The “semi-final” label attached to this fight may be taking some of the glamor and luster away. The WBSS tourney has proved to be a great platform for premium boxing and has matched the best against the best, a rarity in our sport.
Semi-final or not, this was a title fight, in fact a double title fight or a unification of sorts as it pitted the IBF cruiserweight champion, Murat Gassiev (26-0), against WBA champ Yunier Dorticos (21-1). The event took place in the Bolshoy Ice Dome in Sochi, Russia, a winter Olympics facility packed with fans for the event. Among the audience were Oleksanrd Usyk, the finalist in the tourney who was there for promotional purposes and Gennady Golovkin who supported stable-mate Gassiev and their coach Abel Sanchez.
The bout started with Dorticos taking control early and establishing his long-range combos while Gassiev used footwork and a high tight guard to resist the cannonade. This pattern went on for the first three rounds and it became clear that the Russian boxer was following a tight game plan while the Cuban champion was going forward behind heavy leather. Neither fighter connected with a significant shot but the high punch volume of Dorticos imminently led to some good scoring on the head and torso of the opponent. Gassiev woke up and started answering in kind, his left hook-left uppercut combos began to find the target regularly as the bout progressed. He targeted the lower ribs, specifically the liver area and the sheer sound of the impact signaled trouble for the recipient. Gassiev also worked more in the second halves of rounds 3 and 4 and took the last exchanges in attempt to impress the judges.
The steady pace applied by Dorticos began to change in the 5th round as the Russian boxer put weight behind his shots and took the opponent out of his comfortable long and mid-range by diving into close quarters. The Cuban did not shy away from the challenge and fought back at short range. These two had come to fight; there was not a clinch or a hold of any kind from any side. Gassiev gained control of the action simply by changing the tempo. He paced himself most of the time but at intervals went full speed and full power with three punch combos and troubled his opponent who did not box as well on the back foot. Dorticos was clearly wobbled by a left hook in the end of the 5th and Gassiev chased him briefly with wild swings while his corner shouted at him to calm down wary of the Cuban’s counter punching skills.
This was the turning point of the fight. Dorticos appeared one dimensional in the sense that he could box well going forward at mid and long range. He only threw big shots and when he missed, he left himself open for too long. The bodywork of the Russian slowed him down additionally and brought his elbows down exposing the head. Gassiev was on a tight schedule and showed patience and discipline while Dorticos could not adapt or change anything at all in his tactics, he only had one gear. His wide stance remained the same, he only turned his back foot outwards, a sign that he did not wish to forward anymore but preferred defense and retreat.
The Russian was in full control and he picked his shots well. It was still a close fight and his opponent retained full power even though he was softening up and losing confidence. Gassiev’s power depended on snap and timing, he could not afford to tire early and boxed patiently. He aimed for the deep end and in the meantime chipped away at the formidable opponent. The sense of danger was there for both combatants but they maintained sportsmanship and kept the fight incredibly clean.
Finally, in round 11 the Russian boxer gave it a go and hurt the faded Dorticos badly with four unanswered headshots. The dazed Cuban competitor held instinctively and managed to get on the back of Gassiev pushing him to the ropes to save himself from falling and survive the round. This unusual move bewildered the otherwise competent and efficient referee who needed time grasp the situation and more time to separate them.
The final round started with exaltation in the air, the crowd going wild and the gladiators filled with adrenalin. Dorticos fought bravely and landed as much as his counterpart who tried his signature double left hand combos and his best right hands but the Cuban came back blasting with both hands. Then Gassiev paused, stepped back and threw a single left hook counter, like a shot in the dark, and he hit the bull’s eye. Dorticos ran into the shot and fell heavily but sprang back up and took the eight count on his feet. The Russian was almost indignant that his opponent was still standing and he decided he had had enough of game plans and discipline. He rushed forward head first throwing haymakers and did not land clean but the momentum of his onslaught pushed Dorticos down again. Bruised and battered but conscious, the Cuban warrior stood up again and most refs would have interfered. This one did not and another barrage swiped Dorticos down for the third time making the TKO official.
The atmosphere in the dome was electrified and even Usyk, the next opponent of the winner, seemed excited and happy. The final of the tourney emerges as an eagerly anticipated unification bout with all 4 major titles at stake, the IBF/WBA now held by Gassiev and WBC/WBO held by Usyk.