Lebedev vs Gassiev preview: No holds barred in Moscow
Chris Williamson looks ahead to Saturday's mouth-watering all-Russian cruiserweight showdown between Denis Lebedev and Murat Gassiev ...
Prior to a recent visit to Moscow, an old work friend with Russian heritage shared fond and amusing anecdotes from his motherland and insisted I must visit a banya, or Russian baths during my visit. Unsure if this was a stitch-up, I nevertheless attended the 'Sanduny', a grand old building which counts former world junior welterweight champion Kostya Tyszu and Dolph Lundgren, the actor who played infamous Russian Ivan Drago in Rocky IV, among its patrons.
Most of your time at the Sanduny is spent in extreme, intensely-overheated discomfort while sitting naked in a cavernous sauna alongside oversized males (separate to the female equivalent) as you repeatedly strike your flesh with branches (apparently good for the pores) then 'cool down' choosing one of several freezing-cold water options, such as a seven-foot high barrel, rinse (literally) and repeat.
Mercifully, the highlight of a visit follows when you sit in what appears to be a combination of a high-end barber shop with a period art gallery and choose from a selection of drinks, including teas and vodka. Of course, most visitors choose vodka.
The point is, the discomfort described here is how Russians relax and enjoy themselves. They are very tough people indeed.
Which leads us to Saturday's fascinating WBA 'super' / IBF cruiserweight title bout between champion Denis Lebedev and IBF mandatory contender Murat Gassiev at the Khodynka 'Megasport' Ice Palace in the north-west Khoroshyovsky district of Moscow.
Lebedev in particular has demonstrated incredible hardness during his 31 bout (29-2) professional career. At 37 and after a handful of bouts under the training stewardship of Freddie Roach, he appears to be in the form of his life.
Although countrymen, the fighters hail from very different parts of Russia, with Lebedev born in Stary Oskol (600km south of Moscow) and Gassiev born in Vladikavkaz, the capital of the distinct Republic of North Ossetia-Alania on the border with Georgia. Gassiev admits to feeling pressure as he aims to become the first world champion boxer from this region.
After turning pro five years ago, Gassiev learned his trade in Europe for the first three years before relocating to the US, training at Abel Sanchez's Summit training complex and fighting on Premier Boxing Champions (PBC) cards.
He arrives for the Lebedev challenge with a 23-0 slate with one no-contest from when he landed a huge right hand after the bell at the end of the third against fellow unbeaten Isiah Thomas one year ago. Thomas tottered back to the corner and referee Jay Nady called the fight off on doctor's advice. Thomas is one of only two southpaws Gassiev has faced as a professional and the awkward Detroit man posed problems until the brutal, albeit unsatisfactory, conclusion.
The 23-year-old uses the ring name of 'Iron' (although not in reference to the metal; in the Ossetian language 'iron' means 'my nationality') and Mike Tyson himself would have been proud of the left hook which knocked American Jordan Shimmell out at the end of the first round of Gassiev's last encounter in May.
There was something chilling about the way Gassiev calmly returned to a neutral corner as the stricken Shimmell was given medical attention. The fact that Gassiev proudly talks of enjoying the taste of horse meat and blood (common in parts of Russia) somehow adds to his fearsome image.
Gassiev is the taller man while also physically very strong and intimidating. His favoured punch selection includes the straight right, a left hook or jab to the body and the left hook which accounted for poor Shimmell. Although he does bob and weave on occasion, the challenger can appear somewhat stiff and doesn't mind taking shots to creep within range, although a defence which sees his hands protecting high to the side of his head is tight.
Gassiev trains under Abel Sanchez at the Summit training camp at Big Bear, just South of the 'Wild Card' gym in Hollywood where Lebedev has prepared for the contest.
As for the champion, he's mixed in largely world-class opposition since brutally stopping Welshman Enzo Maccarinelli seven years ago in Manchester. A close, exciting split decision WBO title loss to Marco Huck was followed by a brace of victories over faded legends Roy Jones Jr and James Toney; the latter of which was for some kind of WBA title, of which one kind or other he's held ever since.
The quote: "sports don't build character; they reveal it," is so widely used that its origin is still disputed. What isn't in doubt is the depth of character Lebedev showed in May 2013 when suffering a grotesque early swelling and brutal beating at the hands of Guillermo Jones. Lebedev was eventually stopped in the eleventh round, while Jones later tested positive for Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs).
Lebedev recruited Roach as head trainer prior to a scheduled rematch with Jones, subsequently scrapped when the Panamanian incredibly tested positive for the same substance (Furosemide). "Only in boxing," as Jones' promoter Don King might say.
Since that tainted 'defeat' Lebedev has shown few ill-effects during a four-fight winning streak where his shot selection and vaunted power seem to have improved under Roach. Most recently he blew aside fellow titlist Victor Ramirez in just two rounds and is now established as clear number one in Boxing Monthly's latest cruiserweight rankings (Gassiev is rated number ten).
Roach told Garneksports he likens the match to Manny Pacquiao's recent bout with the younger Jessie Vargas: “I know what he’s up against. It’s really not the right style for Denis, I feel, but I feel good about this fight. It’s like Manny Pacquiao in his last fight. He wasn’t supposed to win, because the guy was a little younger and more active and so forth. He [Vargas] didn’t win, because the experience took over.
"I feel the same about this fight that the experience will take over. We’re facing a really tough guy, but that’s what boxing is all about. Maybe we’re a little bit older, yes, but we’re not that much older. He’s a good puncher, and he has very fast hands. People underestimate that and don’t understand how hard he really hits. I know his opponent is a big puncher also, but we’ll see. Denis has a great chin. He’s very tough, and in great shape.”
Gassiev for his part recognises the power he displayed in his last two contests as a blessing and a curse, and doesn't expect to blast the sturdy champion out. "Of course sometimes I need more practice, but this [is] boxing," he told Michelle Joy Phelps. "Sometimes I throw [a] good punch. Of course he [Lebedev, has] more boxing experience. I need [to] move [and] use my reach and control distance."
Gassiev's trainer Sanchez told Russia Today that he expects youth to prevail: "Freddie is a great coach, Denis has been a great champion. I think it’s time for a change. Freddie, I think, is in the fight mode, as we are. But after the fight, we are friends, we are competitors. We both want to win obviously, and our fighters want to win too. But it’s not so much about who’s best prepared, because they’re both going to be very well prepared. It’s a changing of the guard. I think that Denis is ready to relinquish and Murat is ready to be champion."
Despite the confidence shown by Gassiev and Sanchez, the pick here is for the old champion to deliver a conclusive finish not unlike that incurred by another touted cruiserweight knockout artist in Lebedev's 'World of Boxing' stablemate Dmitry Kudryashov (also featuring on Saturday's card) who unravelled against Olenrewaju Durodola last November.
The challenger's chin appears sturdy but Lebedev is tried and tested in the deep championship waters and I expect the champion to deliver a stoppage victory over a tiring foe as a result of devastating left uppercuts sometime after the sixth round.
Saturday's match will be shown in the U.K. on Sky Sports 5 from 7pm.