Four become two: WBSS cruiserweight semi-finals preview
Callum Rudge previews the World Boxing Super Series semi-final showdowns between Oleksandr Usyk and Mairis Briedis and Yunier Dorticos and Murat Gassiev. Combined, the four fighters can boast of a perfect professional record of 83-0...
2017 was without doubt one of the best years for boxing that we’ve had in recent memory. A big reason for that was the addition of the World Boxing Super Series, which in the cruiserweight division is leading an ambitious attempt to crown an undisputed World Champion for the first time in the ‘Big 4’ era (WBA, WBC, IBF and WBO).
The tournament got off to a blitzing start with all four world title holders winning their quarter-finals, with three of them scoring stoppage wins along the way.
This set up two mouthwatering semi-finals as tournament favourite Oleksandr Usyk faces Mairis Briedis in Latvia, while Yunier Dorticos and Murat Gassiev feature in a pick 'em scrap in Russia. These two fights should hopefully kick start another stellar year for boxing.
Oleksandr Usyk (13-0) vs Marius Briedis (23-0)
WBO, WBC & IBO Titles
Riga Arena, Riga, Latvia
WBO titlist Usyk came into this tournament as the clear bookies' favourite and displayed the reasons why when he dominated and stopped former champ Marco Huck to open the tournament back in September.
Despite only having 13 pro fights to his name, the Ukrainian boxes with a calmness of a man with 50 contests under his belt. He dissected the slightly shopworn Huck with ease before stopping him late on. Briedis on the other hand took on a relative baby in the division when winning a clear decision vs Cuban defector Mike Perez. While Briedis was the rightful winner, the fight was scrappy and will be remembered as much for a strange refereeing performance by Massimo Barrovecchio as for the skills displayed by the undefeated Latvian.
Usyk is as much as a 1/8 favourite in places and, perhaps in order to level things up, the WBSS organisers have chosen Breidis’ home city of Riga to host this match-up. While I expect Briedis to put up a solid effort, the pick is for WBO champ, Usyk to leave Latvia with the home favourite's titles by competitive but clear decision victory.
Murat Gassiev (25-0) vs Yunier Dorticos (22-0)
IBF & WBA Titles
Bolshoy Ice Dome, Sochi, Russia
While the opening semi-final has a clear favourite, this one is the complete opposite with odds-makers having as much trouble separating these two undefeated world champions as the rest of us are. With the fight being in Russia, the bookmakers slightly lean towards IBF titlist Murat Gassiev but as both combatants' quarter-finals showed, nothing can be ruled out in this contest.
Cuban Dorticos provided the greatest highlight reel moment of the WBSS cruiser quarter-finals when he knocked out the exciting Russian Dmitry Kudryashov inside two rounds back in September and won’t be concerned by boxing on his opponents home turf as - like all Cuban defectors - his whole career has been spent fighting on 'enemy' territory.
Dorticos enjoys a four-inch reach advantage as well as boasting a 95 per cent KO ratio so he will not be deterred from having a war with Gassiev should it come to it. Gassiev, on the other hand, has enjoyed dark horse status during this tournament. The Russian launched himself into the world title picture by dropping and defeating veteran Denis Lebedev in December 2016. During that fight Gassiev displayed terrific boxing skills and body punching but also a leaky defence, with Lebedev having more than his share of success, especially early in the fight.
I’ve gone back and forth over this fight and it’s truly a contest where anything from a routine decision win for Gassiev to a another two-round blowout for Dorticos could happen. However my pick is for a true cruiserweight classic to unfold and for both men to touch the canvas before the home fighter, Gassiev, takes the victory and the titles via stoppage, possibly courtesy of a body shot, somewhere around the seventh round.