How often does sport really make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up? Mine did as I watched Nonito Donaire and Naoya Inoue battle it out in one of the all-time great fights in the bantamweight final of the World Boxing Super Series in Saitama, Japan.
It’s quite rare that we get to see two warriors fearlessly attempt to unify their belts in an era of boxing where money and the boxing’s politics often conspire to prevent big fights from happening. And yet, thanks to the World Boxing Super Series (WBSS), we’ve been treated to two incredible fight-of-the-year contenders in as many weeks.
On October 26th, in front of a packed O2 Arena in London, Josh Taylor and Regis Prograis produced scintillating displays, with Taylor capturing the WBA and Ring Magazine belts, as well as the Super Series’ Ali Trophy in a close but deserved majority win, just five months after winning the IBF title against Ivan Barachynk in Glasgow.
And, two weeks later, just when you think it can’t get any better; a modern-day classic that’ll be talked about for years to come was produced in Japan. Inoue – one of the most talked about fighters on the planet – edged a decision win against former four-weight world champion Donaire; the Phillipino very nearly shocking the world and conjuring up the seemingly possible in his probable farewell from the sport.
The contest had everything: skill, drama, grit, heart and an 11th-round that’ll surely go down as one of the best ever seen in the sport. Despite sustaining a nasty-looking cut early on in the fight, Inoue – who is fast becoming a pound-for-pound star – was the one to lift the Ali Trophy aloft, defend his IBF world title, capture the coveted Ring Magazine belt and win the WBA strap from his Phillipino counterpart.
This phenomenal conclusion to the second season of the WBSS is no one-off either. Last year’s tournaments didn’t exactly disappoint. British fighter Callum Smith shocked many by winning the light-heavyweight version of the tournament in Saudi Arabia, sending icon George Groves into retirement in the process.
Not many will forget the dramatic cruiserweight tournament either. Oleksandr Usyk produced a remarkable individual crusade towards greatness by beating Marco Huck, Mairis Briedis and Murat Gassiev in their home nations; thrusting the Ukranian into the public domain and building a profile that should earn him a heavyweight title shot next year. It really was a demonstration of what boxing can do when its frustrating politics are put to one side.
The WBSS sounds great, doesn’t it? The best fighting the best, immediate unifications with no opportunity for fighters to take easy defences after winning world titles, plus epic production values, with amazing light shows that make every show unforgettable. It sounds almost too good to be true.
So why are there rumours swirling around that the second season of the WBSS could also be its last?
In fairness, it’s not always gone smoothly. The WBSS – headed up by Kalle and Nisse Saureland – was founded as a tournament that looked to bring the best-of-the-best of each weight division into a knockout-style competition.
However, they haven’t always been able to secure every big name possible. Jose Ramirez – the current WBO super-lightweight champion – was a notable absentee from this year’s tournament.
“Boxing needs these fights to happen in order to keep up with mixed martial arts”
There were also fears earlier this year that the tournament may even discontinue before season two reached its conclusion due to complicated issues with investors. A competition attempting to get the biggest stars in world boxing on board was always going to need serious investment and, without that, there’s really no place for the tournament to go. Especially if they want to try and target some of the higher weight divisions.
Let’s hope that these problems can be put to one side, though, and the WBSS can continue for a few more series to come. This is fantasy boxing, an idea that only a true purist could dream up.
We live in a world where fights like Crawford vs Spence and Joshua vs Wilder are just quixotic debates in the pub rather than real-life fights in the ring. This tournament makes those dream super-fights a reality.
Boxing needs these fights to happen in order to keep up with mixed martial arts – another combat sport that is rapidly growing in popularity amongst the younger demographic.
Last week, a world championship fight between Canelo Alvarez and Sergey Kovalev was delayed so it didn’t clash with Nate Diaz’s MMA bout with Jose Masvidal in the UFC. A worrying indication at where boxing is in comparison to other sports.
The Sauerland brothers are attempting to breathe new life into it by forcing unifications and putting on amazing events involving incredible fights in the process. It doesn’t just buy ready-made stars in either, it makes them.
Last year, it was Usyk and Smith who shot to fame as a result of their WBSS glory. This year, Taylor and Inoue will be the ones to rise to the summit. The Japanese star has already been snapped up by Bob Arum’s Top Rank on a highly-lucrative, multi-year deal.
There’s no denying that the project has had its issues, and future seasons would have to run a lot smoother than the first two, but to give up on the concept would be a crying shame after it has helped deliver so many amazing fights in such a short space of time.
The WBSS simply must be preserved for as long as possible – whatever the cost.
Image credits: MR Gatis & Andriy Makukha via flickr.com.