Cruise control: WBSS cruiserweight preview
This weekend the World Boxing Super Series (WBSS) begins with cruiserweight tournament favourite Oleksandr Usyk taking on veteran Marco Huck in Berlin. Callum Rudge previews an enticing quarter-final line-up...
The WBSS has created huge excitement around the boxing world and is a fantastic addition to an already stellar year for the sport.
The cruiserweight tournament in particular has generated huge buzz with all four sanctioning bodies (WBC, WBA, IBF, WBO) represented by their respective champions (bar WBA 'super' champ Denis Lebedev) and four very solid ‘contenders’ also present.
The seeding system, which saw the top four seeds pick their opponents, made for gripping TV and no doubt the two tournaments will provide many moments to remember. While Usyk does start as favourite in the 200lbs competition, the ‘Super Six World Boxing Classic’ super middleweight tournament held between 2009 and 2011 shows us that ventures like this don’t always go to plan - on that occasion pre-tournament favourites Mikkel Kessler and Arthur Abraham both lost to Andre Ward and exited the tournament before the final showdown between the American and Britain's Carl Froch.
With this in mind I’m going to attempt to predict the outcomes of the four cruiserweight quarter-finals, in chronological order:
9 September: Oleksandr Usyk (12-0) vs Marco Huck (40-4-1) – WBO cruiserweight title, Berlin, Germany
The first fight of the tournament pitches the pre-tournament favourite vs a legend of the division. Serbia-born Huck’s 13 successive defences of the WBO cruiser title now held by Ukrainian Usyk is something of legend at 200lbs and it will take a special fighter to break it. With Usyk making just his third defence of the title it is too early to say whether he is that fighter but there is a reason he is the number one seed in this tournament and a massive favourite in this match-up.
The 30-year-old Uszyk, who won Olympic gold at the 2012 games at heavyweight, has looked completely dominant in his climb up the cruiser division and his dismantling of Huck's conqueror Krzysztof Glowacki in just his tenth pro fight was a sight to behold. His two fights since vs Thabiso Mchunu and the then undefeated Michael Hunter have been equally dominant. Huck, on the other hand, is 2-2 in his last four fights and in his most recent bout in April of this year he was dominated by WBC champion Mairis Briedis.
While I expect to Huck to put up a valiant effort, I have no doubt that Usyk will beat him with ease, probably wide on the cards although a late stoppage is not out of the question.
23 September: Yunier Dorticos (21-0) vs Dmitry Kudryashov (21-1) - WBA ‘regular’ cruiserweight title, San Antonio, Texas
Hardcore fans of the division will tell you that this is the fight they’re looking forward to the most in the opening round of this tournament. Here we have two fighters with extremely high knockout percentages and just one loss between them. While their stats may be the similar, their styles are not.
WBA ‘regular’ titlist Dorticos may be not as evasive as his Cuban compatriots Erislandy Lara and Guillermo Rigondeaux but he has fast feet and exceptional punch selection. Kudryashov, on the other hand, does not have the speed of Dorticos but punches extremely hard. The 'Russian Hammer' has a loss on his record but it has been avenged. In his sole defeat to Olanrewaju Durodola in November 2015 he displayed very poor defence using a very loose imitation of the ‘Philly Shell’ and was stopped inside two rounds before adopting a more traditional high guard for the rematch in June 2017 and winning in five.
I expect this fight to be extremely competitive - both men could suffer knockdowns but after six rounds I anticipate Dorticos’ superior accuracy and speed will show and he will score a stoppage by round ten.
30 September: Marius Briedis (22-0) vs Mike Perez (22-2-1) - WBC & IBO cruiserweight titles, Riga, Latvia
While the addition of (nearly) every champion at cruiserweight to the tournament was a surprise to a lot of fans, the addition of Mike Perez was perhaps an even bigger shock. The Cuban born 31-year-old has been in the consciousness of British fight fans since winning the Heavyweight Prizefighter Tournament in 2011. Before moving down in weight for this tournament, Perez had mixed fortunes at heavyweight; drawing with Carlos Takam and beating the then undefeated Magomed Abdusalamov in unfortunate circumstances, while losing to Bryant Jennings and Alexander Povetkin.
While Perez’s career fortunes have fluctuated, Briedis has been on steady climb since turning pro in 2009, culminating in his career best victory when winning his maiden world titles by widely outpointing Marco Huck for the vacant WBC crown and Huck’s IBO title in April.
This fight is particularly intriguing and a win for either isn’t beyond the realms of possibility, but my concern for Perez is his lack of activity - he has boxed just once since 2015 and this was a one-round blow out in a contest that would’ve frustrated him as much as it did the paying customer.
This showdown is asking a lot of Perez - he’s moving to a new weight class and facing one of the top two or three fighters in the strongest division in boxing. I think Perez will be aggressive and perhaps give Briedis some trouble early on but I imagine that by half way the Latvian will be firmly in control and will retain his titles by wide decision.
21 October: Murat Gassiev (24-0) vs Krzysztof Wlodarczyk (53-3-1) - IBF cruiserweight title, Newark, New Jersey
Murat Gassiev should be preparing for this fight as a unified world champion after defeating Denis Lebedev last December and it is only, in the words of Lennox Lewis, the ‘politricks’ of boxing that stopped Gassiev leaving that night with two belts instead of just one. In another piece of boxing ‘politricking’ we were spared the drama of IBF titlist Gassiev picking his opponent as he was instead mandated by the IBF to meet Wlodarczyk, thus removing the spectre of the IBF stripping Gassiev for having the gall to unify the division (shout out to Terence Crawford!)
As for the fight itself, I think this will be the closest contest of the four. Wlodarczyk is that rarity - a good mandatory challenger, who was WBC Champion for over four years before losing the title to Grigory Drozd in 2014. He has since bounced back with four wins against solid if not spectacular opposition.
There is a 12-year age gap between the two with Gassiev just 23 years old compared to Wlodarczyk being 35, and this could be where the fight is won and lost. Gassiev is the fresher of the duo and will have learned a lot in his win over Lebedev. I think this fight could be close and I wouldn’t be surprised at some controversy over the scoring, but the pick is for Gassiev to retain via close decision.