Oleksandr Usyk vs. Murat Gassiev for the Muhammad Ali Trophy in World Boxing Super Series final
Today in Moscow, Russia, the final round of the inaugural World Boxing Super Series tournament will play out as Oleksandr Usyk and Murat Gassiev put their unified cruiserweight titles on the line, to crown an undisputed champion. Here in the United States, the event will come and go, unseen and uncelebrated, just as it’s been for the division historically, and for the tournament’s entirety, since it began last year. Oddly enough, a couple of first round cruiserweight bouts even took place stateside but, in failing to secure a television contract throughout its first season, the World Boxing Super Series was streamed for free on its website, but left with little-to-no exposure or promotion to attract someone other than the boxing diehard. For them, today may feel like a celebration of the sport, as a real championship in boxing takes place, but they’ll surely wonder why it isn’t a bigger deal, should they happily fork over $9.99 at KlowdTV.com (3:00 p.m. ET /12 noon PT) for a legal stream. However Usyk-Gassiev should be a bigger deal, and the cruiserweight tournament, as a whole, has been fantastic, with memorable knockouts, off-the-wall characters and great, competitive fights that the 200-pounders of boxing have consistently churned out, no matter the recognition. In many respects, they’re the heavyweights of yesterday, and it’s somewhat fitting that we see the Muhammad Ali Trophy for the first time tonight, when it’s handed to the champion.
Usyk and Gassiev were the Nos.1 and 2 seeds of the eight-man tournament, and, at that time, they were the WBO and IBF titleholders, respectively, favored to be here. Both have collected belts along the way to establish all four major titles on the line, which, of course, renders them useless, and a means for another thing worth celebrating.
Usyk, 14-0 (11), was given choice of his first opponent, and proceeded to stop a former long-reigning titleholder in Marco Huck, then, in the next round of the tourney, overcame a demanding effort from Mairis Briedis to win a keenly scored majority decision and claim the WBC cruiserweight title. Usyk, Kiev, Ukraine, won the WBO belt in September 2016, after outboxing Krzystof Glowacki to a unanimous decision, in his 10th pro fight, and he won all those aforementioned fights in his opponents’ home countries. Tonight will be no different for the road warrior, who also snuck in a U.S. debut for his first couple defenses, but no different, should be the wise assumption that the 2012 Olympic gold medalist will be as prepared in every way as the visitor.
Gassiev, 26-0 (19), came into the tournament nearly a year removed from beating Denis Lebedev for the IBF cruiserweight title, but showed no rust in his body shot knockout of Krzysztof Wlodarczyk in his opener. Newly elevated as the WBA’s cruiserweight titleholder, Yunier Dorticos stepped in to face Gassiev last February, and helped produce the tournament’s best fight. What the Cuban “KO Doctor” did before that is worth mentioning: a second round, one-punch knockout of fellow bruiser Dmitry Kudryashov, which shouldn’t be forgotten, when talking about the year’s best knockout. Dorticos stood firm against Gassiev to give him his toughest fight to date but ultimately succumbed to the well-conditioned brute, in the final round. Gassiev, Vladikavkaz, Russia, will get to fight in his home country for the second time in a row, and return to Moscow, where he beat Lebedev, who was strangely allowed not to wager the same WBA belt in their fight.
As a match-up, Usyk-Gassiev is an excellent contrast of styles: Usyk, the nimble athlete and mindful boxer, and Gassiev, the musclebound power-puncher with a yearning for action. With both weighing-in at 198.2 pounds yesterday, Usyk (-105) and Gassiev (-115) have conjured betting odds that have proved this one to be a true 50/50 fight, and those razor-thin odds can be found for either man. The answer of how they will do it are riddled within their boxing styles, and whomever imposes his style on the other will presumably come out victorious. Neither had an easy fight in the semis, in order to get here, and even though a minor Usyk shoulder injury delayed the bout for two months, there really are no asterisks to ponder in the pre-fight build-up. Post-fight, however, no matter who wins, will become an interesting player going forward for more reasons than one.
For Usyk, a win would add to a relatively young pro career that starts to rival his fellow Ukrainian countryman, and close friend, Vasiliy Lomachenko, who has accomplished great statistical feats, in his first 12 fights. Lomachenko, who has won titles at 126, 130, and 135 pounds, has yet to unify like Usyk, not to mention become an undisputed champion in a division, though that can very well change now that Lomachenko has settled in a lightweight class that will give him great competition. Speaking of Lomachenko, Anotoly – his father and trainer – was able to help out with Usyk’s training camp for Gassiev, while his son recovered from shoulder surgery. Since making his American debut, Usyk has had different coaches in his corner, and, if Anatoly wasn’t so exclusive to Vasiliy, it’s fair to assume Gassiev would like to have him on board full-time, like many others who’ve inquired. Usyk, 31, is a tall southpaw who knows how to use his physical attributes under some busy legs. Thinking of him as a 200-pound Lomachenko is any easy comparison to make but even he’d tell you that “Loma” is far more unique than him. Usyk is unique is own right, however, and the odd duck has provided some comedic flavor, with his broken English, throughout the promotion. Should he win, Ukraine will have produced two great boxers who are taking measures to find their challenges. Maybe they’ll end up being the two greatest Ukrainian boxers ever, doing it while attached at the hip like an ultimate tag team. Beating a Russian to win a definitive championship would make things all that more sweeter for Ukraine.
Gassiev’s trainer is far more recognized than even he is. Abel Sanchez has cultivated the Russian for a a few years now at The Summit gym in Big Bear, California, and, after being in the background of Gennady Golovkin workout videos, during “GGG’s” rise, he’s finally been given time to shine in this tournament. Gassiev, 24, can be a huggable teddy bear outside the ring, speaks better English than you may think and has the fighting mindset and style tailor-made for his coach’s philosophy. Should Gassiev win, it would not only be significant for him and his country but Sanchez would have another champion in his stable, and another attraction to boast about, when it comes to bringing the sport exciting fighters to watch. Really, that can happen, win or lose, for Gassiev tonight but becoming the undisputed cruiserweight champion for either would add a chapter to the recent success of fighters out of the Eastern Bloc, making the winner of tonight’s bout the resonating figure in time.
Like most cruiserweights, both Usyk and Gassiev plan on moving up to heavyweight one day, making them an intriguing addition to a healthy class, with multiple players and big paydays. The World Boxing Super Series, and the tournament format it presents, was and is truly perfect for the cruiserweight division, and the result will almost always leave you with that impression. The WBSS also had a super middleweight tournament coinciding with this one but without all the division’s titleholders and big names, it has gone by the wayside. The 168-pound final is yet to be played out, and without a date, as well, after WBA titlist George Groves required shoulder surgery, after his win over Chris Eubank Jr. They even had to throw in a replacement opponent for Callum Smith, in his semifinal, and the main problems of a tournament format have constantly reared their ugly heads throughout its course. The WBSS just revealed its second season and its junior welterweight and bantamweight rosters both look promising (Especially 118 pounds because it will produce an undisputed champion). Luck is required for things to go smoothly but it seems like the WBSS is turning into a consistent platform in which fighters have the opportunity to gather the best and help clear the air in a confusing sport. If the fans know about it and demand it, maybe the WBSS will find it easier to be availability because, until then, its cruiserweight tourney is going to be tough to beat.