By John J. Raspanti
Their names may be unfamiliar, as well as unpronounceable to Western tongues, but the bottom line is this.
These guys can fight.
Oleksandr Usyk, the WBC and WBO champion, and Murat Gassiev, the WBA and IBF champ, will lace ’em up and see who’s better this Saturday night at the Olimpiyskiy in Russia.
Usyk and Gassiev earned their way into the finals of the World Boxing Super Series cruiserweight tournament six months ago by scoring thrilling victories.
Ukraine native Usyk, 31, traveled to Latvia to take on WBC titleholder, and hometown hero, Mairus Bredis while Uysk entered the fight the betting favorite but found himself in a nip-and-tuck affair that was hard to judge. Bredis was the aggressor, but Usyk boxed and brawled his way to a majority decision victory. Two judges had Usyk winning the fight by a couple of points, while the third scored it a draw.
A week later, Russian-born Gassiev,24, met fellow unbeaten fighter Yunier Dorticos at the Bolshoy Adler arena in Russia. Dorticos predicted he’d knock out Gassiev. Made sense. Dorticos entered the bout with 21 knockouts in 22 fights. Gassiev had 18 stoppages on his resume. Soon it would be 19. The heavy-handed slugger stalked Dorticos, eating punches while working the body.
Behind on points, Gassiev staggered Dorticos in round five. Doritcos fought back, but Gassiev was wearing him down. It was like watching a building being broken down piece by piece. Gassiev almost closed the show in round 11, clobbering Dorticos with wicked with wicked head shots. Finally, in round 12, Dorticos collapsed. He beat the count but went down two more times before the referee waved off the fight.
Usyk (14-0, 11 KOs) captured gold at the 2012 Olympic Games. He turned professional a year later, winning a world championship in his tenth fight by defeating previously undefeated Krzysztof Glowacki. He won a harmless decision over Michael Hunter, but totally dominated a past- his-prime Marco Huck in 2017. His boxing ability was immediately noted, but there was also a willingness to slug which fans appreciated.
Unlike Usyk, Gassiev’s (26-0, 19 KOs) amateur career didn’t amount to much. At 17, after 25 fights, he turned professional. He steadily improved, especially after he went to work with trainer Abel Sanchez, scoring knockouts over Felix Cora, Isiah Thomas, and Jordan Shimmel. His victory over Denis Lebedev was somewhat controversial, even though he floored Lebedev and was the aggressor throughout. He defended his newly-won title last year by stopping Krzysztof Wlodarczky in New Jersey.
In a sense, this is a classic matchup of the boxer, Usyk, against the slugger, Gassiev, but with the added caveat of knowing that Usyk could discard his boxing ability and start rumbling. Gassiev would welcome this, but Usyk could make him regret it. The six-foot-three-inch southpaw doesn’t pack the same power as Gassiev, but he can hurt with his left hand. Usyk’s advantage in reach and mobility will allow him to keep his dangerous jab in Gassiev’s face.
Gassiev, the same height as Usyk, stalks, rocks, and pops. He’s blessed with one-punch knockout power. His calm exterior belies his youth. His dissection and ultimate destruction of Dorticos was impressive. His attacks can be sudden and unexpected.
This is a 50-50 fight. Gassiev will be fighting at home, which could, unfortunately, give him an edge if the fight goes the distance. Usyk might be more talented, but Gassiev is like the assassin in the shadows who terminates suddenly and goes home.
If Usyk can control the distance, he should win, but if Gassiev gets inside and starts landing some body shots, all bets are off.