Gassiev Outpoints Lebedev to Win IBF Cruiserweight Belt
By: Eric Lunger
Last night at the Khodynka Ice Palace in Moscow, Denis Lebedev (29-2, 22 KO’s) faced fellow Russian Murat Gassiev (23-0, 17 KO’s) with Lebedev’s IBF World Title at stake.
Lebedev, currently trained by Freddie Roach, picked up the IBF belt by defeating Victor Ramirez (22-3-1, 17 KO’s) in May of this year by second round TKO. Lebedev, 37, came into the fight with two losses on his record, one to Marco Huck in 2010, a split decision loss in Germany, and one to Guillermo Jones in May of 2013, a TKO in which Lebedev took a brutal amount of punishment to his right eye. Gassiev, 23, is another on the seemingly inexhaustible list of Eastern European/Russian fighters gravitating to Big Bear, CA, and Abel Sanchez’s Summit Gym. In May of this year, on PBC, Gassiev scored a scary first round knockout against Jordan Shimmell (20-2, 16 KO’s). While Abel Sanchez has compared Gassiev to training partner and friend Gennady “GGG” Golovkin, the Lebedev fight was new territory for the young prospect. It was both a homecoming to Russia and a big stage against an experienced and dangerous southpaw, who has been in the trenches a long time. It also presented an interesting stylistic clash, with the 6’ 3” Gassiev employing a classical orthodox style and working behind a straight jab. Lebedev, on the other hand, is a 5’ 11” southpaw who will throw a lead left while circling to his left. His defensive fundamentals are solid, and he is very comfortable countering off the back foot.
Given the power of both fighters, no one expected a reckless brawl, and indeed, the bout proved to be twelve rounds of tactical boxing. Both fighters stuck closely to their game plan: for Lebedev, to let the taller Gassiev come forward into the left hand counter; for Gassiev, to walk Lebedev down while using his jab to set up the power straight right. I saw the early rounds as fairly even and difficult to score. Gassiev holds a high guard, which accentuated the height advantage. Lebedev was surprisingly versatile: he could jab effectively to disrupt Gassiev as he came in, and he also effectively countered Gassiev, often beating him to the punch with a shockingly fast lead left. Lebedev’s movement was also remarkable. Ducking and slipping under Gassiev’s right, Lebedev was smooth and poised on his feet, even elegant at times.
Nonetheless, the challenger’s activity and varied attack, especially in the fourth, put him ahead, in my view, but the rounds were very close. Gassiev was always coming forward and always jabbing, while Lebedev was countering and fighting off the back foot. It is natural, in such a fight, to assume that the walking-forward fighter is winning the round. I think we saw this phenomenon in the Kovalev-Ward fight as well. That said, I had Gassiev up three rounds to one, after the fourth. In the fifth, the challenger caught Lebedev with a stunning, flush left hook to the liver, scoring an immediate knock down. The champion recovered quickly and thereafter kept his elbows close to his body, not wanting Gassiev to score there again.
Despite his continued aggressiveness, Gassiev was not able to break down Lebedev’s defense in any meaningful way during the middle rounds of the fight, but neither did Lebedev ever put Gassiev in much trouble. I felt the later rounds of the fight, however, should have gone to the champion. The young challenger started to lose steam, with Lebedev deciding to walk through a lot of shots to score his own combinations. Abel Sanchez could be heard in the corner after round ten, essentially telling Gassiev to move after throwing and not let Lebedev score so easily. In the eleventh and twelfth, Gassiev still came forward but could not cut off the ring, allowing Lebedev to score against a target that was consistently right in front of him.
At the final bell, Gassiev did not have the expression or body language of a fighter who thought he had won. It took an inordinate amount of time to get the score cards, but the challenger squeaked out the win by split decision (113-114, 116-112, 116-111). A very tough fight to score, and I can see two of those cards as reasonable, but the five-point spread was too wide. In a bout this close, that one liver shot in the fifth was probably the difference. Denis Lebedev fought a brave, smart and gutsy twelve rounds, but he lost his belt on one defensive lapse.