Frontline diary: Gassiev grinds it out as Indongo ices Troya
Danny Wayne Armstrong
Danny Wayne Armstrong was ringside as Murat Gassiev dethroned Denis Lebedev and Julius Indongo sensationally KO'd Eduard Troyanovsky in one round in one of the upsets of the year ...
Thick snow had already coated Moscow’s inner districts by3 December, but those trudging through the white heaps en route to the Khodynka Ice Palace, situated a stone’s throw from the CSKA Moscow football stadium and nestled into the Khoroshyovsky district, knew a red hot boxing spectacle awaited.
Inside the aptly-named arena, veteran Denis Lebedev was readying himself to defend his IBF cruiserweight crown against unbeaten Ossetian challenger Murat Gassiev (23-0, 17 KOs) in an all-Russian clash. The meeting had been earmarked for explosive action and rightly so - up until their meeting, the two had recorded a collective 29 knockouts in their 59 pro fights.
Much of the talk before the fight had centred on the 23-year-old Gassiev’s age. Despite the muscle-bound young man seeming to have youth and strength on his side, his lack of experience was noted, having turned professional just five years ago after only 25 amateur fights.
Lebedev, on the other hand, has been a professional for 15 years, and the fight was to be his eighth for a world title. The 37-year-old was coming off a commanding second round TKO victory over Victor Emiliano Ramirez. The win prised the IBF belt from the Argentine and added to his WBA strap to make it four wins on the spin since his pummelling at the hands of PED-aided Panamanian Guillermo Jones in 2013.
His camp had naturally predicted an explosive fight but their quiet confidence in their man was apparent. “Both are both hard workers, both good fighters, good punchers - someone’s gonna go!” said Freddie Roach, Lebedev’s trainer, ahead of the bout.
Lebedev’s manager Vadim Kornilov predicted it would be “one of the tougher fights” for the Stary Oskol fighter. “There is always a time for every fighter to be in a fight like this and I think it’s a little early for [Gassiev],” he said.
Gassiev's trainer Abel Sanchez, however, argued it was a time for a “changing of the guard” and that Lebedev was ready to “relinquish” his title to the fighter nicknamed ‘Iron’. Sanchez has been training Gassiev for the previous 18 months in his Summit gym in Big Bear, California.
The fight's undercard was saturated with Russian cruiserweights including debutant Aleksey Egorov, described by Kornilov as “going to be impressive.” His two-round demolition of Polish journeyman Lukasz Rusiewicz did not disappoint.
Also on the bill was Rakhim Chakhkiev, who was continuing his quest to world title contention with a WBA International title against countryman Maksim Vlasov, who had been on a high since beating former world rated light-heavy Ismayl Sillah.
Vlasov has featured in Boxing Monthly's The Red Corner column, where he was outlined as a fighter with a lot more to offer the division, and on his showing he was far superior to Chakhkiev, who was brutalised and dropped three times in the fight on his way to seventh round stoppage loss.
It’s hard to see where Chakhkiev goes after the loss; the beating was so bad that Boxing Monthly failed to recognise him receiving treatment post-fight as his eyes were swelled shut with bruises.
The most unusual match of the night was the six-round final of a reality TV show 'Boi v Bolshom Gorode' (Fight in the Big City), a show that follows the format of popular series ‘The Contender’. Lightweights Georgi Chelokhsayev and Vladimir Mishev faced off for the chance to win a contract with 'Mir Boksa', headed by promoter Andrey Ryabinskiy.
The two fought a hard match which Chelokhsayev won by TKO in the fifth after dropping the stockier Mishev for a hard knockdown which prompted his corner to throw in the towel. Chelokhsayev, who like Gassiev is of staunchly proud Ossetian origin (Ossetia is a region in the Caucasus), enjoyed support from the vociferous Ossetian contingent who noticed his ring robes were adorned by the white, yellow and red of the region’s flag.
Chelokhsayev said at an open training session in the lead-up to the fight that he would buy a flat in Moscow to support his family if he won. He can now execute his plan.
And then came the chief support - unbeaten former soldier Eduard 'The Eagle' Troyanovsky defending his IBF and IBO light welterweight championships against unknown but also unbeaten Namibian Julius Indongo.
Troya was making the third defence of the belt he won from feather-fisted Argentine Cesar Rene Cuenca in May 2015, and had since then won his two defences - a return with Cuenca and a fight with Japanese contender Keita Obara - by TKO. The second was particularly brutal, with Troyanovsky beating Obara out of the ring in round two before stopping him.
But against Indongo, a Namibian police officer by day, his reign was truncated by a swinging left that seemed to begin in Africa and sail straight onto Troya’s jaw. His body concertinaed, fell to the floor and appeared momentarily to convulse.
Referee Mark Calo-Oy dispensed with the count. Troya was out before his limp body hit the canvas. Just 40 seconds of the first round had expired. Indongo was seemingly as shocked as the rest in attendance. He first started to celebrate and then stopped, then his trainer ran in the ring to congratulate his charge. At 33, Indongo (21-0, 11 KOs) was the new champion from a 10/1 shot. At 36, Troya, (25-1, 22 KOs) suffered the first loss of his career.
The shock set up the main event - Lebedev vs Gassiev for the IBF cruiserweight title. In the build up to the fight the Lebedev team had requested for his WBA Super world title to not be at stake in the fight. The request was granted and the fight took place for just the one belt.
Gassiev began strongly. The six-foot-three top-heavy titan, whose nickname ‘Iron’ actually means 'Ossetian' in his Ossetian mother tongue, showed clever movement in feeling out Lebedev in the opening stanzas. Both men’s respect for each other was evident - each round ended with a glove-touch.
The fight caught fire in the fifth round. Gassiev’s bullish attacks had begun to push Lebedev back and a crunching left hook to the ribs as southpaw Lebedev tried to pivot and turn away dropped the champion. Gassiev had landed an identical left to the body just moments before.
The punch seemed to suck the air out of Lebedev, who rose at eight, breathing heavily, but somehow managed to use his ring generalship to see out the remaining two-plus minutes of the round. From then on Gassiev knew he could hurt his man.
The action from then on was irresistible, with Lebedev firing back stubbornly as Gassiev came forward. At times the champion looked forlorn, having no answer to the composed, clinical challenger. At others it seemed Gassiev was being dragged into traps set by the smart, tricky Lebedev, but as the water got deeper, the challenger prevailed.
Despite Lebedev landing at intervals, looking tired and resorting to grabbing and holding to buy time in the later rounds, Gassiev appeared fresher and did enough on my card to win handily.
The judges scored a split decision - 114-113 Lebedev, 116-112 and 116-111 for Gassiev. The new champion was elated, the belt had stayed in Russia, but had been passed to the ‘new guard’ as predicted by Sanchez.
“I was surprised how strong he was,” said Lebedev in the post fight press conference, his face turgid with battle wounds that told the story of the fight.
The former champ was flanked by his trainer Roach, still sporting his striking blue tracksuit decorated with Cyrillic lettering.
“I thought Denis won the fight and I said to him after that I’m very proud of him,” Roach contended. “If they want a rematch they’re gonna have to pay Denis a lot of money because that’s the kind of fight it was.”
Those who stayed until the small hours to grab a few words with Gassiev were greeted by a new champion whose exhaustion had been enhanced by immediate post-fight drug testing.
“I feel happy, we do tonight what we need to do and all my team happy, it’s great. I have a lot of respect [for Lebedev] because he is great champion. I respect him before fight, in fight, after fight,” said Gassiev in his changing room
Gassiev added that he had no complaints with the split decision, saying that he just needed to ‘do my job’.
“Now I wanna go home and because I’m in training camp three months and I want be with my family. This is a job for my team what is next.”
“Murat learned a lot about himself today. Most importantly he learned what it takes to be a champion and what it takes to stay at the top,” the ever-amiable Sanchez commented on the experience his charge had gained. “Denis made him a better fighter tonight.”
Given the fight was thoroughly engaging war, was judged a split decision, and that Lebedev regardless still owns a portion of the world title, a rematch between the two concrete cruiserweights seems logical and would make commercial sense to be in Russia.
However, the English-speaking US-based Gassiev may be tempted to try his arm establishing himself in the US market in a division proving extremely popular with fans and promoters alike.