Cruiserweight world titleholder Mairis Briedis did something this week few prize fighters ever do: He admitted he feels pressure to perform in front of his home crowd.
Breidis will make his first title defense when he squares off with Mike Perez on Saturday (DirecTV’s Audience Network, 7 p.m. ET, same-day tape) in the quarterfinals of the World Boxing Super Series single-elimination tournament at Riga Arena in Riga, Latvia, Briedis’ hometown.
“It is a great honor for me and for Latvia to have such a big fight and tournament in our country,” Briedis said this week. “I am looking forward to showing that Latvia is not only a country with singers and dancers, but also some world-class boxing. There is some pressure on my shoulders fighting in front of a sold-out arena, but I am sure I can handle it.
“I’m real happy being able to start the World Boxing Super Series at home in front of my own crowd. We fight to win the Muhammad Ali Trophy, but I am also putting my world title at stake. This is a big thing. For Latvia, this will be the first major world championship bout in history.”
Briedis (22-0, 18 KOs), 32, the No. 3 seed, won a unanimous decision against former longtime titleholder Marco Huck in April to claim a vacant title.
“I have lots of experience as both an amateur and professional, a lot of ability and now at cruiserweight I’m much faster on my feet and can throw faster combinations, so I feel like I’m a much better fighter. I really believe I can win the Muhammad Ali trophy. That is how I see it. I think I will win. I cannot see anyone else winning it. I am the best cruiserweight in the competition.”
A few months later the tournament was announced and he joined the eight-man field in the hunt for the Muhammad Ali Trophy that will go to the winner. With four of the major world titleholders participating, the tournament winner will be able to unify titles as well.
“I am well prepared for Perez,” Briedis said. “He is a southpaw and I am getting great sparring from different southpaw boxers. I can’t wait for (Saturday). On that date I will make the Latvian people proud.”
Perez (22-2-1, 14 KOs), 31, an Ireland-based Cuban defector, was a heavyweight contender before a 1-2-1 stretch following his tragic victory against Magomed Abdusalamov in 2013. Perez won the brutal fight by 10-round unanimous decision and Abdusalamov wound up with a severe brain injury from which he nearly died and will never fully recover.
Perez took two years off after that four-fight stretch and returned in June, having slimmed down to cruiserweight for a first-round knockout victory against an obscure opponent. The fight with Briedis will be his first true test as a cruiserweight, but Perez is confident.
“It’s an opportunity of a lifetime,” Perez said. “Fighting in Latvia isn’t an issue for me. I don’t care where I fight. I’ll fight anywhere. I feel good, I’m confident, and I’m looking forward to Riga. I have a chance to become world champion in my very first fight in the tournament, so I couldn’t have asked for better. Breidis is a good champion but I can’t wait to bring the belt home.
“I’m so lucky to fight for the Muhammad Ali Trophy and also become the undisputed cruiserweight champion in this tournament. I have no doubt that I will do just that. I have worked hard for these last couple of years and really dedicated myself to get this chance and nobody is going to take it from me. I have lots of experience as both an amateur and professional, a lot of ability and now at cruiserweight I’m much faster on my feet and can throw faster combinations, so I feel like I’m a much better fighter. I really believe I can win the Muhammad Ali Trophy. That is how I see it. I think I will win. I cannot see anyone else winning it. I am the best cruiserweight in the competition.”
Perez, who fought at about 240 pounds as a heavyweight, shot down rumors raised by reporters as this week’s final news conference suggesting that he was struggling to make the 200-pound cruiserweight limit.
“I am well prepared for Perez. He is a southpaw and I am getting great sparring from different southpaw boxers. I can’t wait for (Saturday). On that date I will make the Latvian people proud.”
“I am here; what makes you think I am not going to fight?” Perez said. “You will have to see at the weigh-in on Friday.”
Said Shadeed Suluki, Perez’s trainer: “We have had a very tight camp, so I don’t know where you have got that rumor from. The only guys who have seen Mike on the scales is the team, and I know who is a part of this team. So wherever you got that rumor, they told you a lie.”
The bout figures to produce action and the fighters said they are prepared for a tough battle.
“It will definitely be a good and exiting fight,” Perez said. “I know there will be thousands of fans screaming and cheering for Briedis, but I will just pretend they are rooting for me.”
Said Briedis: “There are no easy fights in this tournament. Mike Perez has already made his name in the heavyweight division and seems to be in the shape of his life coming down to cruiserweight.”
The winner of Saturday’s fight will face titleholder and No. 1 seed Oleksandr Usyk (13-0, 11 KOs) in a unification fight in the semifinals in early 2018. Usyk, 30, of Ukraine, advanced with a 10th-round knockout of Huck on Sept. 9 in Berlin.
In the other semifinal, world titleholder and No. 4 seed Yunier “The KO Doctor” Dorticos (22-0, 21 KOs), 31, a Cuban defector who fights out of Miami, will face the winner of the fight between world titleholder and No. 2 seed Murat Gassiev (24-0, 17 KOs), 23, of Russia, and unseeded Polish mandatory challenger and former titlist Krzysztof Wlodarczyk (53-3-1, 37 KOs), 36, who meet on Oct. 21 at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey. Dorticos advance by pulverizing “The Russian Hammer” Dmitry Kudryashov in a second-round knockout in their Sept. 23 quarterfinal in San Antonio.
Also on Saturday’s card, former cruiserweight titleholder Krzysztof Glowacki (27-1, 17 KOs), a 31-year-old southpaw from Poland, will fight for the second time since losing a decision and his title to Usyk last September. Glowacki will face Leonardo Damian Bruzzese (18-3, 6 KOs), 34, an Argentina native fighting out or Italy, in a 10-rounder.
The card will also include a 10-round light heavyweight bout between Norway’s Tim Robin Lihaug (16-3, 9 KOs), 25, and Russia’s Sergey Gorokhov (8-2, 6 KOs), 27, and an eight-rounder between heavyweight and 2016 Olympic bronze medalist Filip Hrgovic, 25, of Serbia, who is making his pro debut, and Ali Baghouz (10-0-1, 6 KOs), 29, of Belgium.
“The atmosphere will be amazing, I am sure. There will be absolute fireworks between Briedis and Perez,” promoter Kalle Sauerland said. “We are going to see some tremendous action, a massive night of boxing that has never been seen in Latvia. Saturday’s fight is not just a normal fight. They are fighting for the WBC world title … a spot in the semifinal for the Muhammad Ali Trophy and a hell of a lot of money.”