Oleksandr Usyk escaped by the skin of his frightening teeth, taking a well-earn but tightly contested 12-round decision over Mairis Briedis in their World Boxing Super Series cruiserweight semifinals clash Saturday evening at Arena Riga in Riga, Latvia.
Scores were 114-114 even and 115-113 (twice) in favor Usyk, who unifies two cruiserweight titles and is now one win away from winning the WBSS tournament, although fight fans—those who were able to watch, anyway—won't forget this clash anytime soon.
The entirety of the 12-round championship clash—for which U.S. fight fans had to scramble to catch a live stream since all available networks declined involvement—was fought at an incredibly high skill level, and essentially became a tale of two bouts. Brieidis jumped out to an early lead, perhaps expending a lot of energy but taking that gamble for the sake of disrupting Usyk's rhythm. The strategy not only proved effective in the early going, but went a long way toward keeping the rabid and partisan crowd on the edge of their seats and providing a lively atmosphere throughout the evening.
Usyk's best moments came whenever he was able to use his height and reach advantages, getting considerable leverage on his punches and moving Briedis backwards when he was able to land upstairs. His power punches were the ultimate difference on the scorecards, as Brieidis' best moments came in the first half of the fight but failing to slow down the attack of his visiting Ukrainian foe.
The biggest scare for Usyk—who captured Olympic Gold in 2012—came in round five, when a clash of heads left him briefly stunned and with reddening around his left eye. It was the only involvement required by American referee Kenny Bayless, as the memorable affair was virtually clinch-free and consistently fought at a frenetic pace.
Conditioning, however, is where Usyk remains unrivaled among the higher weight boxers. His second-half surge was key in pulling ahead and ultimately prevailing on two of the three judges' scorecards. It began with a strong rally in round seven, never really letting up although Briedis still had more than his share of moments over the back six. The only Latvia-born boxer in history to win a world title was never going down without a fight, hurting Usyk in round nine and closing very strong in the 12th and final round to provide one final scare.
It proved just short, as he gave away too many rounds prior to the championship stretch to pull off the upset. As a result, his title reign—which began with a 12-round win over Marco Huck last April prior to both boxers joining the WBSS cruiserweight tournament—comes to a close as well as his days as an unbeaten pro boxer. The 33-year old—who advanced to the semifinals following a 12-round win over Mike Perez in this very arena for his lone successful title defense last September—falls to 23-1 (15KOs) with the loss, albeit in a fight where most fans seemed to hope it would in fact end in a draw.
A winner was in fact crowned, as Usyk remains undefeated and the best cruiserweight in the world. if not the latest pound-for-pound entrant given his recent run. The 31-year old southpaw moves to 14-0 (11KOs), registering the fourth successful defense of his cruiserweight title reign. All three of his distance fights have come in championship contests, beginning with his Sept. '16 points victory over Krzysztof Glowacki to win the title.
Usyk will now wait out the February 3 unification clash between Murat Gassiev and Yunier Dorticos—for which he plans to be in attendance—with the winner advancing to the Cruiserweight finals in May in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
Yet another 50/50 fight in the tournament, Saturday's winner has no clue how it will play out.
"I believe I will be present at (Gassiev-Dorticos) next week (in Russia)," Usyk told lead commentator Ronald McIntosh during his post-fight interview. "The stronger fighter will prevail."
On this evening, that fighter was Usyk, who still remains the odds-on favorite to win the Ali Trophy when all is said and done. One more gut check like Saturday evening's performance could very well turn the trick.