Pardon me for saying so, but somebody’s “O” has got to go.
Oleksandr Usyk, out of Kiev, Ukraine, and Mairis Briedis, out of Riga, Latvia, meet this Saturday night in the Riga Arena and, barring the unlikeliest of results, someone will leave the squared circle with that first “L” marring a previously perfect record.
Usyk has cut a smouldering, steady burn through the cruiserweight division, winning 11 of 13 by knockout, breaking down some serious talent as he went. He oozed class in out-pointing undefeated thug-deluxe Krzysztof Glowacki in September 2016, then ranked the #2 cruiserweight in the world; just three months later he debuted on HBO, stopping the more limited Thabiso Mchunu in nine. Unbeaten prospect Michael Hunter went next before Usyk confirmed his entry into the Cruiserweight World Boxing Super Series tournament, a beautiful concoction of cruiserweight talent which will likely crown a new lineal champion of the world. This landed him with some grandfatherly opposition in the quarter finals, the veteran Marco Huck. Huck’s best was behind him, and Usyk was favored going in, by myself not least, but it did strike me how far Usyk had come in that he was to be favored over one of the best cruiserweights of the past decade after just thirteen fights.
I need not have worried; Usyk harried Huck to distraction, moving, slipping, throwing endless fuselages of quick, stinging punches. One such barrage ended matters in the tenth.
This makes him a semi-finalist; his opponent, Briedis, is qualified.
Ranked the #6 cruiserweight in the world by TBRB (Usyk is #1), Briedis’ has proven himself an interesting and thoughtful fighter who, at thirty-three, needed to inject exactly the sort of impetus into his career that the Super Series tournament has provided.
Not that Briedis was just hanging around before the tournament was convened; he, too, set out to sharpen his tools on old Huck, in fact before Usyk did, in April 2017. This fight caught my eye because Briedis, who was ostensibly supposed to be challenging Huck for the IBO belt he was waving about, refused to pay the sanctioning fee. If you don’t pay the alphabet organizations, you can’t wear their tainted gold. Briedis wanted the scalp, not the strap.
Their fight was absorbing, but not a great one; Huck recognized his limitations and set out to make the fight difficult, scrappy, disjointed, whereas Usyk set out to dominate him and was able to do so. Briedis had to box his way into the contest, behind his jab, maintaining distance, minimizing Huck’s rough inside game. The difference was footwork. Usyk was able to glide out of trouble, in ever-decreasing circles of counter-pressure, scoring discombobulating punches all the while.
Briedis just doesn’t have that kind of lightness of foot, but he did show in this fight a fine grasp of the ring’s dimensions, his place in it, and that of his opponent. That interests me. Even Usyk doesn’t appear to know where he’s going to be from one moment to the next, so it’s unlikely that Briedis will, but if he can time his moves away from his man, bring him on and then guess, he might have some real success.
Briedis’ decision over Huck was wide and clear but while it is impossible for me to imagine Huck defeating Usyk even in his rumbling prime, I’m not sure Briedis would have dealt particularly well with the energized version; at the least it would have been very close. It certainly qualified as taking care of business though, and it grabbed him a spot in the Super Series where he was matched with former heavyweight contender Mike Perez in the quarter finals.
Perez was a skilled and at one time (at least in the UK) heavily hyped heavy who suffered from the oldest of pugilistic diseases, lack of desire. This culminated in a hideous, brutal knockout at the hands of Alexander Povetkin, after which time Perez reinvented himself as a cruiserweight. It spoke to the excess weight he had been carrying and, perhaps, of future possibilities born of the discipline weight-making instills.
Perez travelled out to Riga – just like Usyk has – where Briedis has significant promotional backing. They believe in him there. The people, too, believe in him, and are rampant when he fights there. Usyk is no stranger to foreign shores, but this will be an intense atmosphere.
Perez was the perfect quarter-final opponent for Briedis, given that he is to fight Usyk, in that he is a skilled southpaw. That is where comparisons end, however. Perez wades forward, every bit the heavyweight, stance wide, feet planted or ready to be planted, demanding the opportunity to punch but almost exclusively in straight lines. Where Usyk will be floating out and punching, Perez was swinging or clutching.
Still, it’s a style-check of sorts in terms of stance and Briedis seemed comfortable. As in the Huck fight, he was once again active in clinches, which will serve him well if Usyk can be drawn into any.
This is a fight where Briedis has to surprise to win. He has to show more than he has in previous contests, and he has to weave numerous fronts into a strategic quilt in order to make the impact.
“The biggest sporting event ever on Latvian soil,” according to the promotional team behind the event, this is a contest that Briedis insists will be a classic. This is a proper ambition for the man from Riga. If he makes it great, he makes it close, and if he makes it close, in his own backyard, he has a chance to win. And this is what makes this fight really intriguing. Foreign climes are always threatening, especially in a case where the man defending his turf is something akin to a national hero; in short, a narrow decision won’t do for Usyk here.
That means he has to take some chances. Briedis has been chin-checked in tight conditions, up close, where punches get placed instead of thrown with a ceaseless boiling liquidity and he was at the very least irritated by some of the longer punches Olanrewaju Durodola landed on him in their 2016 contest. Usyk, who is content to snipe and pour his opponents into late crumbling non-resistance may look to step things up a little earlier and see what he can or cannot get out of that chin.
I suspect Briedis will be equal to that particular challenge but there the fun may stop. Usyk is better and likely to be bolder than we’ve seen him. My guess is the two will stage a fight that moves from tame early, to some crackling middle rounds, followed by a descent into one-sidedness that culminates in a very late stoppage for Usyk.
This, certainly, is what would be best for boxing, if not for the partisan Riga crowd. Around the corner from this fight lies a probable Super Series final between Usyk and Murat Gassiev. I’m serious when I say this is the best fight that can be made in boxing currently, though I don’t necessarily expect many to agree with me.
Beyond that: Anthony Joshua. Usyk doesn’t just talk about moving up to heavyweight, he talks about Joshua specifically. This interests me. It reminds me a little of Holyfield’s surety of his date with destiny and Mike Tyson, even when he was tearing up cruiserweight.
Not that I’m making any wild predictions.
A sidenote: on the undercard there’s an intriguing contest between perhaps the world’s number one heavyweight prospect, Filip Hrgovic, and English tough Tom Little. Hrgovic is another man with a keen interest in the future of the heavyweight division.
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