These are exciting times for the cruiserweight division. The talent pool has never been deeper. From a global perspective, there has never been a cruiserweight fight as eagerly anticipated as the forthcoming match between Oleksandr Usyk and Murat Gassiev. It is expected to transpire in May in Saudi Arabia.
One hesitates, however, to call this the golden age of cruiserweights because most of the top fighters in the division have no following among casual fans in the English- or Spanish-speaking countries of the world. It doesn’t help that many of the fighters clamoring for recognition have names that even hard-core fans have trouble pronouncing.
Evander Holyfield is regarded as the best boxer to ever wear the label of a cruiserweight champion. When Holyfield won the title from Dwight Muhammad Qawi it was an all-USA affair. Holyfield was born in Alabama and raised in Georgia. Qawi, formerly known as Dwight Braxton, was born in Maryland and raised in New Jersey.
My how times have changed.
In preparation for this story, I took a census of the champions and top-tier fighters in the cruiserweight division, defining “top-tier fighter” as a man who was ranked in the top 10 by one or more of the four major sanctioning bodies. This yielded 25 names, only one of whom – Andrew Tabiti (pictured on the right) — was actually born in the United States.
The 25 fighters, based on their birthplace, represent 15 countries: Russia (6), Kazakhstan (2), Poland (2), Armenia (2), Cuba (2), South Africa (2), Ukraine, Latvia, Moldova, Germany, Belgium, Denmark, Hungary, Nigeria, and the U.S.A.
Andrew Tabiti, born in Chicago but a resident of Las Vegas for most of his life, is undefeated in 15 fights with 12 stoppages. Currently ranked #2 by the WBC and #3 by the IBF, he last fought in August of last year, winning a unanimous decision over former two-time cruiserweight champion Steve Cunningham on the undercard of Mayweather-McGregor.
Tabiti, an anomaly in the circles in which he travels as he doesn’t use profanity, trains in Las Vegas at the Mayweather Boxing Club, the busiest boxing gym in the city. When he works the pads with his 65-year-old trainer, Floyd Mayweather Sr., winging combinations at warp speed, it’s quite a show for the folks sitting in the small gallery. The syncopation is mindful of the riff of a great jazz drummer.
Tabiti knows he needs to be more active and is chomping at the bit to get back in action. He was told to be patient until things shake out in the World Boxing Super Series. His promoter, Leonard Ellerbe, says that something is in the works but refuses to identify the opponent(s) he is looking at. In the past, Tabiti called out Beibut Shumenov who recently announced that he was planning a comeback. A former Olympian and former two-division champion, Shumenov, a 34-year-old Kazakh, lives and trains in Las Vegas. He quit the sport last year with a 17-2 record, citing an eye injury, but has had a change of heart.
Andrew Tabiti was two months shy of his twenty-fourth birthday when he launched his pro career in 2013. On paper he started late but he correctly points out that late starts have been the norm for good fighters in his weight class. Indeed, the average age of the “top 25” cruiserweights is thirty-one. Murat Gassiev, who turned 24 in October of 2016, is the youngest. Forty-seven year old Firat Arslan of Germany (rated #1 by the WBO) is at the far opposite end of the spectrum.
Tabiti’s favorite fighter in history is Evander Holyfield. No surprise there. Holyfield won a world title at cruiserweight in his twelfth pro bout and went on to unify the title before making his mark as a heavyweight.
Holyfield set the template for cruiserweights, the best of whom invariably go on to fight as a heavyweight where purses are richer. It is Tabiti’s dream to unify the cruiserweight title and then conquer the heavyweights. He bristles when told that he wouldn’t have a snowball’s chance against someone like Anthony Joshua because Joshua is just too big for him. “Speed trumps size,” he says. “I’m sure there are some fighters in the lower classes who could hang with me.”
As for the Usyk-Gassiev match, Tabiti leans toward Usyk. “What strikes me about him,” says Tabiti, “is that he’s very athletic. He has an awkward style and being a southpaw makes his awkward style even more effective.”
Usyk vs. Gassiev will produce a unified champion. The winner will become only the fourth boxer to own all four meaningful belts since the WBO arrived in 1988. But by all indications this ideal arrangement will discompose in a flash as the champion vacates the titles to pursue bigger game in the division above him.
Tabiti’s next fight may be for one of the vacant titles, albeit it would seem inadvisable to have him wait that long before getting back in the ring. “I have a chance,” says Tabiti, “to become the American face of the cruiserweights.”
One could say that he’s already there, but by default. Now he must add a few more wins to his ledger to make his face more familiar. It helps that he competes in a division that has acquired a bright sheen after years, nay decades, of being largely overlooked.
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