LONG READ: Sauerland strikes back
Luke G. Williams
Photos (top to bottom): Bryn Lennon/Getty Images; Koki Nagahama/Getty Images; Mark Runnacles/Getty Images; Mark Runnacles/Getty Images; Mikus Kļaviņš for WBSS
The World Boxing Super Series is becoming accustomed to proving the doubters wrong. Luke G. Williams sets the scene for the enticing season 2 semi-finals while talking all things WBSS with the organisation's chief boxing officer Kalle Sauerland ...
When the World Boxing Super Series was originally launched in March 2017, the accompanying press release trumpeted the idea that it was a "revolutionary" concept. It certainly seemed too good to be true - a series of tournaments at different weight classes which would crown a true champion? In a sport as accustomed to unwarranted hyperbole as boxing, the announcement was thus largely greeted by cynical shrugs.
However, in its short history the WBSS is making a habit of confounding its doubters.
In winning their respective WBSS season 1 tournaments at cruiserweight and super middleweight respectively Oleksandr Usyk and Callum Smith won universal recognition as the top dogs at 200 and 168lbs respectively and are now hurtling towards boxing superstardom.
Meanwhile the boxing calendar for 2019 - reeling from high-profile and underwhelming mismatches such as Spence Jr vs Garcia and Crawford vs Khan, as well as the inability of the world's top heavyweights to broker contests with one another - will get a much-needed shot in the arm over the next three months as the WBSS season 2 semi-finals at bantam, super light and cruiserweight play out over three 'double header' shows in the United States, Scotland and Latvia.
It's a situation the tournament's many doubters did not anticipate at various stages of the last few months when rumours were rife and persistent about potential fighter withdrawals from the WBSS. Some even speculated that the concept would collapse before the season 2 tournaments were completed.
It was later revealed that the WBSS had suffered a temporary cashflow issue when the holder of its global rights, MP & Silva, went into insolvency.
Another serious challenge the WBSS faced came at the end of January when David McWater, manager of Ivan Baranchyk, announced that his man was withdrawing from the super-lightweight tournament.
However, this situation has now been resolved and the IBF super-lightweight champion has announced that he will, after all, be travelling to Scotland to face Josh Taylor in the second 140lbs semi-final on 18 May.
A further criticism levelled at the tournament by some UK fans was the lack of a British television broadcaster for the quarter-finals (a somewhat nonsensical criticism in my opinion, given that all these contests were streamed for free online by the WBSS).
Nevertheless, this situation has also now been rectified with the announcement this week that the WBSS semi-finals will be screened on Sky Sports in the UK, thus adding a major British broadcaster to the US deal announced between the WBSS and DAZN last year.
Given the way the tournament has bounced back from adversity and negotiated the myriad challenges faced by attempting to bring order to a traditionally chaotic sport, the WBSS' chief boxing officer, the charismatic promoter Kalle Sauerland, could be forgiven for sounding a little smug when speaking to Boxing Monthly about the Baranchyk situation and the other 'bumps in the road' that the WBSS has had to negotiate during season 2.
However, the 42-year-old resists such a temptation and instead addresses these issues in an admirably matter of fact manner, beginning with the Baranchyk saga.
"I’ve always said and we’ve always maintained that we [the WBSS] have a very strong and tight contract [with boxers]. Ivan is a real competitor at the highest level and I don’t think he ever wanted to leave the tournament.
"Of course they were unhappy to travel to Scotland and at the end of the day the World Boxing Super Series asks a lot of the fighters. As you saw with Usyk in the first season, champions may have to travel and the WBSS is very competitive, it’s very high level. Ivan, who calls himself 'the Beast', is showing us now in coming to Glasgow that he’s prepared to step up.
"When you put together a tournament with 24 top fighters in three different weight classes you’re always going to have bumps and bruises along the way and problems to solve. From that point of view nothing is different from season 1. This time we’ve had problems that were a little bit outside of our sporting control. But that’s part of the business. We’re very happy with where we are and everything is very much on track for some great semi-finals."
Sauerland makes a convincing case for the strength of the WBSS brand moving forward. "The brand has really come on in leaps and bounds. We go from strength to strength in many territories. We’ve expanded into new territories and new markets including the Middle East with the super middleweight final last year [Smith vs Groves in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia] and Asia with the season 2 opener featuring [Naoya] Inoue.
"I think we’re growing the brand at an impressive rate throughout the planet. I think it’s the fastest growing brand in sport generally over the past 24 months. When you look at where we started in March 2017 and where we are now I think we can be very proud.
"First and foremost we grow the brand by staging events globally. In terms of where we’ve got to with our strategy, we’ve been pushing with our new partners in the US DAZN, that’s been very exciting. It’s the new home of boxing when you look at what they’ve done already in the US and who they’ve signed – they’re very ambitious. It’s been a very exciting time."
Last autumn, remarkably, the WBSS mounted seven events in seven weeks, zig-zagging across three continents and offering a truly global commitment and outlook on boxing that no other promotional outfit in the world can match.
Sauerland admits that this period was logistically challenging, but also beams with pride at what the WBSS achieved in transitioning season 1 in to season 2.
"It was six weeks of season 2 double headers and if you also include the season 1 super-middleweight final in Jeddah it was seven weeks of events in succession – we went from the Middle East to Asia to eastern Europe, then on to the States, sunny Scotland and then the windy city of Chicago.
"It was a very hectic schedule. Promotionally it was one of the toughest things if not the toughest thing I’ve ever done. We did eight weeks in a row in 2017 but this time it was a series of double headers plus we were throwing Asia and the Middle East in as well, so it was even tougher.
"It’s the type of thing I don’t think boxing has ever seen before – to be on the road for so long with such a huge production, including a light show which is second to none. The logistics around that are massive - it’s all our own production, we don’t rely on broadcasters or host broadcasters, it’s a World Boxing Super Series production and that takes a lot of planning. We have a massive team, a great team working on this together. But after seven weeks we were a very tired team!"
Reflecting on the 'in the ring' action of the season 2 quarter-finals, Sauerland also expressed satisfaction.
"In terms of personal highlights... well, I love promoting the WBSS in the UK. The atmosphere and the card in Scotland for the double header and in fight week were certainly a highlight. The performance of Josh Taylor was amazing and very complete.
"Then there was emergence of Inoue in that season opener in Japan with that amazing knockout which showed that there are amazing things to come from him. [Emmanuel] Rodriguez vs [Jason] Moloney showed the depth in the tournament. Moloney showed how good he is in an absolute battle. That was a great fight in Orlando. Baranchyk was also in an absolute war with [Anthony] Yigit. [Regis] Prograis also gave a very impressive performance."
Sauerland's passion for the WBSS concept coupled with his media-friendly persona and willingness to talk candidly about the tournament and boxing as a whole, has helped fuel many boxing aficionados' passion for the WBSS brand.
Indeed you could argue that Sauerland's profile and reputation have risen as much as Callum Smith and Oleksandr Usyk's since the inception of the WBSS.
Sauerland's passion is particularly infectious when you hear the zeal with which he is anticipating the season 2 semi-finals.
"If you look at the semi-final line-up across all the weight classes I think it’s breathtaking. I think you’ve potentially got several fight of the year candidates. I think we’re in for a real treat through April, May and June. I think we are going to have great atmospheres at the events as well."
Sauerland then sets the scene for this weekend's double-header of super lightweight and bantamweight semi-final action at the Cajun Dome, Lafayette, Louisiana, USA.
"This weekend we’ve got Regis Prograis vs Kiril Relikh. That's a fight which before the quarter-finals many people would have seen as a very close fight, a 50-50. However I don’t think Relikh did himself justice in Japan [in beating Eduard Troyanovsky via decision]. I believe there were some issues in his training before but he didn’t look great, certainly not as good as in some of his previous fights, so I think he’s out to prove a point.
"As for Prograis, in his quarter-final he absolutely shone like a superstar against [Terry] Flanagan. So it’s case of Relikh really wanting to prove a point that he’s up there among the elite and a justified world champion while Prograis will want to underline what he started in the quarter-finals against Flanagan."
The co-headliner for Prograis vs Relikh was due to be the bantamweight clash between Nonito Donaire and Zolani Tete, however on Wednesday the South African withdrew with a shoulder injury.
The show, however, goes on, with Filipino Donaire now facing a replacement in the form of the talented St Louis native Stephon Young.
"Donaire is someone who’s done everything in the sport so for him to have gone into this tournament is incredible," Sauerland says. "He’s come down in weight at the back end of his career but bantam is his natural weight. I think he made a mistake in going up before.
"Nonito is a guy who is really driven by a love of the sport. He doesn’t need to fight for financial reasons. He’s done everything and against [Ryan] Burnett it was obviously a very unfortunate conclusion with Burnett’s injury but up to that point I think Donaire was certainly edging it."
Sauerland then turns his attention to the Glasgow bill at the SSE Hydro on 18 May.
"Baranchyk had a great fight with Anthony Yigit in the super lightweight quarter-finals and I’m sure he’ll put on a real show in Glasgow against a man who many see as the favourite for the tournament in Josh Taylor. Baranchyk has an exciting style and the two of them together will make for a super fight.
"Then at bantam you've got Naoya Inoue against Emmanuel Rodriguez. I saw Rodriguez in that very, very hard fought quarter-final against Moloney. You also have to look at the way he dismantled Paul Butler, who’s a top fighter in the division. And you have to say Rodriguez is one of the toughest competitors at this level but he now comes up against a guy in Inoue who is not arguably but I think is definitely the hardest pound-for-pound puncher in the weight class.
"Inoue knocks out world champions, former world champions at the top end of the division and I think he’s the most exciting fighter out there at the moment. But for him this is by far the biggest test he has faced. His last two knockouts were both in his home country and now he’s travelling across the globe to Glasgow. The quarter final was a huge sold-out event in Japan and now it’s a test for him to travel to a very different atmosphere."
The third and final night of WBSS semi-final action is a cruiserweight double bill in Riga, Latvia on 15 June.
"Now it’s all confirmed Usyk is going up [to heavyweight] it’s pretty clear the cruiserweight tournament once again will be for all the belts," Sauerland argues. "When we announced it originally some people were saying: 'why are you doing cruiserweights again?' but the reason is pretty simple: the man to beat in the cruiserweight division is moving up.
"Mairis Briedis faces Krzysztof Głowacki in one semi-final. Last year Briedis lost to Usyk by what - one round? I personally had it a draw, a lot of people had it for Briedis, a lot of people had it for Usyk – it split people down the middle. It was one of the closest fights l’ve ever seen and one of the greatest fights I’ve ever seen. It was an incredible night in Riga last year.
"Brieidis now has a chance to do what he almost did last year and reach the final, but he needs to step up. He’s had a couple of poorer performances since the Usyk fight, he didn’t look great in his tune-up in Moscow in July last year [against Brandon Deslaurier], he then had an injury afterwards and some time off. And he had a very close fight with Noel Mikaelian in the season 2 quarter-finals.
"It was one of those fights you could see one way or another but at the end of the day he got through and now he’s a man on a mission. He was so close to being in the final last year and beating Usyk in the semi-final. It’s a second chance and he’s a very determined athlete. He’s a former world champion and we all remember the big fight he had with Marco Huck to become world champion. He’s an exciting fighter and a massive puncher.
"In fact all four cruiserweight semi finalists are big punchers. Yuniel Dorticos is also a man on a mission after that incredible throwback fight he had against Murat Gassiev in the semi-finals of season 1 which was voted by many outlets as fight of the year, a prize it very much deserved.
"Both semi finals at cruiserweight were red-hot last season and I expect the same again this year. Andrew Tabiti promises so much and has all the ability and Dorticos is a real step-up fight for him. This is his moment. It’s a weight class that is so competitive – I always call them trained heavyweights as they actually have to make weight! Briedis vs Głowacki and Dorticos vs Tabiti are going to offer absolute fireworks."
Although there are three nights of season 2 semi-final action to still look forward to, as well as the yet to be scheduled finals, Sauerland ends by emphasising his belief that the WBSS is here to stay and by teasing some of the details of season 3.
"The planning has already begun. I’m already talking to promoters all over the world to discuss their ideas. It’s a Champions League style tournament for the whole of boxing so we will look at what other promoters are saying, what the media are saying what fans are saying and want to see.
"From a personal point of view, I think the light heavys look great – some of the smaller weights look great as well, the lightweights, the super flyweights as well. There are a load of weight classes to choose from. I think we’ll be staying with three weights. At some point I’d like to also maybe see a female weight class involved.
"Female boxing has really come on strong and that’s something we’ve been following very closely. In the past there’s been one big champion in female boxing and that’s it and then you struggled to find the right contenders, but now you have depth of talent in certain weight classes in female boxing to put on some really great fights."