When heavyweight champion Oleksandr Usyk was asked if Anthony Joshua was his toughest fight, the Ukrainian shook his head and said no.
That title is reserved for a bout against Mairis Briedis for the WBO cruiserweight title in the World Boxing Super Series in 2018.
Briedis (28-1, 20KO) will almost certainly be Aussie star Jai Opetaia’s (21-0, 17KO) toughest fight to date as the two square off for the IBF and Ring magazine cruiserweight titles on Saturday night.
Watch Jai Opetaia v Mairis Briedis battle for the IBF and Ring Magazine Cruiserweight Titles. Saturday 2 July from 7PM AEST LIVE with Main Event on Kayo Sports & Foxtel. ORDER NOW >
The one loss on Briedis’ record stands out like a sore thumb, especially when people learn it was courtesy of Usyk, current holder of the WBA, IBF, WBO and IBO heavyweight belts.
Speaking after their fight back in January 2018, Usyk made no secret of just how difficult his bout against the Latvian was.
“These are the most difficult 12 rounds I’ve ever had in my career,” Usyk said.
It is the only time that Usyk has not won via unanimous decision or KO/TKO.
One judge scored Usyk and Briedis’ contest 114-114, but the other two scored it 115-113 in Usyk’s favor.
But the fight was on a knife’s edge going right to the death, so much so that Briedis’ promoter Kalle Sauerland claimed that if one judge viewed it in a different light, we might never have seen Usyk where he is today.
“Many had it go one way and many had it the other,” Sauerland told foxsports.com.au.
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“Two of the judges had it for Usyk, but interestingly enough, if Mairis had won the last round, then he would have won by unanimous decision.
“He had that go against him on the night and he was heartbroken.”
The fact that Briedis ran Usyk so close is made even more remarkable because he was carrying a serious injury.
The Latvian sustained a rib injury which also resulted in his ribs actually pushing into his lungs.
“It happened in the camp,” Raimonds Zeps, Briedis’ manager revealed.
“But in the fight, it got much worse.
“Not a lot of people know that his corner, his main trainer wanted to take him (Briedis) out of the fight in the sixth and seventh rounds because he just couldn’t breathe with the injury that he had.
“Mairis was obviously a fighter, he wasn’t even willing to listen, but the coach was asking him, ‘Can you fight? Can you stay in? What should I do?’
“He couldn’t take a breath. But in the latter rounds, in the championship rounds, he got his breath back again.
“You can see he slowed down in the middle rounds and then he went back to his normal speed.
“It was very unfortunate and a very unsuccessful injury but I don’t want to take anything away from Usyk because it ended how it ended and everything happened for a reason.”
Even to this day, this fight is fondly remembered by many in the boxing community.
Sauerland, who co-founded the World Boxing Super Series and promoted both Usyk and Briedis at the time, went as far as describing it as “probably the greatest cruiserweight fight that has ever been.”
“It was a fight where I was totally neutral,” Sauerland said.
“I’ve got to say, on a technical level it was the best fight I’ve certainly ever promoted and ever witnessed in my 20-something years of promoting boxing around the world.
“It was a special privilege to have been there that night. It will certainly go down as one of the greatest, probably the greatest cruiserweight fight that has ever been. I can’t think of a better one.”
To be on the winning side of such a memorable and special fight means it will forever be stored in Usyk’s mind as a positive memory.
But for Briedis, it’s a constant reminder of true heartbreak.
“I think Mairis still can’t get over the fact that he lost the fight,” Zeps said.
“He literally saw himself winning the fight. Especially when he went out in the ring against him, he saw what he could do.
“I think he still holds a grudge inside himself because he couldn’t perform like he prepared to and wanted to. I don’t think he has gotten over it.
“If we look back at the build up to the fight, everyone was talking about the next biggest thing in boxing, a guy (Usyk) that was simply unbeatable.
“I think for Mairis, it was, ‘Hmm, he’s not unbeatable and I will prove to you.’ I think the fact that he got injured and that he couldn’t perform to his 100 percent ability, it didn’t allow him to prove others that he’s beatable.”
With Briedis’ age and the fact that Usyk is competing in a heavier division, a rematch is extremely unlikely to take place at any stage in the future.
But strangely enough, a massive silver lining emerged from the loss for Briedis.
So much so that if he won, he might not be listed as one of the best pound-for-pound fighters today.
“He changed his team afterwards,” Zeps said.
“It worked for the better.
“The coach that he had, he had the coach for two or three years. During those years, he actually looked worse and worse in every single fight that he was in. The coach wasn’t really too good. He was more of a physical conditioning coach for Briedis at first but he had a boxing background himself. It didn’t go well, put it that way.
“Then he switched to Dmitry (Shiholay) the coach that he currently has, and then it went upwards again.
“From my perspective, I could have seen it in the sparring as well. I remember the guys I was bringing over to spar, and I’ve been watching most of Mairis’ sparring throughout the years. I remember it was getting tougher and tougher in every single fight.
“Then it went upwards after he changed the coach.”