Mairis Briedis shrugged off a cut eye to unanimously outpoint Mike Perez on Saturday and set up a semifinal against Oleksandr Usyk in the World Boxing Super Series.
It was an untidy fight spoiled by too much holding, but those at the Riga Arena in Riga did not care as local hero Briedis made a successful first defense of his cruiserweight title.
In the first world title fight held in Latvia, Briedis (23-0, 18 KOs) advanced from the quarterfinals of the inaugural elimination tournament by scores of 116-110, 115-111 and 114-112.
“It wasn’t easy, but we did it,” said Briedis.
“There are still a lot of things to work on. This was the first title defense in Latvia and the first time I was cut. I’m looking forward to my semifinal.”
The Ireland-based Cuban Perez was docked a point for a clash of heads in the third round and felt frustrated by the way Italian referee Massimo Barrovecchio officiated the fight.
“I only asked for a fair fight, but the referee was far from fair,” Perez said in the ring after the bout. “He didn’t do his job, and that’s what I feel.”
Perez (22-3-1, 14 KOs), 31, also cast doubt on his future in the sport.
“I think it was my last chance, I have been through a lot, that’s it,” he said.
Briedis, 32, progresses to face WBO titleholder and No. 1 seed Usyk (13-0, 11 KOs), of Ukraine, in a unification fight in the semifinals in early 2018.
Usyk, 30, will be a lot more dangerous than Perez, who failed to land any power shots or sustain any pressure. Usyk, the 2012 Olympic gold medalist at heavyweight, advanced with a 10th-round knockout of Marco Huck on Sept. 9 in Berlin and is favorite for the Muhammad Ali Trophy.
Perez should also reflect what effect more than two years of inactivity had on his performance.
Perez — known as The Rebel — also entered this tournament virtually an unknown quantity as a cruiserweight. The Cuban exile, who has been based in Cork since turning professional in 2008, has reinvented himself as a cruiserweight after previously campaigning as a heavyweight.
Perez quit the heavyweight division after being stopped in 91 seconds by Russia’s Alexander Povetkin in May 2015 after suffering his only other defeat by split points decision to America’s Bryant Jennings the previous year.
After two years of inactivity, Perez’s only experience of the cruiserweight division had been a 29-second wasting of Slovakia’s Viktor Biscak in Belfast in June.
That cameo performance was enough to earn Perez a slot in the eight-man knockout tournament that features all four world cruiserweight champions.
Briedis, the No. 3 seed, won the vacant belt via a unanimous decision over Germany’s Huck in April and, for many, was also somewhat of an unknown quantity on the world stage.
But he is well known in his homeland as Latvia’s first world boxing champion and had loud support from his home city fans who gleefully cheered when he landed a good right in the first round.
There was then a lot of holding in the second round, which became a feature for much of the fight.
Perez, who had lost at least 40 pounds to become a cruiserweight, suffered a setback when he was docked a point early in the third round after a clash of heads, and as the blood flowed, it looked like it might be a problem for the champion.
But Briedis’ corner did a great job to stem the flow of the blood from a cut above the left eye, and Briedis went on to enjoy good fourth and fifth rounds.
Perez, who became increasingly frustrated at the refereeing and interruptions to the action, was caught by a at least two good rights hands in the fifth as Briedis grew in confidence.
In the seventh, Perez staggered back into the ropes after Briedis landed a sweet right uppercut on the Cuban’s chin. It was the best punch of the fight, and Perez wrapped his arms around Briedis to stop any more punches coming his way and to give him time to gather his senses.
Perez frequently complained to Italian referee Barrovecchio, but it was Briedis who was docked a point in the tenth for holding.
Perez could not establish any rhythm and lacked accuracy to seriously threaten throughout, which was not surprising after so little ring time in the past two years. Briedis finished by picking off Perez in the final minute of the fight, and there seemed little doubt as to how the decision would go at the end.
In the other semifinal, titleholder and No. 4 seed Miami-based Cuban Yunier Dorticos (22-0, 21 KOs) will face the winner of the fight between fellow titlist Murat Gassiev (24-0, 17 KOs), of Russia, and Poland’s Krzysztof Wlodarczyk (53-3-1, 37 KOs), who meet on Oct. 21 at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey. Dorticos demolished Dmitry Kudryashov in a second-round knockout in their Sept. 23 quarterfinal in San Antonio.
The final, as well as the final of the World Boxing Super Series super-middleweight tournament, is scheduled for May 2018.