The World Boxing Super Series has run smoothly to this point — no injuries or withdrawals — and the final four of the eight-man cruiserweight and super middleweight tournaments are nearly set.
Where: Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey
TV: DirecTV’s Audience Network, 10 p.m. ET
The last of the four cruiserweight quarterfinal matches is at hand and pits 200-pound world titleholder and No. 3 seed Murat “Iron” Gassiev against unseeded former two-time world titleholder and mandatory challenger Krzysztof “Diablo” Wlodarczyk on Saturday night (DirecTV’s Audience Network, 10 p.m. ET) at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey.
The winner will advance to the semifinals, which are due to take place in January 2018 at sites to be determined, with the final slated to take place on a date to be determined in May in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. The tournament winner will claim the Muhammad Ali trophy, unify the division and stamp himself as the division’s best.
The telecast will open with Polish cruiserweight contender Mateusz Masternak (39-4, 26 KOs), 30, squaring off with Stivens Bujaj (16-1-1, 11 KOs), 27, an Albania native fighting out of New York, in the 10-round co-feature. Masternak and Bujaj are tournament alternates.
This is your ESPN.com Ringside Seat for the fight:
Gassiev, 24, of Russia, won his title by decision over countryman Denis Lebedev, whom he knocked down, in December in what was his first fight against a top opponent. But while Gassiev is very powerful he is vastly less experienced than Wlodarczyk, 36, of Poland. Gassiev turned pro in 2011, during Wlodarczyk’s second title reign.
“Gassiev is making a name for himself as one of the best fighters in the sport period, while Wlodarczyk is one of the best fighters from Poland in their history,” Ringstar Sports promoter Richard Schaefer said. “It will be youth versus experience. Which one will win? I can’t wait to find out.”
Abel Sanchez, who trains Gassiev at his Summit Gym in Big Bear Lake, California, has some concerns about Gassiev’s lack of experience.
“The unfortunate thing for him is he’s not on the same level experience-wise as Wlodarczyk,” Sanchez said. “He had only 25 fights as an amateur and he has 24 as a pro. He has less fights, period, than Krzysztof has as a pro. So for Murat, it’s a matter of learning on the job.
“We’ve tried to help him progress by having him spar with bigger and better guys to make up for his lack of experience. Lebedev was the first step for him in the big pond. He didn’t perform like I wanted him to. For this fight, he has that fight under his belt. That fight was in Russia against another Russian, and it was hard on him because of the expectations. Being that this fight is in the United States and in Polish country in Newark, maybe he let himself go and put on a better performance. He fought well against Lebedev, but there were too many opportunities he didn’t take advantage of.”
Wlodarczyk will be entering his 12th world title fight while Gassiev will be in only his second, and Wlodarczyk said he believes his experience may prove to be the difference.
“I have a great challenge in front of me on Saturday night. This is a young, tough opponent who earned his belt. I am going to have to be at my best and I feel I will be,” Wlodarczyk said. “What I can say is we are going to find out who is better in the ring on Saturday. We’ll see who has what it takes to make the next round of this tournament. I have to be the smarter fighter in the ring. I think I can take advantage of my experience by staying smart and making the better adjustments.”
Wlodarczyk lost his first belt in his first defense by majority decision to Steve Cunningham in a rematch in Poland in 2007. Then he won a another title by stopping Giacobbe Fragomeni in the eighth round in 2010 and defended the belt six times before losing it by unanimous decision to Grigory Drozd in Moscow in 2014. Since that defeat, Wlodarczyk has won four fights in a row and became Gassiev’s mandatory challenger.
“I have a great opponent who is a very tough two-time champion,” Gassiev said. “He is experienced and this will give me a great challenge on Saturday.
“My opponent has a lot of experience and has been in a lot of tough fights. He’s been in more fights than me, so I just need to be ready. I’m prepared for 12 rounds or a short fight. This is what I train for. I will show everyone what I am all about on Saturday night. I’m not a big talker, but I will speak loudly with my fists on Saturday.”
While Sanchez is Gassiev’s trainer, his star pupil is unified middleweight world champion Gennady Golovkin, who is a commanding presence in training camp and has worked with many of the fighters and served as a mentor, including to Gassiev.
Because of Gassiev’s massive punching power, Sanchez has also compared him to Golovkin.
“He just turned 24 on Oct. 12 and someday I see him becoming the kind of fighter like his mentor Golovkin, who is the big dad in the gym,” Sanchez said. “Gennady helps all these guys. They feed off him and learn from him. They all look up to him.”
Gassiev loves being around GGG.
“We are like a family up there. I have my Russian brothers, plus Gennady Golovkin, who is definitely like an older brother to me,” Gassiev said. “Abel has helped me so much. He hasn’t tried to change my style. He’s just gone in and made my style better. He means so much to me.”
Sanchez said he believes Gassiev will eventually do what other cruiserweights have done — move up to heavyweight and the tournament will serve as the launching pad.
“If we’re fortunate to have the luck and skills to win this tourney, like Evander Holyfield did by unifying the cruiserweight division and then moving up to be heavyweight champion, I can see Murat doing that putting also — putting on 25 and 30 pounds the right way and becoming a force at heavyweight. The winner of the tournament will have a logical next step, which is a world title fight at heavyweight.”
When the tournament was put together organizers wanted at least some of the bouts to take place in the United States even though the cruiserweight field did not include any Americans.
However, Newark and the region have a big Polish community that has typically supported its fighters, especially former light heavyweight and cruiserweight titlist Tomasz Adamek. So Gassiev-Wlodarczyk landed in Newark, where Wlodarczyk will undoubtedly be the overwhelming favorite.
Wlodarczyk said he is happy to fight among his people even if not in Poland.
“My first goal is to win and become IBF world champion. That would put me in a special place in the history of Polish boxing as a three-time world champion. Winning this tournament would be very prestigious and lucrative for me,” he said. “It’s always great to have the support of the great Polish fans. They really support all of their guys from Poland. But I have lots of experience fighting on the road with no Polish fans so it will just be a nice bonus.
“This fight is for my legacy and I’ve worked hard to have the opportunity. If I can take full advantage of this, then I can send a lot of my fans home happy and that will be my goal.”
World titleholders Oleksandr Usyk (13-0, 11 KOs), 30, of Ukraine, and Mairis Briedis (23-0, 18 KOs), 32, of Latvia, are due to meet in a title unification bout in one semifinal. On Sept. 9, Usyk advanced by knocking out former longtime titleholder Marco Huck in the 10th round on Huck’s turf in Berlin. Briedis, fighting at home in Riga, Latvia, advanced on Sept. 30 when he won a unanimous decision against Ireland-based Cuban defector Mike Perez.
The winner of the Gassiev-Wlodarczyk bout will advance to face titleholder Yunier Dorticos (22-0, 21 KOs), 31, a Cuban defector based in Miami known as “The KO Doctor.” Dorticos advanced by authoring a sensational second-round knockout of “The Russian Hammer” Dmitry Kudryashov on Sept. 23 at the Alamodome in San Antonio.
“This cruiserweight tournament features all four world champions. So far three world champions have all come through and advanced to the semifinals,” Schaefer said. “Will it be more of the same when Iron battles El Diablo? We shall see on Saturday night.”
Gassiev didn’t want to look ahead.
“I don’t like to think ahead to a potential matchup with Yunier Dorticos. It would be a great fight, but my focus is fully on Wlodarczyk,” Gassiev said. “I feel great physically. This is an exciting tournament with four world champions. This is a great opportunity for all the fighters. I’m so thankful to be a part of this tournament. This is the best way to unify titles and show everyone that I am the best cruiserweight in the world.”
Rafael’s prediction: Gassiev by knockout.