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Oleksandr Usyk, Mairis Briedis to unify cruiserweight titles in the WBSS semifinal

When the World Boxing Super Series tournament began last fall, undefeated cruiserweight world titleholders Oleksandr Usyk and Mairis Briedis were expected to advance to at least the semifinals, and here they are.

The final four of the eight-man tournament kicks off with Usyk and Briedis meeting to unify their 200-pound world titles Saturday at the Arena Riga in Riga, Latvia, Briedis' hometown, where a sold-out crowd of about 10,000 is expected for what is being hailed as the biggest sports event in Latvian history.

Usyk, the No. 1 seed and widely regarded best cruiserweight in the world, is no stranger to fighting on the road.

The 2012 Olympic heavyweight gold medalist from Ukraine will be fighting in his fifth different country -- Ukraine, Germany, United States, Poland and now Latvia -- in just his 14th pro fight. He won his world title in September 2016 when he traveled to Poland and handily outpointed Krzysztof Glowacki to take the belt in his 10th fight and break Evander Holyfield's division record for winning a world title in the fewest number of bouts.

Usyk's first two defenses took place in the United States, and then he won his World Boxing Super Series quarterfinal fight by stopping German hero Marco Huck in the 10th round in Berlin in September.

And now it's on to Briedis' turf for his fourth title defense.

"I am going to entertain the crowd at the Arena Riga -- that I can promise," Usyk, a southpaw, said at this week's final pre-fight news conference. "I have worked on some new things, and Saturday you will see what I am talking about.

Oleksandr Usyk made the first defense of his cruiserweight with a stoppage victory against Marco Huck last September in Berlin, Germany. Ronny Hartmann/Bongarts/Getty Images
"Briedis is a good fighter, but the only thing he has that I want is his belt. I am looking forward to fighting in Riga. It's going to be a great event. I am sure there will be a lot of people coming from Ukraine to support me. People can look forward to an entertaining fight between two world champions both eager to qualify for the final and win the Muhammad Ali trophy."

Usyk (13-0, 11 KOs), who turned 31 last week, said that, at least so far, this is the biggest fight of his career because he is facing an undefeated titleholder to unify titles.

"It is a big fight, and it is going to be a big day in my career. It's a unification fight," Usyk said. "The fight for the Muhammad Ali trophy is about the best fighting the best. I have the WBO belt, and he has WBC. I like the color green, and the WBC belt is green, so I can't wait to get that belt.

"I have nothing bad to say about Briedis. His style is a bit boring, but I respect him. Briedis is a world champion, so he has to be good."

Briedis (23-0, 18 KOs), who turned 33 last week, is indeed good. He outpointed Huck to win the vacant belt in Germany in April and then went into the tournament, where he outpointed former heavyweight contender Mike Perez, who had come down in weight for the tournament, in their quarterfinal bout in September, also at the Arena Riga.

But Usyk figures to pose a much sterner test than either of those opponents.

"It is one of my dreams as a fighter to be part of one of the greatest fights of all time," Briedis said. "I hope this fight will be a Hall of Fame fight. It has all the ingredients to become a classic. Usyk was excellent as an amateur, and he has been great as a professional, so it will be a tough challenge, but I believe that I have what it takes to beat him."

Briedis acknowledged that there is pressure on him to deliver in such a big fight for him and his country.

"My team is doing everything to take the pressure off my shoulders," he said. "We are just concentrating on the fight."

The other cruiserweight semifinal will take place Feb. 3 at the Bolshoy Ice Dome in Sochi, Russia, where world titleholders Murat "Iron" Gassiev (25-0, 18 KOs), 24, of Russia, and Miami, Florida-based Cuban defector Yunier "The KO Doctor" Dorticos (22-0, 21 KOs), 31, will square off in battle of major league punchers.

The semifinals in the World Boxing Super Series super middleweight tournament will begin Feb. 17 with world titleholder George Groves (27-3, 20 KOs), 29, defending his belt against British countryman Chris Eubank Jr. (26-1, 20 KOs), 28, at Manchester Arena in Manchester, England. The second super middleweight semifinal matches England's Callum Smith (23-0, 17 KOs), 27, of England, and Germany's Juergen Braehmer (49-3, 35 KOs), 39, a former light heavyweight world titleholder who moved down in weight to enter the tournament, on Feb. 24 at the Arena Nurnberger Versicherung in Nuremburg, Germany.

The cruiserweight final will take place on a date to be determined in May in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. The spring date and location for the super middleweight final is not yet set.

Author: Dan Rafael, ESPN
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