By Thomas Lyons
Latvia isn’t known for its climatic sporting events usually, but last night witnessed a memorable cruiserweight encounter between two of the top dogs in the division, Oleksandr Usyk who earned the WBC title and retained his WBO strap, narrowly edging out former WBC titlist Mairis Breidis, in Riga. This was the first half of the eagerly awaited semi-finals as part of the World Boxing Super Series Cruiserweight competition, with the winner booking themselves a place in the final, to face the winner of Gassiev-Dorticos (Feb 3rd) for the Muhammad Ali trophy.
Going into the fight, it seemed to the wider boxing fraternity that Usyk looked the more impressive last time out against veteran Marco Huck, getting the stoppage and carrying momentum into the semi-final, whereas in what was a very untidy and scrappy fight between Breidis and Perez in their semi-final, there wasn’t much certainty whether Breidis was on the same wavelength as the hard hitting Ukranian, yet he proved all the bookmakers wrong in a closely fought twelve rounds that saw Usyk win by two rounds on two of the judges scorecards (115-113, 115-113) and a draw (114-114) on the other judges sheet.
The fight didn’t take too long to heat up and the intensity picked up from the early rounds throughout the fight, driven by the electric atmosphere of the passionate Riga crowd, who got behind both fighters to display a classic for them to witness. This gave Breidis an incentive to win the early exchanges and get off to the brighter start, with a flurry of accurately timed combinations coming Usyk’s way. The levels of concentration shown by both Usyk and Breidis was second to none and the chess match tactics allowed the fight to catch fire in the middle rounds for definite. Usyk showcased some of his outstanding boxing skills from his well-stated amateur pedigree before turning professional, slipping a lot of Breidis’s shots and using angles to manoeuvre and stay clear of any dangerous heavy punches he may be susceptible to catching flush. The 2012 Olympic gold-medallist also managed to ignore a cut to his right eye after an accidental head clash during the early exchanges.
From Round 4, both fighters took the centre of the ring and unloaded a heavy culmination of punches on each other. A mixture of Usyk’s snappy jab and Breidis’s clinical one-two combinations gave a spark to the contest. Usyk finished the fifth strongly with a lovely three/four unanswered combination just before the bell to finish a busy round. Usyk was able to stamp his authority on the bout by pinning Breidis on the ropes in the sixth for the first time, with the jab coming off very effectively for the Ukranian.
Breidis managed to take advantage in the fifth and sixth, with his relentlessness coming forward and ferocious attitude to stay in front of Usyk and gain some leverage in power, being able to stand in the centre of the ring and trade with his opponent. The tide was forever turning one way or the other and made the fight intriguing going into the later rounds, but rounds eight and nine were arguably the quieter rounds for both Usyk and Breidis, evidently feeling the effects of a high pace set from early on. When it came to the closing rounds, Usyk’s undefeated record and WBO belt hung in the balance with the fight tighter than what anyone expected. Usyk tried to disrupt the Latvian’s rhythm and sequence of punches, by coming forward and pushing Breidis onto the backfoot. The final two rounds saw a switch in dramatic encounters with Breidis, this time, backing Usyk onto the ropes. Both fought tirelessly right up until the final bell, but it was Usyk that edged the fight by the narrowest of margins and unified the belts to take back to Ukraine.
This was a cracking fight that will definitely warrant a rematch once the WBSS is concluded and this may well be for all the belts, when the undisputed champion of the division is determined, with Dorticos’s WBA and Gassiev’s IBF belts on the line when the two come face to face at the Bolschoy Ice Dome in Sochi, Russia on Saturday night.