Return of a prodigal son or ascension of a new king?
There is one fight between two Top 10 boxers taking place this weekend; however, it is not being televised in America, despite the fact it involves one of the most exciting boxers of the last decade. Marco Huck 40-3-1 (27) takes on the challenge of undefeated Mairis Briedis 21-0 (18) for the vacant WBC cruiserweight title (the sanctioning body has proclaimed Tony Bellew Champion Emeritus, in expectations that he stays at heavyweight or gives up the title to face a more lucrative domestic foe) in a duel of such quality that the loser is not likely to drop out of the Top 10. A fight that defines and validates just how competitive and deep the cruiserweight division is at this moment and, for the last decade, the division may have been the most competitive and challenging in all of boxing outside welterweight, where Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather Jr. ruled supreme. Acknowledgment of that fact is hard to come by in America because there have not been many competitive Americans at this weight class, and is why this intriguing fight is largely overlooked in the U.S.A.
It is not lost on me that this bout takes place on April 1, so one of the duo will play the fool for accepting this High Noon showdown. For most of his career, it has not been Marco Huck, a champion for six years and 13 consecutive title defenses, in one of boxing’s roughest neighborhoods. He has been, arguably, the most consistently exciting champion in the sport. His title bouts are marked by frenetic exchanges and high work rates, forced upon opponents by an incessant Huck, as well as swings in momentum, given his attack-first/survive-second style. Huck fights cause viewing figures to spike in Germany, regularly drawing 3-to-4 million viewers, which are figures no American boxer generates on HBO or Showtime, even given the population disparity between Germany and the U.S.A.
Standing ready in the opposite corner, Mairis Briedis does not have the weight of expectation, nor the wear and tear on his body that old war horse Marco Huck does, despite both men being 32 years old. Briedis is a fresh face and heavy puncher, who is probably the smoother boxer overall, with the reflexes to stand in front of foes, spying openings to land a lead or lash back with a counter. The Latvian lightning bolt is on a roll, stopping his last seven opponents to include respected German heavyweight Manuel Charr with a highlight reel-worthy kayo. Briedis also showed, against tough Olanrewaju Durodola, that he carries his power late into fights, stopping the musclebound Nigerian in the ninth round. What Briedis may lack in dynamism or scintillating power, he makes up for with snappy accuracy and timing that impact as impressively, if not as quickly, as a one-punch knockout.
Briedis’ tenacious traits are problems for Huck, whose resilience has been inspiring, in many fights in which he’s had to dig deep to escape with a victory. Huck lost his WBO title via one-punch kayo to Krzysztof Glowacki, in a fight he was winning and controlling late, but he has rebounded impressively, winning two fights against tough veterans Ola Afolabi and Dmytro Kucher. In his most recent outing, against the latter, Huck broke the metacarpal bone in his right hand, limiting his output in a still-dominant performance. He may still be banged up from that outing and admitted the injury was debilitating and affected early preparations for this fight. If Huck is anything less than 100 percent for this battle, there is a good chance his days as a title contender are over, given the depth of talent currently bubbling up in the weight class.
There has been major remodeling to Team Huck; now featuring trainer and former Olympic medalist and onetime stablemate Oktay Urkal. A significant change from the sometimes curmudgeonly but peerless German training legend Ulli Wegner, who did not hesitate to step aside and gave his blessing to the union as the 74-year-old slowly drifts toward retirement. At the beginning of camp, Urkal did not push hard because of the hand injury from the Kucher fight, which Huck acknowledges but downplays, “The pain was hard during the fight in November. But, of course, I never thought to give up. Because of the long time being professional with my former trainer Ulli Wegner, I have another sense of pain than most other humans. I don´t know any pain but it will be not the same thing with my opponent.”
This pairing has only been together for eight weeks. Even though they seem a good fit, it is hard to tell what will happen during the live fire of a title fight. Huck has no second thoughts, “I’m very glad I’ve got a young ambitious trainer, who has a lot of experience in the ring. We know each other for years because we were in the same training group with Ulli Wegner. I trust (Urkal) and look forward to working with him. Oktay and me know us as active boxers – I think that is an advantage. We’ve grown up with the same boxing philosophy, so I am in accordance with him.” Urkal is similarly comfortable in his role as overseer and teacher, “I know Marco’s qualities very well and I trust in this (relationship). We will be (well) prepared and come back from Dortmund with the belt.”
The duo believes it is further in its preparations and work as a team because they got to know each others as boxers first. Urkal noted, “We were in the same training group with Wegner. Our relationship is built on trust and that we came from the same school of boxing makes it easier. However, during training, there is no fooling around between us. There we get to the point. At this time, we are coming directly from the training camp, so, two weeks before the fight, we have to rein in preparations with precision. We can’t be too hard because Marco has an extremely tough camp behind him, sparring with three opponents a day.”
Huck is a throwback fighter at heart but takes advantage of modern science to become the best athlete possible. As a part of preparations, Huck uses an extremely cold cryochamber to recuperate from tough workouts and help cell regeneration. The champ described the sensations, “It feels like an ice cube you suck with your tongue. Only both you and your tongue feel like ice cubes at the same time. The icy-cold hurts a little, at first, but after you’ve left the cryochamber, you feel good.” Another medical advantage is located in Huck’s jaw, though born of necessity instead of calculated preparation. Huck literally has a titanium jaw; a plate and six screws were inserted after his jaw was broken in 2008. Four months later, Huck returned to ring and won the European cruiserweight title. It is this mix of toughness, intelligence and work ethic that has endeared Huck to the German public selling out this event.
These are accomplishments and accolades to which Briedis aspires also and he wants to capitalize on this opportunity to win over Huck fans, while displaying he has many of the same qualities. Despite turning pro in 2009, Briedis has yet to face a former world champion, nor has he been tested by a wily veteran such as Huck. Both are experiences Briedis craves and he is excited to measure his abilities against a practiced and skillful former champion. Briedis told THE RING Magazine’s Anson Wainwright, “I regard the fight as a one-time chance where I can show my full potential. I know that Marco will also give his best. It’s a good chance for me. It would be the biggest fight in Latvian history. I need to train hard and do my best, like always. Huck is a dirty boxer. I always fight clean. We will see who will win – dirty or clean fighter. We will fight for the WBC title, which means – for both of us – all or nothing!”
The new scale of opportunity is not lost on Briedis, who did bounce back and forth from heavyweight but has settled below 200 pounds and looks rock-solid there. The assumption was a title shot would come against Tony Bellew but Briedis thinks Huck is an even bigger name on which to capitalize. “I am incredibly happy about the upcoming fight against Marco Huck. He is a true cruiserweight legend and already has shown that in a lot of incredible fights.” The pair have been in the ring together before, in 2009, when Briedis was brought in as the main sparring partner for Huck when he was preparing for Ola Afolabi, for the very first time. Of course, Briedis claims he got the better of Huck in those sparring sessions, and has since learned even more about what it takes to become a champion, sparring pound-for-pound-rated boxers and former champions Wladimir Klitschko and Sergey Kovalev.
Despite his ascendance to the world stage, Briedis remains humble, refusing to quit his position as a police officer, in which he has been afforded time off for travel and training sessions. Even if he wins the world title on Saturday, as he told THE RING Magazine two months ago, Briedis may not give up his day job. “I don’t know. Being a policeman is not a line of income for me. I want to be a policeman. I want the status. I am a public figure. I am a role model. When I start in the police, everybody thought boxing was a bad sport, mafia, gangsters. Now I have changed people’s perception of boxing.” On Saturday, Briedis only needs to win over three judges and, with that, his perception will have changed within the entire boxing world.