The Road to Moscow: Usyk vs Gassiev
Ten months after its opening bell sounded, the World Boxing Super Series cruiserweight tournament draws to a close this Saturday at Moscow’s Olympic Stadium. Tom Craze examines Oleksandr Usyk and Murat Gassiev's path to the final...
March 9 2017. After several weeks of whisperings came the announcement. Something big was on the way. This new initiative, we were told, would shake up boxing for the better. Every other sport had something similar, after all.
A $50m prize pot. A loftily-titled trophy. A brand-new tournament format brokered by a conglomerate of several key industry powerbrokers. Post-Super Six, post-PBC, and the paradigm shifts that never were, fans of the sport – by now well-versed in broken promises and the machinations of snake oil salesmen – would have been forgiven for being sceptical.
This time, though, things turned out differently. The best really did fight the best – and, with a succession of explosive bouts that forged a broad hierarchy in one of the most competitive weight classes today, the World Boxing Super Series has delivered with aplomb.
Ahead of Saturday’s fitting cruiserweight showcase, as the number one seed takes on number two, we take a look back at the routes to the final hammered out by both Oleksandr Usyk and Murat Gassiev.
Usyk vs. Huck
9 September 2017, Berlin
With the super-middleweight bracket not getting under way until the following week, Berlin’s Max Schmeling Halle hosted the curtain-raiser for the WBSS across both of its initial weight classes.
It was a match-up stacked in the Ukrainian’s favour. With second seed Gassiev, the IBF champion, obligated to face Krzysztof Wlodarczyk, the mandatory challenger for his title, Usyk took advantage of his first pick by selecting Marco Huck, a 20/1 ante-post outsider.
Few would have argued that Huck, battle-worn with close to 350 professional rounds under his belt and comprehensively outpointed by tournament third seed Mairis Briedis four months prior, was anything close to a fighter in his prime. Such was the performance of Usyk in the mauling that followed, the argument that any version of Huck would have met anything other than the same fate feels a flimsy one.
Huck, quite simply, was outgunned in every way. In a fight that Usyk could have controlled handily, and safely, from range for the duration, he instead shifted effortlessly through the gears from around the sixth round before eventually forcing referee Robert Byrd’s intervention in the tenth. A near-flawless display from a slick, technically-beautiful southpaw, this was a fight that underlined the credentials of the tournament’s odds-on favourite.
Gassiev vs. Wlodarczyk
21 October 2017, Newark
The sole pre-arranged fixture across both of season one’s tournaments, Gassiev vs Wlodarczyk marked the second visit stateside for the WBSS, following the two-round shellacking of Dmitry Kudryashov by Yunier Dorticos a month earlier.
This bout was similarly emphatic. Wlodarczyk, over a decade Gassiev’s senior, had never before been stopped and, though considered the tournament’s rank outsider, was a former world champion with a reputation for obstinance. As it proved, that mattered little to Gassiev, who bludgeoned his opponent over three one-sided rounds.
The Russian, slightly tentative to start, proceeded to characteristically stalk Wlodarczyk around the ring with the intention of hemming him in close to the ropes. It was a strategy that paid dividends. With a minute remaining in the third, Gassiev unleashed a devastating two-punch combination – a short lead uppercut that disguised a trademark, laser-guided left hand to the body, and a finish only able to be truly appreciated when watching back in slow motion.
Usyk vs. Briedis
27 January 2018, Riga
The first of the cruiserweight semi-finals saw Usyk take to the road once more, with the name of Briedis appended to likes of Huck, Michael Hunter, and Krzysztof Glowacki that he’d recently fought as the away fighter.
Briedis had picked up the vacant WBC title by himself beating Huck, then both defended it for the first time and progressed to the last four with a win against wildcard entrant Mike Perez, who he’d handpicked at the Draft Gala in Monaco. The latter bout was, in truth, the tournament’s first real letdown: a pedestrian, disjointed, often cynical affair punctuated more by clinches than genuine talking points.
This, however, was a different story. In a fight that had an enthralling ebb and flow, the Lativan became the first man in the professional ranks to succeed in dragging Usyk into a war of attrition, with several clear swing rounds, particularly in the first half of the fight.
It was scored as such: judge Craig Metcalfe penned a drawn card, with a 115-113 score each way handed in by Robert Tapper and Robin Taylor. One round then, was the margin of victory, in a contest that ended with calls for a rematch following the conclusion of the tournament. Usyk trudged across the line - but suddenly, his veil of invincibility had slipped.
Gassiev vs. Dorticos
3 February 2018, Sochi
All eyes turned to Russia the following weekend, where Sochi – better known for staging the Winter Olympics than boxing showpieces – played host to the second semi-final. This was, on paper, considered the more competitive of the two match-ups and, like Usyk vs Briedis before it, was not only a unification, but a spectacle worthy of the occasion.
With a place in the final - which, remarkably, was previously confirmed as being held in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia which, to nobody’s surprise, later fell through - awaiting the winner, this was a high-stakes shootout fought at the highest level.
The Cuban – thought by many to be the superior technician going into the contest – began the quicker of the two, with the jab orchestrating the movement for much of the first half. Around midway, though, with Dorticos still pressing the action, it was the Russian – under the tutelage of Abel Sanchez - who made the necessary adjustments, catching shots on his gloves and predatorily manoeuvring a visibly fading Dorticos.
The turning point, at last, came in the final round. Dorticos threw a weary-looking right hand, which was easily evaded by Gassiev, who followed up by detonating a short counter left hook. It was a punch reminiscent of Gassiev’s finisher in his breakthrough performance against Jordan Shimmell on a PBC card but, to his immense credit, Dorticos got up and continued to battle on.
It wasn’t to be nearly enough. Gassiev, as ruthless as he is efficient, unleashed another barrage of shots and a second knockdown followed. Dorticos somehow mustered the energy to get back to his feet once more, but the game was up. A final glancing blow sent the Cuban through the ropes, and referee Eddie Claudio’s hand was forced. It was a definitive, breathless conclusion to one of 2018’s early contenders for Fight of the Year.
And so to Moscow, a city that has felt like the epicentre of sporting drama this summer...
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