Mairis Briedis gave Oleksandr Usyk his toughest fight and 2018 fight could show Anthony Joshua way to win, especially with those uppercuts


Derek Chisora and Tony Bellew both had some early success against Oleksandr Usyk but only one pro boxer has come extremely close to defeating the Ukrainian ace: Mairis Briedis.

Their all-action 2018 bout, a battle of unbeaten cruiserweights, was so closely fought that it ended in a majority decision win for Usyk that could easily have gone the other way. One judge was unable to separate the pair, scoring it a draw, while two had it 115-113 for ‘The Cat’ – so if either judge had flipped just one of the tightly-contested rounds to Briedis, it would have changed the lives of both boxers.

Briedis is a three-time cruiserweight champion

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Briedis is a three-time cruiserweight champion

He fought Usyk in 2018 and gave the heavyweight champion his toughest test

Rex

He fought Usyk in 2018 and gave the heavyweight champion his toughest test

“These were the most difficult 12 rounds I’ve had in my career,” Usyk admitted through a translator, post-fight. Promoter Kalle Sauerland said that “Usyk-Briedis was decided on the last round” – and added that, under the rules of the Super Six competition, a draw would have meant a fourth judge deciding who progressed to the final.

“The fourth judge would have scored it for Briedis,” Sauerland later revealed. “Usyk would have gone out, and would Usyk be where he is today? No one knows.”

It was a sliding-doors moment in Usyk’s career: instead he went on to the Super Six final, dominated Murat Gassiev, later moving on to heavyweight glory. But what can Anthony Joshua learn from the performance of Briedis, the former part-time policeman who came so close to spoiling Usyk’s perfect record?

The first is clearly to change the range of the fight – and throw more leather. Usyk narrowly outlanded Briedis 212 punches to 195, but the Latvian was more economical, scoring with 34% to Usyk’s 25% (according to CompuBox).

His best success came from getting in close to Usyk and ripping uppercuts and hooks to body and head. Here is good news for AJ: he may not be a natural in-fighter, but the uppercut in particular is one of his honey punches – and he has a new trainer in Robert Garcia who will be emphasising pressure and aggression.

Joshua cannot afford to fight this bout at mid-range where he let Usyk do his best work last year. As Briedis, and later Chisora, showed: getting in close to Usyk’s space can disrupt his rhythm.

Briedis had success in getting close to Usyk with uppercuts – something AJ utilises to great effect, with the one against Wladimir Klitschko legendary

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Briedis had success in getting close to Usyk with uppercuts – something AJ utilises to great effect, with the one against Wladimir Klitschko legendary

Joshua lost to Usyk in September, but his new coach Robert Garcia is likely to know how best to fight the rematch

Mark Robinson/Matchroom

Joshua lost to Usyk in September, but his new coach Robert Garcia is likely to know how best to fight the rematch


Briedis’s success with body punches is also notable. Usyk’s head and foot movement is so elusive, so difficult to predict, that trying to take his head off with one punch – which a fired-up AJ may be tempted to try – is virtually impossible. But the body is a more difficult target to move out of the way and tenderising Usyk’s ribs, as Briedis did, could be a route for Joshua to inflict some hurt.

Briedis also has success with a straight right and a right hand around the guard. But Usyk lands plenty of his own punches too in a thrillingly back-and-forth fight – and perhaps the southpaw was far happier to exchange with Briedis than he ever will be with Joshua, a weight division bigger and a far heavier puncher.

Yet Briedis encountered many of the problems Joshua faced in the world-class Usyk, but had greater success in solving them. Usyk had faster hands than Briedis and that showed at times. But Briedis had some joy in trying to throw punches when Usyk himself punched – the pair exchanged backhands throughout – something Joshua was unable to do in their first meeting, when he simply ate too many straight left hands from Usyk without returning fire. Put simply, Joshua will have to accept he’ll be hit at times – as Briedis did – but look to make Usyk pay for the punches he’s landing.

Matching footwork with Usyk is almost impossible. Ideally an orthodox fighter wants to get his left foot on the outside of the southpaw’s lead foot to open up better angles – something Joshua consistently failed to achieve. Briedis did not always manage this either. But he steps on Usyk’s foot several times as he tried to win that battle – and wrestles him to the canvas too. A bit of the rough stuff might help Joshua; it may not come naturally to him but he has the size and strength advantage to make it work.

Putting Usyk through the rough stuff in Jeddah may work for Joshua, just like Briedis tried

Rex

Putting Usyk through the rough stuff in Jeddah may work for Joshua, just like Briedis tried

The bout, in Riga, went the distance and it was anyone’s right up until that final bell

Rex

The bout, in Riga, went the distance and it was anyone’s right up until that final bell

The Usyk-Briedis fight has so many shifts in momentum that by the last round, TV commentator Ron McIntosh sees is it all up for grabs. “Whoever wins this 12th round could be declared the victor,” he warns. “There’s been absolutely nothing in it throughout the 11 rounds.”

The final round is the fight in a three-minute microcosm. Usyk has the higher work-rate but the harder single shots come from Briedis, while the crowd in the Riga Arena give them both a standing ovation. “The type of contest where there’s a shame there has to be a loser,” enthuses McIntosh. “I’m not sure either fighter could say with certainty that they’ve done enough to win this.”

A tense wait for the scorecards ends with a deadpan Usyk’s fist being raised, while Briedis offers a rueful grin but sportingly congratulates Usyk. The fight was so close, and Usyk looked so unusually hittable, that the Ukrainian was actually a very slight betting underdog going into the Super Six final – but he dished out a boxing lesson to one-dimensional puncher Gassiev.

In the end it was Usyk who added the WBC cruiserweight title to his collection

Rex

In the end it was Usyk who added the WBC cruiserweight title to his collection

Briedis would later have his own deserved moment of Super Six glory, winning the follow-up tournament after Usyk had stepped up to heavyweight. Though his strange decision to continually, publicly call out Jake Paul – who will likely never take on a boxer of Briedis’ class – have made for a curious final chapter to his career.

There is naturally a limit to what Joshua can learn from the Briedis fight. He is not the same fighter as a busy, if less imposing, 6ft 1in cruiserweight – and Usyk is too adaptable to approach any fight in the same way twice.

But there is something to learn from how alarmingly often Briedis catches Usyk, planting his straight right hand on the southpaw’s chin, winging hooks to his body and crashing in uppercuts in rounds six and 10. If AJ can catch the now 35-year-old with even half as many clean power punches, the effect could be even more devastating than just rocking Usyk’s head back.

Usyk vs Joshua 2 on talkSPORT





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