The ringside hostilities were not perhaps as expected tonight in the Riga Arena, Latvia, as Oleksandr Usyk met Mairis Briedis in a high quality clash which comprised the first semi-final of the World Boxing Super Series. Usyk had plenty of support, and they were vocal as the two men met ring center.
When Briedis landed some polished looking straight punches in the first round, however, the crowd reacted and when they heralded their man at the end of those three minutes, it was with a roar; his pestering jab and quick hands took the frame.
It looked to me like Briedis had decided to give up some off the torque on his shots in order to establish range and take a pop at controlling the action, but he opened the second with hard punches. Usyk responded with the points gathering right out of the southpaw stance, but still Briedis plagued him with those short “touching” shots, ironically more associated with the amateur style of which Usyk was supposed to be the classic exponent. Usyk, for all that, looked to try to get a hard jab over his front foot and land the stiffer punches; it was a fascinating role-reversal.
The crowd was in favor and referee Kenny Bayless failed to hear the bell to end the second.
A right uppercut and hard straight right bought Briedis the first minute of the third round; Uysk stayed busy throughout though in something more like the fight I expected to see, complete with a nasty accidental headbutt as they moved inside, ring center.
Opening the fourth, Usyk tried to “stir” his jab, stepping to Briedis’ left and feinting with it or throwing it. Briedis was unimpressed and for the first time it was absolutely clear that this fight, already excellent, was in the balance. I scored this round for Briedis based upon two hard right uppercuts to the gut, already defining punches for the Latvian and for Usyk, a long way from his Ukrainian home, this brought to life the possibility that he was 4-0 down with the judges, though my own card read 2-2.
Unusually, perhaps unsettled, Usyk was bringing the pressure while Briedis gave ground in small increments before swarming on. Usyk landed a bruising straight down the pipe before Briedis spent most of the next minute out-working him, another reversal of expectations. By the end of the round, Briedis’ nose, bloodied in the fourth, spread crimson across the bottom half of his face; Usyk smeared it with punches and a blistering left uppercut from the Ukrainian closed the round.
It felt like a pendulum round in a fight that had been close but seemed to be within Briedis’ grasp; the sixth felt key.
Usyk felt it too, I think, and went to boxing, maintaining distance, his face grim as we have not seen it, marked with a minor aberration from the accidental clash of heads in the third. It felt like Usyk had succeeded in taking the sting out of a tumultuous fight, but a right uppercut, Briedis’ key punch all night, reinvigorated both men. When Usyk hit the canvas shortly afterwards, Bayless correctly ruled a push and issued a warning. Body punching and pressure had given Usyk a 4-2 lead on my card, though it was possible to imagine the judges scoring it just about any one of three ways, and not unreasonably.
Uysk was unable to sustain the pace he set in the fifth but reminded us in the seventh that he is capable, too, of winning a round with a single punch, stinging Briedis a winging left hook from a squared-up southpaw stance and rifling in untidy uppercuts behind it. Briedis suddenly looked bereft of ideas while Usyk stiffened up his jab to body and head, moved his man back and hit him two-handed to the body when he tried to close. It felt, for me, that the eighth was the round in which this fight went away from a brave Briedis and we began to see what had been expected at bell: Usyk outspeeding and outworking an unsure opponent who was befuddled by the Ukrainian’s use of angles and footwork.
Usyk’s corner implored him to work the body more in the ninth. Usyk preferred to jab while throwing over the occasional straight left; but despite his giving ground throughout, I thought Briedis landed enough cute straight right counters to poach this round. Nevertheless, he looked exhausted and sported a new nick above his left eye.
The Ukrainian took the tenth through steady pressure and with the occasional gathering of straight punches and isolated jabs. It was not scintillating stuff but it was certainly enough to best a tiring opponent who showed great heart and lungs to stay organized even as the light went out of his fight plan.
Usyk seems machine-like at times like this. His spike in the fifth was extraordinary, but even in exerting himself to the levels of a mere mortal, he’s throwing near constantly and shots landed upon him provide his opponents with a bare moment’s respite.
I predicted a very late stoppage for Usyk, but as the eleventh opened I was willing Briedis on. He stated before the fight that he had to make it great in order to win it, and that it was near-great perhaps helps to explain why he felt so near to winning in those early rounds. As Mike Tyson put it, everyone has a plan until they get hit – but it was more ceaseless pressure and punching that was his undoing here. Warned for a third time for low blows in the eleventh, Briedis unquestionably ruffled the Ukrainian throughout and had he enough in the tank for a rally in the eleventh and twelfth, who knows? He might have sprung the upset. As it was he was forced into trying to beat a heavy favorite on the backfoot, a challenge for any fighter.
Let me state here that Briedis succeeded in making almost every round close, but equally let it be said that Usyk was clearly the winner in the great majority of them. Briedis is thirty-three years old but without ringwear. He has the remainder of a good career in front of him should he chose to take it. I suspect, however, that if he wants a rematch he will have to pursue it at heavyweight. Usyk, who arguably lost the twelfth to a series of heartfelt rallies from Briedis, is talking already of a meeting with Anthony Joshua. Wladimir Klitschko was asked about this prospect tonight and advised Usyk to take it one step at a time.
This is good advice. With the winner of Murat Gassiev and Yunier Dorticos set to provide him with very serious opposition in the final of this cruiserweight tournament, he will have his hands full without stepping up to the unlimited class.
Tonight though it was victory for Oleksandr Usyk in Riga, by official scores of 114-114 and 115-113 twice, close cards but perhaps not unreasonable given the turf.
Usyk rises to a tender 14-0, while Briedis drops to 23-1.
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