
Akhmedov hangs low. He leaves his chin out. He wears his hands at his torso. All this is calculated, I think, to draw leads which he can use his speed advantage to create opportunities for himself on offence and I applaud the audacity. The problem is that as he moves up that speed advantage – speed of thought, speed of hand, augmented by superior technique – those speed advantages will dry up. Then, we shall see.
They didn’t dry up against Thomas, who he beat handily, winning every round before stopping a sorry looking shadow of the fighter who stepped into the ring in the eighth and final round. He also won every round again in his next contest, a mismatch against the unbeaten DeShon Webster. Webster achieved the astonishing feat of having points deducted for holding as early as the third and fourth rounds.
And so, finally, Akhmedov finds himself back at home, December 30th in the Almaty Arena against Azerbaijani Ismat Eynullayev, 12-2 and certainly no better than a sideways step. But that’s okay. With five fights (and rumors of more…) already under his belt this past calendar year he can hardly be criticized for taking a softer one for his homecoming. Next year will be the year to criticize if he isn’t moved along in the proper fashion.
Prediction: he will fight for a strap. This is far from fearless given the proclivity of championship belts (the WBA, probably the current holders of the keys to the idiot wagon, have three light-heavyweight champions belonging to their own organization currently) but it’s hard to say more at the moment. I think Akhmedov has good punch resistance but this is based upon nothing more than the confidence with which he carries himself. I suspect he does not have an iron jaw. Given his defensive approach to the sport, he may need one.
If he wants to hold one of the 6 or 7 championship belts floating around at the minute, he needs to tighten up or get the right opponent. The future in this division is bright and I suspect it won’t be getting much easier in the immediate future with the likes of Artur Beterbiev and Anthony Yarde, among others, in or around the title squabble.
But it’s worth remembering, he is listed at only 10-0. There is a lot of time to serve these improvements.
2018 will either be his year or the year we find out he isn’t going to have a year.
Watch this space.
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