America first: Not with the cruiserweights
It is not yet complete but I will wholeheartedly endorse the cruiserweight World Boxing Super Series as the new poster child for how boxing tournaments should be constructed. Despite not being televised in America, it has surpassed Showtime’s “Super Six World Classic” tourney in importance and execution. The WBSS puts ESPN’s small scale and poorly-coordinated tourneys over the years to shame, and HBO’s heavyweight tourney in the 1980s was marred by Machiavellian promotional maneuvers that the WBSS has avoided. The WBSS is superior because it has clearly formulated goals (to include $50,000,000 in financial rewards and a beautiful Muhammad Ali trophy) that involved every champion and will be completed within a one-year time frame unifying the title belts for the first time since 1988.
The shame, of course, is that American boxing fans are prevented from fully enjoying the tourney because HBO, Showtime, ESPN and FS1 have passed on the groundbreaking bracket-style elimination competition. Our own Steve Kim provided insight on this colossal failing and it makes little sense forgoing this tourney, when you compare the matches all four networks have shown in its stead. I followed both events last weekend on Twitter; the WBSS tourney received global praise from boxing fans while the Lucas Matthysse-Tewa Kiram welterweight bout was roundly ridiculed. I expect much the same this weekend, with ESPN airing WBO super middleweight titleholder Gilberto Ramirez’s seeming cakewalk against Habib Ahmed, instead of the WBSS tourney.
So for the second weekend in a row, the best fight will not be aired on American television screens. Last week, it was WBC/WBO unified beltholder Oleksandr Usyk’s gradual grinding down of Maris Briedis (an early “Fight of the Year” candidate) and, this Saturday, a mouthwatering showdown between undefeated sluggers Murat Gassiev and Yunier Dorticos, in Russia, will fly under the radar, unless Americans stream it at the WBSS’ official website. Given the lack of college football and NFL commitments, that pairing would have been ideal for a Saturday afternoon boxing show that would have done well historically on American television.
The second WBSS semifinal should surpass what Oleksandr Usyk and Mairis Briedis gave us in ferocity, even if the standard of boxing may not reach the heights of Usyk’s victory. Exciting IBF champ Murat Gassiev takes on similarly scintillating Cuban WBA champion Yunier Dorticos and few experts expect the fight to reach the championship rounds. Both are undefeated power-punchers and you can easily build a scenario for either exiting with a victory and two belts, in this near 50/50 duel. Whomever emerges victorious will remain a underdog against Usyk, which the boxing public reaffirmed in an online poll, voting Usyk the favorite to unify all four belts with 74% of the respondents favoring him. The remaining votes were spread between Gassiev (10%), Briedis (9%) and a still relatively unknown Dorticos (7%) trailing the pack.
A rightfully proud Dorticos was not enamored by the poll but hardly let it dent his sense of self-worth or confidence. “I have noticed the poll giving Usyk, Gassiev and Briedis a better chance than me to win the Muhammad Ali Trophy but, in my next fight, I will have the last word and prove the poll wrong. I do not compare myself to anyone. I compete with myself.” That kind of focus has been absent from many Cuban boxers’ repertoires in the past. A “lack of desire” stigma hovers over the Cuban boxing fraternity, even those who have managed to claim a world title still fight against it. “I am preparing my body and soul for the most important fight in my career because the only thing I’m going to accept is the victory. My family have deposited their trust and believe in me and I am going to pay back with a victory.”
The finely-tuned Cuban expatriate has every reason to be confident, especially given Dorticos’ devastating second round TKO victory over Russian brawler Dmitry Kudryashov, last September, in San Antonio. Dorticos predicts a similar performance and outcome, “The truth is, I have no words to express my joy after my victory over Kudryashov. I have worked hard to be able to prove that I am the best cruiserweight in the world. I believe I am the best in the world and I can’t wait to fight again and show the fans all over the world once again what ‘The KO Doctor’ is about. I’m ready to show Gassiev what a champion looks like and give him a challenge he’s never faced before. I want to take his belt. In other words, Gassiev is my next victim.”
Lack of motivation or drive is not something associated with Murat Gassiev, who blew away long-serving Polish world champion Krzysztof Wlodarczyk, last October, in New Jersey. It was an intense performance, which put all of Gassiev’s power and speed on display during the three-round evisceration that ended with a perfectly placed body shot. The 24-year-old Abel Sanchez-trained (of Gennady Golovkin and Terry Norris fame) Russian radiates assurance and wants a firefight with the heavy-hitting Cuban. “In six months, I can be unified world champion. I think the World Boxing Super Series is great for boxing. I have opportunity to take all belts now. I like fight, like street fight and I show this.”
Given the power both champions possess, it was a given that trainer Abel Sanchez would rein his charge in after hearing about Gassiev’s plans for a full-frontal assault. “I think, with the fact that we’re fighting a guy with the same power, if not more power, we’re going to box a little bit more and we’re going to be smart. He’s worked very hard in the gym to improve his boxing skills. We’ve been sparring him with every heavyweight you can imagine and he’s done very well. He does have boxing skills. Unfortunately when those punchers get knockouts early in their fights, they seem to gravitate to that.”
A difference maker could be Gassiev’s body punches, which are exceptionally hard and accurate. Gassiev has also expressed and outlined plans for moving up to heavyweight, if he wins the WBSS tourney, which Abel Sanchez confirmed to Yahoo! Sports as an option they are exploring, “Absolutely, he’s only 24 years old. He’s coming back from camp at 225 pounds, so we have to melt him down to 200. He’s right now at 205, 206. I think that’s what the 30-day weigh-in was. So yes, there’s a strong possibility, if everything is successful in this tournament, we’ll look for a heavyweight title, just like Evander Holyfield, when he left the cruiserweight division.”
The duo have shown supreme confidence associated with undefeated champions and have stopped short of denigrating the opposing skill set. At the final press conference, Gassiev stated, “Dorticos is a well-schooled fighter. He has many amateur fights, good speed and fast hands. He is a great opponent and I have prepared for 12 tough rounds.” A sentiment echoed by Dorticos but with less elegance, “On a personal level, I have no problems with Gassiev but, right now, he has a problem. He has to find a defense against the missiles that are going to land on that big head of his. I will put on another show, on Saturday, for the fans in Russia and around the world. I have nothing to worry about. Gassiev has.”
An interested third party is Oleksandr Usyk’s promoter Alexander Krassyuk, who told Tamas Pradarics of BoxingScene.com, ”This is a true 50/50 fight. Gassiev is a massive puncher with a hammer in his glove, where Dorticos has a sharp scalpel. If the Cuban does not manage to finish the fight until the seventh, he would most likely lose. But again, I estimate their chances as equal and I would be among the millions waiting for this bout to happen.” While I think the evaluation of Gassiev’s power is valid, Dorticos may be able to match Gassiev’s firepower but does fall short in the body punching department.
Even though the WBSS tourney has not been televised in the U.S.A., their website has allowed fans in America to tune in for free (after registering with an email address). It has to be said there were some growing pains, as the first two events had issues with their streaming platforms, that frustrated fans and gave them a bad initial impression. Those seem to have been remedied, as I had no such issues on the last two broadcasts. I can’t say any of the fights in the series, outside of the Usyk-Briedis match-up can be considered a classic but Dorticos’ evisceration of Kudraysahov was a contender for “Knockout of the Year” and earned the Cuban a lot of buzz.
The WBSS has also been blessed in a second regard, with none of the participants suffering injuries that prevented them from getting back into the ring within four months. That was an issue with Showtime’s Super Six series, in which Glen Johnson and Allan Green had to step in because of injuries ultimately detracting from the storyline and luster of the competition. Barring any injuries in training camps or the actual fights, the WBSS looks to be operating under a lucky star, which has hampered other tourneys.
To this point, the higher-seeded boxers have enforced their advantages in the WBSS tourney, winning bouts on home or neutral venues in mostly convincing fashion. Even the judging has been above average. The tourney may have brought Marco Huck’s fringe Hall of Fame career to an end, while power-punching Dmitry Kudryashov will have a difficult time rebounding from the vicious KO suffered at the hands of Yunier Dorticos. There may be doubts with Dorticos’ chin still, as he was stopped a couple times in the amateurs, including a one-round evisceration by Artur Beterbiev. However, Dorticos has a better amateur resume than Gassiev, which has proven a key in the tourney to date. All in all, a fascinating showdown awaits us in the second semifinal bout.