Under pressure: Burnett vs Zhakiyanov report
Andrew Harrison reports from ringside in Belfast, as local lad Ryan Burnett unifies two portions of the bantamweight championship of the world...
Ryan Burnett was so confident he’d eliminate his second world bantamweight title-holder in succession on Saturday, he selected Queen’s 'Another One Bites The Dust' as his entrance music. In tough Kazakh Zhanat Zhakiyanov, however, 'Under Pressure' may have been a better option.
Burnett survived a torrid physical examination from fellow bantamweight title claimant Zhakiyanov at the SSE Arena (formerly the Odyssey Arena), Belfast, Northern Ireland, yet emerged victorious to unify two of the four major world title belts at 118lbs. As expected, Burnett had to overcome Zhakiyanov's brute strength and stifling aggression to secure a clear yet hard-fought 12-round decision. Scores were 119-109, 118-110 and a far closer to the mark 116-112.
Heading in, this was a bout between two top ten world ranked bantamweights (Boxing Monthly positioned former training partners Burnett and Zhakiyanov fifth and sixth respectively). After Burnett’s sterling victory to combine the IBF and WBA portions of the world championship, he is now closing in on top spot.
Zhakiyanov (known as "ZZ") imposed himself from the opening bell, bearing down on Burnett to ensure the home fighter had very little space with which to work. The well-travelled 33-year-old pressure fighter, who trains in Manchester under Ricky Hatton, won his title earlier this year after coming off the canvas to steamroller and outwork American Rau'shee Warren in Toledo, Ohio. His plan here was to close Burnett down from the get-go.
25-year-old Burnett, though, is strong-willed and he never looked discouraged, even after Zhakiyanov landed a sweeping left hook in round two, as Burnett pulled back from a clinch. Unable to keep the visitor at range, Burnett had to adapt and box his usual, intelligent fight at close quarters.
As Zhakiyanov, 27-2 (18 KOs), continued to wage physical warfare, making the first three rounds very difficult to judge, Burnett, 18-0 (9 KOs), began to bombard him mentally. A student of exacting task-master Adam Booth, Burnett confounds opponents with speed and movement.
In fact, the two fighters perfectly reflected their trainers: Booth, the cerebral strategist who conditioned Burnett in training with mantras such as "feed your fate and starve your doubt," and Hatton, the crash, bang, wallop former junior welterweight king, who could be heard exhorting Zhakiyanov from the corner with shouts of "more punches, throw more punches".
Burnett found his timing in round four, ducking, weaving and counter-punching up close. After landing some dazzling combinations (accompanied by a wicked smile) in round five, he appeared to have gained control, only for Zhakiyanov to respond in the sixth.
As they wrestled inside, Zhakiyanov held down Burnett's neck and the home favourite immediately pulled up in pain, clasping his collarbone. His rhythm disrupted, Burnett looked ruffled as "ZZ" grabbed back the initiative to take the round.
With the bout finely poised heading into its final third, Zhakiyanov finally began to slow down, providing Burnett with just a fraction more space to land his stinging jabs and whipping counters. And it was here that Burnett opened up a clear gap to sweep home on all three cards (Boxing Monthly scored the fight 116-112).
Burnett was immediately taken to hospital, a precautionary measure after he complained of a severe headache in his dressing room (he has since been given the all-clear). His promoter Eddie Hearn, though, speaking to Sky TV, suggested they'd return here in the New Year in pursuit of the remaining two belts.
The fate of the WBC title is still unclear. Mexico’s Luis 'Pantera' Nery battered the previous owner and former best bantamweight in the world, Shinsuke Yamanaka of Japan, in August before testing positive for banned substance zilpaterol. Yamanaka may yet retire as a result, potentially leaving the WBC title in limbo (it is understood that Nery will take a non-title fight until the WBC make a definitive ruling, however, Hearn suggested in the immediate aftermath that the title was now vacant).
The other claimant and chief rival to Burnett is South African danger-man Zolani Tete, the outstanding, British-based WBO titlist allied with Frank Warren.
The main obstacle in unifying the remaining titles will be, as ever, in appeasing the various governing bodies for long enough in order to make the necessary fights. For Burnett, the Holy Family fighter from the Antrim Road who has improved immeasurably over the past year, looks a match for any of the aforementioned trio on this form.
To become an elite fighter, a boxer must be multi-faceted. Inherently tough and physically gifted, Burnett has worked to combine artful boxing with well-planned strategy. Against Zhakiyanov, he showed something else. He showed the ability to win at all costs, no matter how well his opponent performs.
Belfast has another star on its hands.