Cruiserweight: A Division Struggling To Pit Best vs Best In The Aftermath Of Undisputed
Cruiserweight has been in somewhat of a limbo since the departure of former undisputed champion Oleksandr Usyk. Sunday night only further muddied the water in the sport’s second-heaviest division with the WBC championship changing hands.
Cruiserweight was perhaps the best example of how a division should be in late 2017. With 8 world-level fighters, 4 of which being current belt holders, entering the World Boxing Super Series tournament. This guaranteed multiple unification matchups and brilliant fights scheduled, all within a 12-month period.
Usyk (who held the WBO belt going into the tournament) came through the tournament, beating former world champion Marko Huck, WBC champion Mairis Briedis, and IBF and WBA champion Murat Gassiev in the final. Usyk fought all of these fights in his opponent’s home country, solidifying himself as a pound-for-pound superstar. One defence against Liverpool’s Tony Bellew in Manchester later, and Usyk had vacated his belts, and was off to heavyweight to win a unified title against Anthony Joshua.
Since that night in Manchester, the division has been a complete mess. With vacant titles, controversial knockouts, legal battles over contractual status, sanctioned fights against super middleweights, and Super Mario YouTube callouts, will we see the division finally move on in 2023?
Even with a second instalment of the World Boxing Super Series starting in late 2018, the lineup was not as stellar as the previous seasons. With only the WBO and IBF titles being at stake. Krzysztof Glowacki entered the tournament as WBO Champion, and the vacant IBF title only being contested in the semi-final between Yuniel Dorticos and Andrew Tabiti. This left the WBA and WBC championships vacant and in the relative wilderness.
One would think that with the sanctioning bodies on board, and a contracted tournament being scheduled, the eventual winner would leave the tournament the unified WBO, and IBF Champion. However, this was far from the case. An ill-fated semi-final between Glowacki and Briedis ended in a controversial TKO3 win for Briedis. With multiple fouls committed by the Latvian including a blatant elbow that hurt Glowacki badly, the WBO ordered a rematch. Briedis was already contracted to face Cuban Yuniel Dorticos in the final, and was forced to vacate the title as a result. Briedis went on to win the final (which was further delayed due to Covid-19 restrictions). Claiming the IBF, and Ring Magazine title.
The WBO was left vacant after the semi-finals. Leaving losing semi-finalist Glowacki and WBO number 1 contender Lawrence Okolie to face off for the vacant strap. The fight was originally scheduled for the Joshua vs Pulev undercard in December 2020, however, the Polish boxer had to withdraw from the bout after contracting covid. Okolie faced replacement opponent Nikodem Jezewski on the night, a bout which would indirectly keep London man Okolie out of the ring for over a year. Okolie finally faced Glowacki the following March and won the title via a 6th-round KO.
The WBA Title situation has been perhaps the most straightforward. With Frenchman Arsen Goulamirian winning the interim title against Ryad Mehry in March 2018 and defending it 3 times since, rather than holding the belt hostage, not really being willing to travel to fight top contenders or take a unification fight. The spells of inactivity from the talented Goulamirian have really slowed his momentum down, spending almost 3 years out of the ring between late 2019 and late 2022, especially given the subpar opposition that he has faced in his title reign.
It took over a year for the WBC title to be contested after Usyk vs Bellew. With the vacant title being fought for by Ilunga Makabu and Michal Cieslak in Kinshasa, DR Congo in January 2020. Makabu came out on top against the Pole, winning a unanimous decision. Makabu would return to Kinshasa in December 2020, stopping Nigerian Olanrewaju Durodola in his first defence. Makabu then won a controversial decision on a Don King show in January 2022 in a rematch against perennial contender Thabiso Mchunu.
Before this bout, though at the 2021 WBC Convention, WBC president Mauricio Sulaiman approved a request for Makabu to make a defence against undisputed super middleweight champion, pound-for-pound number one, and huge PPV superstar, Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez. The pair even faced off at the convention for a photo opportunity for the world’s media. This was perhaps the reason for the dreadful scorecards in the Mchunu fight, although we will never know.
The Canelo fight never materialised for Makabu, with the Mexican instead opting to fight Light Heavyweight titleist Dmitry Bivol. Makabu’s next fight happened on Sunday night, on the undercard of the circus attraction that was Jake Paul vs Tommy Fury in Saudi Arabia, a bout in which he would be battered and stopped by former Super Middleweight champion, 39-year-old Badou Jack.
After winning the 2nd instalment of the WBSS, Mairis Briedis went on one of the most embarrassing title reigns perhaps ever. Making one successful defence of his IBF, and Ring Magazine titles against relative nobody Artur Mann. This isn’t out of the ordinary for champions to make easy tick-over defences, however, his conduct outside the ring was nothing short of confusing, embarrassing, and simply strange.
Briedis went on a social media offensive against YouTube star and former Disney Channel actor turned celebrity boxer, Jake Paul. The Latvian continued to call out the American troll over social media, even going to the lengths of getting a fake tattoo of Jake Paul in one peculiar Twitter video. Maybe the most bizarre call out of Paul came on the broadcast of WBO Champion Lawrence Okolie’s title defence against Michal Cieslak. Briedis seemed to shoot down prospects of a future bout with Okolie, in favour of a bout with Jake Paul. All whilst dressed as ‘Super Mario’ of Nintendo fame. Briedis would end up losing his titles to Australian Jai Opetaia in July 2022.
Lawrence Okolie was meant to be the heir to the Usyk Crown when he won his WBO world title. However, his journey since that night at the Wembley arena in March 2021 has been about as messy as anyone’s. Okolie would go on to stop mandatory challenger Dilan Prasovic in September 2021, on the undercard of Joshua vs Usyk 1. He would then make a successful defence against Michal Cieslak in February of last year, on an experimental Sunday card on DAZN, winning by unanimous decision in a largely forgettable affair.
It isn’t the in-ring activities of ‘The Sauce’ that has been causing trouble though. Ben Shalom’s BOXXER organisation made an approach for Okolie, who believed he was out of contract at the time. Matchroom disagreed over Okolies contract, believing they had one more fight left with the London man. This led to a year-long legal dispute, with Okolie going on a rant on Twitter at one point, comparing Eddie Hearn to a slave owner.
The dispute came about due to the Glowacki pull-out, on the undercard of Joshua Pulev. Okolie believed that the interim bout was part of his deal with Matchroom, however, Hearn did not agree. The dispute displayed all sides in a very bad light. And ultimately stalled Okolies career for over a year during his prime. Okolie will return in March against mandatory challenger David Light.
It’s been an exciting, frustrating, interesting, and bizarre 5 years in the division, leaving us with a state of play of four belt holders, Opetaia, Goulamirian, Okolie, and Jack. As well as potential big players, Chris Billam-Smith, Richard Riakporhe and Aleksei Papin, as well as former champions, Briedis, Dorticos, and Makabu. Former light heavyweight champion and P4P star Sergey Kovalev is also lurking around the division. What next at cruiserweight? Who knows? But for everyone’s sake, we can all hope it’s more straightforward from here on out. But, after all, this is boxing of course!