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AIBA World Boxing Championships 2019 - Middleweight and Light-Heavyweight

AIBA World Boxing Championships 2019 - Middleweight and Light-Heavyweight

Having covered each division from flyweight to welterweight so far, it’s time to take a look at the middleweights and light-heavyweights in the third part of this series. I’ll be honest, my expectations for these two divisions was low to say the least after watching the draw. The middleweight field looked barren, clearly missing some of the big names in the division who weren’t present in Russia due to either injury or politics. Light-heavyweight was just as uninspiring, largely as a result of a dominant champion suffering a lack of competition after many of the division’s elite had switched to the professional ranks.

But to my surprise light-heavyweight delivered some of most memorable moments in these world championships and produced a number of genuine shocks, whilst middleweight had some upsets of its own. Although the overall depth of quality in both divisions wasn’t particularly impressive, some exciting new contenders emerged which will add real intrigue to these divisions ahead of next year’s Olympics. I’ll be recapping what happened, what fights to watch and who to look out for at Tokyo 2020.

Middleweight (75kg)

Gold - Gleb Bakshi (Russia)

Silver - Eumir Marcial (Philippines)

Bronze - Hebert Conceição (Brazil), Tursynbay Kulakhmet (Kazakhstan)

The biggest story surrounding the middleweight division this tournament wasn’t about who took part, but who didn’t. Reigning world champion Oleksandr Khyzhniak of Ukraine, who won 75kg gold at the European Games earlier this year, was the most notable absence as his country boycotted the world championships due to ongoing tensions with Russia. As a result, questions regarding the legitimacy of a newly crowned middleweight world champion had already been raised before a single punch had been thrown. Furthermore, 2017 silver-medallist Abilkhan Amankul and bronze medallist Troy Isley both had to pull out of the tournament due to injury, resulting in the 75kg field becoming increasingly thin. The departure of 2017 Asian Champion Israil Madrimov for the pro’s only compounded middleweight’s lack of depth.

Cuban Arlen Lopez, who won middleweight gold at the Rio Olympics in 2016, earned himself the #1 seed off the back of an impressive triumph in the 2019 Pan-American Games. Whilst Lopez is a sensational talent at his best, the truth is we haven’t seen him at that level in quite some time. Following Rio, Lopez put on weight and appeared noticeably less sharp in the 2017 world championships where he lost to Abilkhan Amankul at the quarterfinal stage. Although Lopez has looked better this year, he still hasn’t quite found the level he displayed at the Olympics. I thought he had a very good chance of becoming world champion in Russia, mostly because of how weak the rest of the field was, but his inconsistency meant that an upset wasn’t out of the question.

Where exactly could the upset come from, though? It’s pretty damning on the strength of the 75kg field that Tarik Allali of Morocco, who won gold at the 2019 African Games, was the #2 seed. I can’t think of a single other division apart from the equally abysmal light-heavyweight where medalling at the African Games gets you seeded that high. You already know that overall quality is going to be pretty shit when a career-best win over David Semmuju of Uganda (who? Your guess is as good as mine) qualifies you as the second highest ranked fighter in the tournament.

But #3 seed Tursynbay Kulakhmet of Kazakhstan, the reigning Asian champion at middleweight, had a far more realistic chance at leaving Russia a world champion. Whilst Kulakhmet had often missed out on international tournaments due to the success of his compatriot Amankul, the latter’s injury allowed Kulakhmet to enjoy a breakout year in 2019 where he proved himself at the elite level with a win over Madrimov. I expected the Kazakh to have a deep run at the tournament, with a chance to win gold in the final. I also thought that #4 Hebert Conceição of Brazil, who finished runner-up to Lopez at the 2019 Pan-Ams, could potentially upset the Cuban as could Russia’s #8 Gleb Bakshi. Bakshi was being under-rated heading into the tournament, as his relatively low seeding was a result of having the misfortune to be matched with Oleksandr Khyzhniak at the quarter-final stage of the European Games.

To the surprise of absolutely no one, #2 seed Tarik Allali was TKO’d in his first matchup against unseeded Filipino Eumir Marcial - highlighting why the AIBA’s seeding process is a joke. Marcial would go on to reach the semi-finals, beating another unseeded fighter in Shahin Mousavi of Iran. #5 seed Andrej Csemez of Slovakia also fell early to the underrated Arman Darchinyan of Armenia, before Darchinyan lost to #3 Tursynbay Kulakhmet in the quarter finals. In the other side of the bracket, #4 Hebert Conceição booked his place in the last four after an impressive win over European Championships runner up Salvatore Cavallaro of Italy. But the biggest shock of the 75kg tournament came in the form of home favourite Gleb Bakshi’s split decision win over #1 seed Arlen Lopez in the quarter finals. The fight itself was as competitive as the 3:2 decision indicated, with both men fighting on the inside in the second and third rounds, but Bakshi’s work-rate and body shots earned him the win in my eyes. Lopez needed to perform near his best to win a decision against the home favourite, but once again he failed to find that extra gear. It’s a shame that the Cuban hasn’t been able to consistently box at the level he was at in Rio, but hopefully he can rediscover that form ahead of Tokyo next year.

In the semi-finals, unseeded Eumir Marcial continued his cinderella run in the tournament by upsetting #3 Kulakhmet by way of unanimous decision. In a battle of the southpaws, Marcial dropped the Kazakh in the first round with a sharp 1-2 as his speed caused Kulakhmet problems throughout. Kulakhmet settled more in the second round, but Marcial continued to find a home for his left hand and landed a few eye-catching body jabs to clinch the victory. Meanwhile, Bakshi advanced with a 4:1 decision victory over Hebert Conceição, boxing well on the front foot and landing some nice hooks to the heady and body from both stances. Could Marcial go one step further and complete one of the unlikeliest stories of the tournament, or would Bakshi be crowned world champion in front of his home fans?

Unfortunately, the final wasn’t a particularly memorable one and I wasn’t impressed with Bakshi nor Marcial. The Russian frequently resorted to throwing single shots before holding, whilst Marcial darted forward throwing his trademark quick 1-2’s. But Marcial’s hands were too low every time he threw a combination, which was what led to a second round knockdown when Bakshi caught him with a counter left-hook as Marcial was throwing his southpaw left. In all honesty, I was disappointed that Bakshi wasn’t able to time and counter Marcial mid-combination more, as it was there for him the entire fight. Marcial also should have looked to have thrown more uppercuts or shovel hooks as Bakshi was closing distance to hold. The decision itself stirred some controversy, and I can see why - Marcial was far more active on the front foot throughout, whereas Bakshi couldn’t get too much going in terms offense. He was making Marcial miss with good head movement, but was failing to punish him with counters. Ultimately, the knockdown made the difference which is purely Marcial’s fault for having his hands too low mid-combination; being that defensively irresponsible in the world championship final is poor, no two ways about it.

On my scorecard, I had Marcial winning the first and third rounds, but the second was tight. With a 10-8 round in the second for Bakshi (courtesy of the knockdown) my score would have been 28-28, leading to a draw where the judges would have to nominate who they thought won. In this case, I would say Marcial. It’s another controversial decision in the tournament, but the final was held in Russia where it’ll be tough enough to win on the cards against the home favourite anyway - let alone after being knocked down. But it is what it is, and Gleb Bakshi won by 5:0 unanimous decision to become the middleweight world champion.

Throughout the final, there was only one thought on my mind - neither of these two would have beaten Oleksandr Khyzhniak. It’s a strange feeling seeing a new world champion be crowned, whilst also knowing that he’s almost certainly not the best in the world. Hell, Khyzhniak has even beat both Bakshi and Marcial this year, with his win over Bakshi being as recent as June. The legitimacy of the 75kg tournament was already undermined when the reigning world champion wouldn’t be competing because of politics, and nothing I saw in this final did anything to change my mind. I don’t think both finalists would have beaten Abilkhan Amankul either, if he hadn’t have been injured. It left a sour taste in my mouth, and deprived us of some truly excellent matchups at middleweight. Whilst unseeded Marcial knocking off the #2 and #3 seeds en route to the final was one of the feel-good stories of the tournament, 75kg stands out in my memory as the division where the best fighters simply weren’t present.

So what can we take away from middleweight moving forward? Well, we have a new elite contender in world champion Gleb Bakshi, and the Russian proved that he has the ability to beat world-class competition with victories over Arlen Lopez and Hebert Conceiçao. Bakshi is only 23, too, and will certainly be competitive with Khyzhniak should they meet in Tokyo next year. But it’s still hard to look past the Ukrainian, who is regarded by many to be #1 pound-for-pound in the amateurs, and I’d still be confident in predicting that Khyzhniak takes gold. Marcial also put the division on notice with his performances in Russia, and will look to prove that he’s no fluke at the Olympics. If Amankul can stay injury-free he’ll be a strong medal contender, as will defending champion Arlen Lopez if he can return to his best. I’d also like to see Israil Madrimov in Tokyo, as he would be another excellent addition to the middleweight field. This division has real potential to be excellent, it’s just a shame that we didn’t get to see that at these world championships.

Fights to watch at 75kg - Angulo vs Marcial, Bakshi vs Marcial, Kulakhmet vs Marcial, Bakshi vs Lopez, Conceição vs Salvatore Cavallaro

Light-heavyweight (81kg)

Gold - Beksad Nurdauletov (Kazakhstan)

Silver - Dilshodbek Ruzmetov (Uzbekistan)

Bronze - Julio César La Cruz (Cuba), Benjamin Whittaker (England)

Light-heavyweight, on paper, looked to be the thinnest division at the world championships alongside middleweight. I expected absolutely nothing of note from this division, other than for #1 seed Julio César La Cruz to capture his fifth consecutive world championship at 81kg. The entire tournament seemed like a procession for La Cruz, who has been arguably the best amateur boxer of this decade. For any of those familiar with La Cruz, you’ll know well just how magnificent he is; at the Rio Olympics, the Cuban was hardly touched en route to gold, showcasing his exceptional gauging of distance, head movement and movement. I even wrote in my preview “don’t expect too much drama in the division”, so confident was I that La Cruz would once again be victorious. Little did I know that the defining moment of the tournament was in store.

You can hardly blame me for not being too excited about 81kg in the buildup - outside of La Cruz, the division seemed threadbare in quality with #2 Loren Alfonso Dominguez of Azerbaijan (of Cuban origin, for those who are confused about why a black man named Alfonso is representing Azerbaijan) being a La Cruz-lite. It’s not exactly encouraging from a competitive standpoint that the second seed in the tournament had to switch countries because he was unable to ever oust La Cruz from the national team. Even the potential of a final between the pair did nothing to excite me, as it would almost certainly be a low-output affair with lots of posturing and very little action as was the case when La Cruz beat Dominguez earlier this year. The division was clearly missing fighters who could genuinely challenge the Cuban, that being Bektemir Melikuziev of Uzbekistan, Joe Ward of Ireland and Joshua Buatsi of England. But given that they all turned professional, much of the intrigue at 81kg had gone.

I expected #7 Benjamin Whittaker of England to have a deep run at 81kg due to the field being so weak, and thought that anything less than a bronze would have been a major disappointment. To do so, he’d have to get past #3 Abdelrahman Oraby of Egypt, the 2019 African Games champion at 81kg (note - anyone seeded by virtue of medalling at the African Games is indicative of a piss poor division), but I was very confident he would be able to do so. In La Cruz’s side of the bracket, I thought that #4 Keno Machado of Brazil, who finished runner-up to the Cuban at the 2019 Pan-American Games, would be the most likely to take bronze.

Early on in the tournament, there were already a few surprises. #4 Machado fell in the third round after losing to unseeded Bekzat Nurdauletov of Kazakhstan, who then beat Turkey’s Bayram Malkan to reach the semi-finals. #2 Alfonso-Dominguez also suffered a premature exited, losing to another unseeded fighter in Uzbekistan’s Dilshodbek Ruzmetov at the quarter-final stage. #3 Abdelrahman Oraby, honouring the trend of African Games champions who fail spectacularly when faced with half-decent competition, was beaten by Jerome Joseph-Pampellone of New Zealand. Joseph-Pampellone would go on to drop a decision to #7 Ben Whittaker in the quarter-finals, whilst La Cruz predictably joined him in the final four with a dominant victory over Georgy Kushitashvili of Russia.

But the light-heavyweight division truly exploded into life at the semi-final stage, delivering one of the biggest upsets in amateur boxing history. Most onlookers, including myself, had hardly taken notice of 21 year-old Bekzat Nurdauletov when assessing the 81kg field. Understandably so, considering Nurdauletov was a late replacement for fellow Kazakh Bek Nurmaganbet who won the 2019 Asian championships at light-heavyweight. I was impressed to see him reach the semi-finals in Russia, but couldn’t see him stopping #1 seed La Cruz’s march to gold. Whenever Nurdauletov had stepped up to face the division’s elite previously, he’d fallen short with a pair of decision losses to Vassiliy Levit & Bektemir Melikuziev. To turn that around in his first major tournament, against the man who had dominated light-heavyweight for eight years, would be a massive challenge.

Nurdauletov didn’t read the script. He came out with clear intent, throwing hard southpaw jabs and lead lefts to the body to set the tone. La Cruz responded by fighting in his trademark style, keeping his hands low and dancing around the ring as he raided Nurdauletov with jabs and lead rights. The Kazakh was having success of his own though, foreshadowing what was to come when he caught La Cruz with some sharp 1-2’s. Although I didn’t have him winning the first round, Nurdauletov had made an early statement - he wasn’t going to be another light touch for La Cruz.

Then early in the second round, the decisive moment came. With La Cruz standing in front of his opponent near the ropes, Nurdauletov made an adjustment to his approach; in the first round he committed to both shots when he threw quick 1-2’s, which allowed La Cruz to nail down his timing. But this time, Nurdauletov feinted the jab before throwing a straight left hand, which reached its target faster than La Cruz was expecting. The Cuban’s legs buckled as he staggered back into the ropes, with the referee immediately starting an 8 count. Whilst he wasn’t hurt, the resulting 10-8 round meant that he was now at a deficit on the cards and would have to be flawless in order to win the bout. La Cruz continued to float across the ring, showing off his silky skills and movement with the kind of swagger that would indicate he was in complete control. Nurdauletov was still finding a home for that southpaw left though, setting it up with lead foot feints as well as parrying La Cruz’s jab with his right hand to create a pathway for the shot. I thought the Cuban did well for the rest of the round - slipping shots and countering with accurate left hooks and lead rights - but he was down 19-18 on my card heading into the crucial third.

I’ve had a real think about this whilst I’ve been writing up these world championship recaps, and I’ve decided that the third round of Nurdauletov-La Cruz is the best round of the tournament for me. It’s not the most exciting round, nor the most dramatic, but it perfectly encapsulates what makes one of the best amateur boxers in the sport’s history truly great. Julio César La Cruz, behind on the cards and chasing a fifth world championship when many of his compatriots had succumbed to complacency, fought with the urgency and passion of a fighter chasing his first world title. La Cruz abandoned his typical style, instead taking the fight to Nurdauletov in the centre of the ring and adopting a high guard. It was a declaration, if anything, that La Cruz wasn’t cowed, that he could go toe to toe with this young upstart. He worked on the inside, digging shots into Nurdauletov’s body and matching the Kazakh in the trenches. One particular moment that will stay with me for a long time (you can watch it at 11:58 in the video below) is when Nurdauletov knocks La Cruz’s gum-shield out of his mouth with a left hook, only for La Cruz to glance at the gum-shield with contempt as he walks forward and launches into a lead right hand. La Cruz is just an exceptional fighter, and he showed a resilience in the final round that few Cuban fighters possess.

The cards were tight with four of the judges scoring the bout a 28-28 draw, but one judge saw it 29-27 in favour of the winner by split decision - unheralded 21 year-old Bekzat Nurdauletov, sealing the biggest upset of the championships. I scored the fight a clear draw, and if all five judges had seen it the same then the result would have been decided by the judges nominating who they thought won overall. I thought that was La Cruz, who’s impressive display in the third round underlined why he was the superior fighter in this bout. But I don’t want to take anything away from Nurdauletov, who caught La Cruz throughout the fight and brought the best out of the Cuban in a way that very few fighters have before. Those clean, hard left hands could have left more of an impression on the judges, so I don’t think its particularly egregious to score the fight for Nurdauletov even though I disagreed with the decision.

In the other semi-final, 20 year-old Dilshodbek Ruzmetov squared off against England’s Ben Whittaker for the chance to face Nurdauletov in the final. Whilst the fight couldn’t match the drama of Nurdauletov-La Cruz, Ruzmetov produced a strong performance to beat #7 Whittaker and landed the classier work throughout. The Uzbek southpaw made good use of his right hook and straight left, timing Whittaker well in spots and weaving to avoid Whittaker’s punches in close. I think Whittaker would have benefitted from feinting more in order to disrupt Ruzmetov’s timing, but Ruzmetov was the better man and the scorecards reflected that with a 5:0 unanimous decision victory for the unseeded Uzbek. Whittaker can be proud of the effort he made in the world championships, even though he did benefit from an easy route to the semi-final, and I think a bronze medal is a reflection of where he’s at in the light-heavyweight division; a talented contender who isn’t quite at the elite level at 81kg.

The final that no one saw coming was set - a clash between a pair of unseeded young upstarts in Bekzat Nurdauletov and Dilshodbek Ruzmetov. Nurdauletov started well, using feints to corral Ruzmetov into the corners where he landed his signature 1-2’s alongside some eye-catching counters. But Ruzmetov was having success of his own in timing Nurdauletov as he was coming in, and the round was a tight one to score. In the second, Nurdauletov countered well and caught Ruzmetov with a number of shots after exiting the clinch. He also landed a big southpaw overhand left as the Uzbek threw a right hook, snapping Ruzmetov’s head back in what was arguably the best punch of the fight. I thought Ruzmetov should have gotten off first more when he was backed into the corner, as he caught Nurdauletov with the jab a few times before the Kazakh could mount his offense, but he hadn’t done enough to take the round.

By the third Nurdauletov had begun to time Ruzmetov, landing some crisp straight lefts as he took control with the cleaner work. Ruzmetov’s success was increasingly sporadic, in large part due to Nurdauletov taking his head off-line after throwing to make the Uzbek’s counters miss. Whilst the fight was competitive, Nurdauletov had clearly won 29-28 on my card. The judges agreed, with all five scoring it for the Kazakh by unanimous decision to make Bekzat Nurdauletov the new light-heavyweight world champion. One of the most unlikely stories of the world championships was complete.

Coming into this tournament, 81kg was the weakest division in amateur boxing - devoid of any truly elite talent outside of Julio César La Cruz. The stunning emergence of Bekzat Nurdauletov and Dilshodbek Ruzmetov, two unknown fighters who only narrowly made their respective teams, has injected a new lease of life into light-heavyweight and shaken up the division. They are both young, talented and evidently capable of performing at the highest level; Olympic gold no longer looks like a foregone conclusion for Julio César La Cruz in Tokyo, and light-heavyweight is all the better for it. Whilst the overall quality of the division is admittedly still very middling, the future is bright and we have something to look forward to at 81kg next year.

Fights to watch at 81kg - Nurdauletov vs La Cruz, Nurdauletov vs Ruzmetov, Dominguez vs Ruzmetov, Whittaker vs Ruzmetov

Weekly Asian boxing results (October 21st to October 26th)

Weekly Asian boxing results (October 21st to October 26th)

Ben Askren: Late Career Evaluation

Ben Askren: Late Career Evaluation