Having delivered upon its initial promise with the war between Oleksandr Usyk and Mairis Briedis last weekend in Latvia, the cruiserweight division promises more fireworks with the second semi-final in the World Boxing Super Series which sees Russian Murat Gassiev paired with Cuban exile Yunier Dorticos.
Gassiev (25-0) was doing good work in the middle years of the decade but it was in December of 2016 that he landed in earnest. Denis Lebedev was ranked the #1 cruiserweight in the world at that time and was also regarded as the division’s finest puncher. Gassiev, already wearing the moniker “Iron” like a dangled scalp, set out to earn it, wading into Lebedev with an almost eerie patience, boxing behind a disciplined guard with domination in his heart. It appeared, at first, a hideous error, as Lebedev carefully outboxed him behind an awkward southpaw jab, gobbling up early rounds with his experience and power.
Far from buckling, Gassiev didn’t even waver. In the fifth he landed three left hooks, not as a fast-handed combination but rather as a steady series of laser-guided missiles, the last of which left Lebedev on a single knee contemplating his next breath.
A desperately narrow split decision against a world-class veteran sent Gassiev into the cruiserweight tournament where he drew another wily operator in the quarterfinal, Poland’s Krzysztof Wlodarczyk, alias Diablo, “The Devil.”
Wlodarczyk had never been stopped. Gassiev crumpled him with a left hook-left uppercut combination in the third and it is possible that the Pole would not have been able to rise had the referee counted to 100. This is perhaps the most spiteful body puncher in the world. His left to the liver is hateful enough to be deemed Mexican.
The Russian will have his hands full against Yunier Dorticos in Russia this weekend, however. In Lebedev, Gassiev defeated an elite puncher in the twilight of a harrowing career; in the 6’3” Dorticos he is mounting an assault on cruiserweight’s latest biggest puncher and a man who is in his prime. 22-0, Dorticos has won twenty-one of his contests by knockout.
Ranked #7 in the world by the Transnational Boxing Board (Gassiev is #2), the Cuban crushed fellow puncher Dmitry Kudryashov in two short rounds last September to qualify for this WBSS semi-final.
Wearing the placid countenance of a car-wash manager, Dorticos poses as a boxer, and one with little imagination, perching in front of his opponent with a high guard neither seeking to draw leads or dominate his opponent but rather “control the action” with the jab of a deluxe gym fighter. But his right hand uncovers dynamite. More, he hurts his opponent with the quick version of the punch, or did against Kudryashov, stirring his mind, I think, throughout the first and into the second.
Kudryashov survived the first assault in that second round, such as it was, built only from a jab-right hand barrage that should be easy to slip and counter but apparently is anything but. This is a result of the natural power subsumed in every punch. Dorticos is not Joe Louis, he is nothing like compact or natural enough for that, but there is an unnerving control with which he launches that pet punch that puts one in mind of the Brown Bomber.
It is hard to tell what was in Kudryashov’s mind as, with a minute remaining in the second, Dorticos caught him with an almost nonchalant looking right behind the ear before withdrawing his right, elbow down, and hammering home the real version of that shot, a booming Wilder-like swoop that left Kudryashov crumpled on the canvas, straining to gain his feet but looking every inch the man who has no idea what has hit him.
At times gloriously disorganized, Dorticos finds room in his arsenal for an uppercut that is almost as prestigious and that numbers first among the reasons to wish to discount the ragged openness with which he throws many of his other punches.
Dorticos has stated previously that he wants to fight “Iron” Gassiev and now he has his wish in a fight staged in enemy territory and in which he will be the underdog. What has he seen, and where will it take him?
I thought Gassiev, who I think is absolutely real and who I consider among the very best in the world at the weight, lost his fight to Lebedev. I scored it for the older man by a single point. His problem was that despite incessant pressure he seemed quite happy to let Lebedev get off first. While wearing Lebedev down (and Lebedev did finish that fight near broken) he allowed himself to be consistently outworked and he lost many rounds he should have won on account of his hurting a man on whom he then failed to follow up. Gassiev is the very definition of a fifteen round fighter trapped in a twelve round era, a man who could be throwing as many punches in the fourteenth as he throws in the second; but he is one-paced.
That said, he is terrifying. He wore Lebedev’s shots like they were pearls, sometimes giving him a nod when something significant landed, but in no way allowing that shot to alter his strategy or even his form. I can think of little more disheartening in the ring. Dorticos is smoother than Lebedev but also less experienced; it was to that well of experience that Lebedev retreated – and he did retreat, figuratively and literally – in order to find a solution that would keep the fight close. Dorticos has nothing comparable to fall back on.
His solution will be power.
Gassiev on the other hand is looking to land his own prestigious shots. Returning to Joe Louis again for a moment, we saw in him a fighter who maintained form while trying to trick and trap an opponent onto the most awful physical assault the ring has ever seen. Gassiev has no such guile, but he does maneuver himself in a similar way, more tower than trapsmith, but one with celebrated artillery on his battlements.
He is that most breathtaking of fighters, a stalker who is ready to suffer to deliver retribution.
Predicting a great fight is like predicting an upturn in the economy: if you’re right it tends to be a matter of good luck rather than good judgement. But here we have two lethal punchers, one, Gassiev, who has proven himself near-immune to big punches, and another, unproven in iron but with a directly comparable, even superior vein of golden power.
If it turns out to be the case that Dorticos has a good chin, and perhaps more importantly, a sturdy ribcage, this fight will deliver. And even if he has neither (and there’s no reason yet to believe this to be the case), it is very possible with his reach and speed advantage he will do terrible damage before he succumbs.
I think Dorticus will succumb, but this is one occasion where I would be delighted to be proven wrong. Because Gassiev is a genuine threat at the highest level and because Dorticus is unknowable at that level, a victory for the Cuban could only raise him up, while Gassiev, already proven, will be sidelined to wait for another chance.
For the winner, a crack at divisional number one Oleksandr Usyk awaits this May, reportedly in Saudi Arabia. Whoever is triumphant, a match with Usyk is one of the best fights that can be made in boxing. With talk currently of matching the two losers from the respective semi-finals as chief support, it could also be among the best cards.
As the World Boxing Super Series races to a conclusion, the cruiserweights keep on delivering.
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