Cruising in style
The “World Boxing Super Series” cruiserweight tourney is a hit in many ways, delivering knockout fights while reshaping the division and introducing boxing fans to new world-class talent. (There would be more fans if there were an outlet in America!) The competition is at the halfway mark of the opening round, with the No. 1 and No. 4-seeded fighters proving their worth in resounding stoppage victories. Last Saturday, in San Antonio, Texas, Cuban Yunier Dorticos destroyed Dmitry Kudryashov of Russia inside two rounds. It was a high-noon gunfight between two vicious punchers, who had stopped 41 of 42 previous foes, in which WBA “regular” beltholder Dorticos scored the obligatory knockout in exemplary fashion. Three weeks ago, in Germany, No. 1-seeded WBO titlist Oleksandr Usyk manhandled long-reigning former champion Marco Huck. It was 10 rounds of two way power-punching, and this weekend promises more of the same when newly-minted WBC titleholder Mairis Briedis and Mike Perez square off in the WBSS quarterfinal.
The tourney continues on today (2 p.m. ET at worldboxingsuperseries.com), in Riga, Lativa, with an intriguing world title match-up. It pits Briedis 22-0 (18) of Latvia, and Cuban Mike Perez 22-2-1 (14), a former Top 10 rated heavyweight who looks in great shape after coming down in weight. The first elimination stage rounds out in October, with Russian IBF champion Murat Gassiev, 24-0 (17), taking on another former champion who had a long reign in Poland’s Krzysztof Wlodarczyk 53-3-1 (37). So far, this competition has brought together four reigning world titleholders and incorporated the two most feared punchers in the division, as well. All eight boxers are or were rated in THE RING Magazine Top 10, with the Cuban wild card of Mike Perez thrown into the mix. Simply put, the WBSS is delivering on its promise in spectacular fashion.
This will be the 32-year-old Briedis’ first defense of the title, which he ripped from respected champ Marco “Captain” Huck via 12 round decision, last April, in Germany. This time Briedis, a former kickboxing champion and policeman, in his off boxing hours, has the advantage of fighting on his home turf, something Briedis finds obvious joy in, “I’m real happy being able to start the World Boxing Super Series, at home, in front of my own crowd. This is a big thing. For Latvia, this will be the first major world championship bout in history, so I hope to see a sold-out arena. We fight to win the Muhammad Ali Trophy but I am also putting my world title at stake. The boxing community around the world will learn how passionate and loud Latvia fans can be!”
The home ring advantage has given Briedis an added edge, as he pushes himself in training camp, “My preparation camp has been going very well so far and I can assure my fans that I’ll be at my best when the 30th of September arrives. I’m really happy that I will be able to do it in front of my home crowd. There are no easy fights in this tournament. Mike Perez has already made his name in the heavyweight division and seems to be in the shape of his life coming down to cruiserweight.” Perez did present a challenge even before Briedis steps into the ring with him. “He is a southpaw and I am getting great sparring from different southpaw boxers. I am well-prepared for Perez. I can’t wait for September 30. On that date, I will make the Latvian people proud.”
Mike Perez, a Cuban defector now based in Cork, Ireland, will be venturing down to cruiserweight (losing 40 pounds for this opportunity) for only the second time. The 31-year-old lefty is used to fighting on the road, given a long amateur resume and big fights in America, and is confident the fight venue will not make a difference, “Fighting in Latvia isn’t an issue for me. I don’t care where I fight. I’ll fight anywhere. It’s an opportunity of a lifetime. I feel good; I’m confident and I’m looking forward to Riga. I have a chance to become world champion in my very first fight in the tournament, so I couldn’t have asked for better.”
Visibly confident, Perez has not shown a need to disrespect the champion in order to boost himself, “Briedis is a good champion but I can’t wait to bring the belt home. I’m so lucky to fight for the Muhammad Ali Trophy and also become the undisputed cruiserweight champion in this tournament. I have no doubt that I will do just that. I have worked hard for these last couple of years and really dedicated myself to get this chance and nobody is going to take it from me.” Perez sees this as his life’s work paying off. “I have lots of experience as both an amateur and professional. A lot of ability and, now at cruiserweight, I’m much faster on my feet and can throw faster combinations. So, I feel like I’m a much better fighter. That is how I see it. I think I will win. I cannot see anyone else winning it. I am the best cruiserweight in the competition.”
The winner of the Briedis-Perez showdown will have to elevate his game once again in the next fight of the tourney, as the victor will be matched with tourney favorite Oleksandr Usyk 13-0 (11) in the semifinal. Alexander Krassyuk is an interested observer of this fight, as a General Director of K2 Promotions, who manages Usyk, and believes the Briedis-Perez winner is a considerable threat to his protege, “My favorite in this fight is reigning WBC champ Mairis Briedis, who I consider one of the most serious opponents for Usyk. Mairis is skilled, experienced, brave-hearted and hungry for fame and recognition. He took a fight with Manuel Charr at heavyweight, went to Chechnya where Charr was the ‘home’ fighter. He knocked out Danie Venter, who Usyk named one of his most dangerous opponents. He stopped (Olanrewaju) Durodola and outboxed Marco Huck in Germany. This is definitely not the easiest way to qualify for the finals.”
I am intrigued with Mike Perez coming down in weight but still favor Maris Briedis to edge a victory in his hometown, with dodgy judging not playing a role. A big reason is that Briedis has faced heavyweights before (beat a Manuel Charr who was 30 pounds heavier) and did well in those outings handling the big punchers. Perez is not a fast starter either and will have some ring rust to shake off, which will aid Briedis. The champion will use the emotion of the occasion, and crowd, to fuel him early and carry Briedis late. In Perez’s lone stoppage loss, Alexander Povetkin was able to outmaneuver and move Perez into hooks with his feet. I see a mobile Briedis doing the same. Though not as accurate an puncher as Povetkin, Briedis is equally fast with his hands and is a good combination puncher.
Kalle Sauerland, Chief Boxing Officer and tournament co-organizer, is looking forward to engaging a new audience with this fight, “I’m certain we’ll be able to enjoy another fantastic night of boxing and a stunning event in Riga this Saturday. The fight between Mairis Briedis and Mike Perez will provide even more breathtaking boxing entertainment. That’s what happens when the Ali Trophy arrives in town!” Sauerland is pleased with how the tourney has unfolded, “I think it’s been fantastic entertainment. Oleksandr Usyk’s extreme quality and Marco Huck’s bravery got us off to a great start in Berlin. Dorticos against Kudryashov was always going to provide fireworks, and so it proved. We’ve enjoyed three very different but all very entertaining fights so far.”
The entire WBSS hierarchy is looking forward to building on the great start, with strong European television ratings and fan acceptance of the tourney format giving Sauerland encouragement, “Thankfully, there is much more to come. The World Boxing Super Series has been dubbed the ‘Champions League of Boxing’ and the reception from the media, broadcasters and, most importantly, the fans has been amazing everywhere we go. The sporting level has been truly world-class and the brand of the World Boxing Super Series is growing rapidly day by day. We could not have hoped for a better start.”
Their team is tweaking ideas as the tourney plays out and adding improvements into future shows by surveying fans, “We are working on improving, even further, the experience for the fans at the venue, with our own dedicated Arena TV, so that the evening gets even more of a story-line for the on-site fans, which will only add to the already amazing atmospheres that have been generated. We are taking the experience to a whole new level, not just for the television viewers with our revolutionary productions, light shows and side programming but also for the fans at the venue, so that they too receive a more 360-degree experience.”
Of course, the bottom line for the boxers, besides laurels and thrill of competition, is the very large winner’s purse. WBSS co-promoter Richard Schaefer (controversial former CEO of Golden Boy Promotions) addressed the obvious, “This is big money, a $50,000,000 pot for the boxers to fight over, and this is a big tournament. It is the greatest tournament.” Schaefer reiterated his belief in the style and scope of the tourney, “The cruiserweights have, time and time again, thrown up thrilling contests but nobody has ever pitted the top fighters against each other in a fan-friendly, easy-to-understand way, within a short period of time. Our revolutionary KO tournament will take less than a year and deliver the crème de la crème, with a blend of past, present and future from the world’s finest fighters.” So far, this is exactly what has happened and, if it ends equally well, HBO and Showtime would be foolish to pass on televising next year’s tourney.