Boxing’s heavyweight division has mostly been dreadful over the last decade, though it’s showing signs of life now.
Both WBC champion Deontay Wilder and WBA/IBF champion Anthony Joshua seem to be top-tier fighters, and could produce a memorable match if boxing politics don’t get in the way of them facing each other.
WBO champion Joseph Parker seems to have regressed a bit in the last year, but he’s still got lots of talent and must be regarded as a legitimate challenge for both Joshua and Wilder.
The most significant challenge for those two though is not even in the heavyweight division yet.
Murat Gassiev, the unbeaten IBF cruiserweight champion, will face Krzysztof Wlodarczyk on Saturday at the Prudential Center in Newark in a World Boxing Super Series quarterfinal bout.
Gassiev, who turned 24 last week, is 24-0 with 17 knockouts and is a 15-1 favorite to defeat Wlodarczyk and move into the semifinals of the event that includes all of the cruiserweight champions.
The opportunity to unify the cruiserweight belts is what got Gassiev into the tournament. But what he might get out of it is a big jumping-off point for what could be a lucrative move to heavyweight.
“This gives me an opportunity to fight for all four belts and it will be a good experience with the eight best fighters in the division,” Gassiev said.
The 6-foot-4 Gassiev, who was born in the small industrial town of Vladikavkaz in southeast Russia, has trained against a who’s who of quality opponents since he began to train with Abel Sanchez in Big Bear, Calif.
Gassiev is a protégé of sorts of middleweight champion Gennady Golovkin. He’s absorbed Golovkin’s tireless work ethic and committed himself to becoming the best version of himself.
If he pulls it off – and he wasn’t the best version of himself in his title-winning effort over Denis Lebedev last year – he could prove to be one of the best and most exciting fighters in the sport.
He’s tall and rangy but moves well for a man so large. He’s not a lumbering fighter, but an athletic one who reminds Sanchez of ex-heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield.
Holyfield won his first world title as a pro at cruiserweight and defended it successfully five times – adding two other cruiserweight belts along the way – before moving to heavyweight where he went down in history as one of the best to do it.
“The power he has shown me in the gym sparring against [heavyweights Dominic] Breazeale, Charles Martin, Gerald Washington, Chris Arreola, is very real,” Sanchez said. “All those guys, he’s been able to dominate and hurt. Once we get him to the heavyweight division and stabilize him at 225, 230, and put some muscle on those pounds, he’ll be very effective.
“I think this is looking like a pretty good [era] for the heavyweights. Some of the guys, like Wilder and Joshua, are a lot bigger than Murat, but that’s where I talk about Holyfield. Murat is 6-4, but he’s taller than Holyfield, who was 6-2, 6-3 but took his time and developed into a legitimate heavyweight. Evander’s activity and his punching power and his speed were his forte and the bigger guys had trouble dealing with him. I think with Murat, it’s the same type of thing. I think that’s the same kind of fighter he’ll be once he makes that move to heavyweight.”
Gassiev is largely unknown in the U.S., and his bout on Saturday will in some ways be his coming-out party. He’s the type of fighter who translates well to television, with a high work rate, power and fast hands.
He knows an impressive win Saturday, as well as a strong performance in the tournament, will help boost his profile in the U.S.
“I used to watch Mike Tyson’s fights and I saw how he built fight after fight with a great performance, big knockout, and brought the fans to him,” Gassiev said. “Muhammad Ali before Tyson, same way. It’s my dreams to be able to go out and show what I can do and put on good fights and win this tournament.”
It will be a great stepping-off point to heavyweight, though he doesn’t need to rush given his age and the depth in the cruiserweight division. Though most aren’t big names, there are a lot of good fighters at 200 pounds and they’ll help Gassiev get the experience he needs.
So, too, does training with Golovkin, noted as one of the hardest workers in the sport.
“I said this a year-and-a-half ago that Murat Gassiev was going to be the next Golovkin to come out of my gym if he kept his head on straight,” Sanchez said. “Murat’s a fortunate man to have a guy like Gennady in the gym, because Gennady is a great example. A lot of young guys with talent, great prospects, they got all caught up in themselves and they lose sight of what they should do.
“But when Murat goes to the gym every day, he sees an established guy like Golovkin, one of the best fighters in the world, working harder than everyone else. Gennady has been a good mentor for him in that way and Murat is making the progress we want to see.”
It’s asking a lot of anyone to become another Holyfield. But if Gassiev can perform as the competition gets tougher, he might be at least Holyfield Lite.
Fighters can make a lot of money emulating Holyfield, so that’s hardly a bad thing.