The WBSS delivers again: Usyk vs Briedis ringside report
Three months ago I was lucky enough to be ringside for the Groves vs Cox fight, a super middleweight quarter-final of the World Boxing Super Series [WBSS].
I was very impressed with the set up - a combination of throwback lighting and intense crowd support, not to mention a card featuring some cracking fights. It was so good in fact that I thought my next attendance at the tournament in Latvia on 27 January at the Arena Riga, may well turn out be an anti-climax.
I couldn’t have been more wrong, but that was down to one fight in particular. More about that later…
Being of Italian descent, I was desperate to see if one of the fighters on the eight-card bill had the name Toni, simply so I could put his name alongside the capital city, Riga. Alas – no rigatoni. Instead, I had to make do with writing about the fights as they happened, with no frills. And in all honesty, that’s pretty much what the majority of the undercard provided; no frills.
That’s not having a go at the fighters, the promoters, the matchmakers or anybody else who was involved with the undercard, but with a couple of exceptions, the contests simply didn’t ignite.
First up was Mikael Lawal against Istvan Orsos in a six-round cruiserweight contest. Nigerian born, London based Lawal also fought on the Groves vs Cox undercard back in October and possesses fearsome power. He stopped his opponent back then in the second round and, in all honesty, the referee shouldn’t have let this one go past three.
As game as Orsos was, the Hungarian was basically a mobile punchbag for Lawal. How Orsos hung in there for six rounds is incredible. Despite having 44 losses to his name, Orsos did bring 16 wins to the table, so let’s not totally decimate the achievement from Lawal. Result: Lawal wins by UD. Time for a step up for the Nigerian now though. Okolie, Chamberlain, Riakporhe – there’s more than enough decent match-ups out there for him on domestic soil.
Next up was a four-round middleweight contest between Araik Marutjan from Germany and Richard Hegyi from Hungary. Quoting from my notes about this fight: “First two rounds hardly a punch thrown between them.” Let’s just say it was a vastly uneventful contest and Marutjan won a unanimous decision.
The third fight thankfully provided some action. Scheduled for eight heavyweight rounds, Otto Wallin from Sweden took on Srdan Govedarica from Bosnia and Herzegovina. After a cagey start from both fighters, Wallin unleashed some heavy shots in the second session, culminating with a straight right from his southpaw stance, which dropped Govedarica.
In the third round, Wallin started chopping away at Govedarica’s body and he inevitably folded. Wallin extended his record to 18-0, while Govedarica evened out his number of victories to losses ratio at 6-6.
Next up were cruiserweights, Jevgenijs Aleksejevs and Maurice Possiti. Aleksejevs, a Riga resident, came with massive crowd support, while the Frenchman Possiti had to make do with shouts of encouragement from his corner. Despite the first two rounds being close, with some nice trades, by the third round, I felt that Possiti was starting to lead the contest on the front foot, making a mess of Aleksejevs' face behind a lovely jab and some solid counters. This continued for the balance of the six-round contest but, incredibly, the Frenchman lost a split decision.
The fifth contest of the evening was between Tom Little and Filip Hrgovic. If you’re not familiar with Hrgovic, you might want to check out his amateur pedigree. It comes with an impressively long trail of silverware, the most recent being a bronze medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
From the opening bell, it was one-way traffic. Hatfield’s Little was game and did his best to try and get on the inside of the Croatian, but he was simply outsized and outgunned. Round four saw Hrgovic unload with a one-two, which glued Little to the spot. Soon after the referee jumped in to stop any further unnecessary punishment. Fair play to Little for lasting in to the fourth, as Hrgovic’s previous two victims were blasted out in the first round.
The next fight was at light heavyweight, between Switzerland’s Yoann Kongolo and Latvia’s Andrejs Pokumeiko. Kongolo’s WBC International Silver title was at stake, over a scheduled ten rounds, but the reality is, his crown was never under threat from the Rigan favourite.
Despite putting Pokumeiko down in the seventh round, Kongolo wasn’t able to execute a finishing blow. Fair dues to the Latvian for seeing it through to the final bell, but it was a one-horse race.
The penultimate contest was over eight rounds at cruiserweight, between Micki Nielsen from Denmark and Ricards Bolotniks, from Latvia. The first four rounds were one-way traffic, as Nielsen unloaded bombs with very little in return. By the end of the sixth, Nielsen had sustained some minor swelling under his right eye, but still there were no sparks in the ring.
Come round seven, Bolotniks, with intense support from the crowd, landed his first successful punches in the form of a few hooks and an uppercut. Inspired by his short burst of form, he came out like a raging bull in the eighth, which then caused Nielsen to raise his game and engage with him.
It’s a shame that Bolotniks decided to leave his flurry until the end, as this could have been an entertaining fight. Result: Nielsen won by UD.
Despite the undercard not providing Hagler vs Hearns style action, the headline fight between Latvia’s first ever world boxing champion Mairis Briedis and Ukraine’s Oleksandr Usyk for the WBC and WBO titles certainly didn’t disappoint.
To have four unbeaten fighters in the WBSS cruiser semi finals, with total unification prospects for the winner, was always an appetising prospect, but when the heavily weighed odds for the favourite (Usyk), were soon levelled out after the first bell ringing, this became a contest that started to have the odour of 2018 Fight of The Year oozing from it.
I’ve attended a number of fights which have excelled in home support, from Mikael Kessler appearing at the Parken Stadium in Copenhagen, Denmark, to Joe Calzaghe in Cardiff, Wales, and I can honestly say that the locals' support for Briedis, twinned with the incredible Ukrainian turnout (including Vasyl Lomachenko and Wladimir Klitschko), provided the best crowd atmosphere I’ve ever experienced. After the first bell was sounded, it took the crowd about a minute to sit down, just due to their excitement.
Round one. Briedis was visibly shorter and was giving away a substantial reach, but instead of trying the cagey approach of getting to grips with the Ukrainian, he pushed Usyk on to the back foot with sheer work rate and the power of punches landed.
Second round, Briedis continued to work well on the inside, while Usyk was now finding his range, landing with his poleaxe jab and straight left out of his southpaw stance.
Third session, Briedis was working his counters to great effect, as was Usyk, but I gave the Latvian the lion’s share of the work. By the end of the fourth, the crowd were in a frenzy, as Usyk walked back to his corner, with his face visibly reddened from Briedis' relentless assaults.
I had the local favourite winning 4-0 at this stage, but he had visibly slowed down towards the end of the last session and that became apparent in round five. Usyk shifted up a couple of gears and started to let his hands go. The jab, chopping shots to the body, uppercuts, straight left. Very little was missing and by the end of the round, Briedis' bloodied nose was recognition of the Ukrainian’s increased work rate.
Round six. Briedis was back in the game, but Usyk was still in control, despite not operating at the high octane pace he’d released in the fifth. By the seventh, Briedis looked visibly tired and Usyk had dropped back down a gear. Don’t get me wrong, the fight was still going at an incredible pace, but the rev counter wasn’t redlining for either fighter like it had previously. As both fighters walked back to their corner, the 10,000 strong crowd were screaming to the top of their lungs' ability as they appreciated the quality, power and pace from both men.
Despite a cracking uppercut from Briedis in the last 30 seconds of the eighth, Usyk won the session convincingly. Eight rounds gone and I had it even.
Round nine was similar to round eight, in so much as Briedis only really engaged in the last 30 seconds; but when he did, it was a cracking tear-up.
In the tenth round, Usyk turned up the heat substantially. Between Briedis looking like he might have emptied his tank and Usyk landing with a number of heavy shots, you could almost sense a stoppage in favour of the Ukrainian. I now had it 6-4 to Usyk.
Round 11, and Briedis found a new lease of life and was engaging again in a cracking toe-to-toe contest. Referee Kenny Bayless had virtually been redundant for the contest and nothing had changed by this stage as both fighters could sense very little separating them on the scorecards. Despite a very evident shift upwards in Briedis' output, I edged the round to Usyk.
For round 12, the event organisers could easily have started to put away the chairs in the arena, because not a soul was sitting down. From the second the bell went, both fighters went to work, replicating the best form they’d demonstrated in the previous 11 sessions. If Usyk landed with the jab and straight left, Briedis was straight back at him with his clubbing hooks to the head. When Usyk responded with chopping body shots, Briedis would repay in kind with his own thudding blows.
I gave the last round to Briedis based on his work rate, success in landing power punches and pushing Usyk on to his back foot for the better part of the round. By no means a landslide round, but I had the Latvian winning it, for what was one of the best world title fights I’ve ever seen live.
When the final scores of 114-114 and 115-113 twice (both in favour of Usyk), were read out, there wasn’t an uproar from the Latvians, more a noise of disappointment, yet contentment at the incredible 36 minutes they’d just witnessed. Incidentally, the 115-113 scores perfectly matched my own interpretation of the fight.
Handshakes were plentiful between both sets of fans outside the ring as they were inside.
Hopefully, win, lose or draw in the final, Usyk will grant Briedis a rematch, for what could be the cruiserweight version of a Marco Antonio Barrera vs Erik Morales style boxset.