Frontline diary: The dream is real

Chris Williamson
01/02/2018 2:45pm

Boxing Monthly's Chris Williamson was ringside in Riga, Latvia for the WBSS clash between Oleksandr Usyk and Mairis Briedis. Here he reflects on an occasion which did both boxers, the sport, the WBSS and the host nation proud... 

Photos: Mikus Kļaviņš for WBSS

The depth, quality and willingness of the best to fight the best at cruiserweight has resulted in the 200lbs class enjoying status as a special division among discerning boxing fans.

Consider the following:

usykbr1- the last time a top cruiserweight stalled a fight over money, billing on a poster or the order of ringwalks, the WBA probably listed one champ per division. Prima-donna behaviour is left at the dressing room for the flabby heavyweight or entitled light-heavyweight.

- Jack Dempsey, Gene Tunney, Joe Walcott, Rocky Marciano and Sonny Liston (vs Patterson I and II) all regularly weighed the equivalent to modern day cruiserweights. A man of this size makes for a formidable fighting machine.

- the real life ‘Pretty’ Ricky Conlan found the division so stacked he decided jumping up to fight heavyweight David Haye was the right course of action (and was proved right...).

- top cruisers are essentially in-shape, disciplined heavyweights who believe PED is a type of light-bulb.

So if you take these core ingredients, sprinkle World Boxing Super Series (WBSS) tournament stardust over the division and bring ALL the belts (yes, I know, the WBA...) to the party, then to paraphrase the late rapper Biggie Smalls - whose throaty lyrics boomed over the state of the art WBSS sound system in Riga - it was all a dream.

Except the dream is real.

It seems absurd in the wake of the pulsating fight of the year candidate which transpired, but Oleksandr Usyk vs Mairis Briedis was considered the less enticing match compared to the clash-of-bangers Dorticos vs Gassiev which takes place this coming Saturday in Sochi.

One interesting sub-plot is whether the overall WBSS cruiser  winner and undisputed champ will have done enough to eclipse division sacred cow Evander Holyfield as the finest cruiserweight of all time.

***

The climate in Riga was several degrees below freezing in the lead up to the match, with the arrival of the champions serving to significantly dial the local temperatures up, so that fight weekend was crisp but quite pleasant.

The location for the fight, the Arena Riga, is a smart, modern complex built about ten years ago and a short walk from the old town. Seating was set up for around 12,000, some of which were left vacant, likely the result of increased prices compared to Briedis vs Perez here in September. For those unable to get their hands on the hottest ticket in town, fight posters in bar windows promoted their broadcast of the fight.

Boxing Monthly contributor and author Paul Zanon was also ringside and provided a terrifically detailed fight by fight report HERE. Paul is preparing for a busy time on the media circuit to promote two new books on Martin Murray and Mark Prince.

***

The main event started just after midnight local time and it’s impossible for television to do justice to the wall of sound generated in the arena. I’ve attended live title fights for well over twenty years and the only two which even compare in terms of noise are Bute vs Froch and Tzyzu vs Hatton. My ears were hurting by the end of the fight and at the climax of one round - the second - nobody heard the bell, including the referee.

It’s hard to overstate just how positive for the sport occasions like this are. Both warriors were forced to reveal more of themselves that they ever had before. Briedis’ focussed intensity was unmanageable in the early stages as the WBC champ funnelled energy from his crowd, unsettling the touted Ukrainian with smart pressure and accurate, well-timed right hands.

We feared the worst when referee Bayless signified an early accidental head clash had damaged Usyk, but the boxing gods were smiling on this night and there was little obvious damage.

By the middle rounds, the speed of Briedis’ decision making and movement noticeably slowed and I saw Usyk walk back to his corner at the end of the seventh like a snow leopard who had outfoxed his difficult prey and now smelt blood.

Incredibly there were further shifts in momentum, as Briedis gathered himself and forced his will back on the WBO champ, hurting Usyk badly with uppercuts during a breathless climax to the ninth. I scribbled that these punches would have finished virtually anyone else at the weight - this is a puncher who poleaxed heavyweight Manuel Charr after all - but we were not watching normal fighters here.

I recall wishing we could change the rules on this magical night and revert to fifteen rounds for one night only; perhaps call it Qawi vs Holyfield dispensation. But alas, the intensity lasted only the regulated twelve rounds, thirty-six minutes which those of us lucky enough to be present will never forget.

There was no loser. Briedis’ stock has soared and Usyk has shown beyond doubt he has the mettle which his skills often render redundant.

***

There was one young man sat near me who nailed his colours to the mast quite brilliantly dressed in a full Ukraine tracksuit, finished off with a matching scarf. This was not an event at which one sat in a neutral corner and clapped politely.

The undercard was generally poor, which feels like going on a date with Jennifer Lawrence and complaining about her choice of earrings. Swedish heavyweight Otto Wallin (19-0) has the inevitable but still brilliantly executed nickname of ‘All in’, which is more than could be said for his hapless, pitiful opponent Srdan Govedarica who was dispatched in three.

There was a brief sighting of Croatian heavyweight sensation Filip Hrgovic who brushed aside brave Brit Tom Little in four rounds with little fuss. Little was brave and landed a couple of well executed left hooks, but Hrgovic looks like something special.

Latvia celebrates 200 years of independence this year and I’m told July will see their biggest ever festival hosted in Riga. One local told me that Briedis is one of just three sporting superstars in Latvia, alongside basketball player Kristaps Porziņģis and French open tennis champion Jelena Ostapenko, the latter of whom featured in a multi-page spread in the Air Baltic flight magazine.

Latvians can be proud of their champion and the boxing world has noted how well - and loudly - they host these super-fights.