By Graham Houston
While Alexander Povetkin is a massive favourite to defeat Hasim Rahman in Germany on Saturday, the odds are somewhat closer in the undercard clash of unbeaten heavyweights from Eastern Europe, with Bulgaria’s Kubrat Pulev defending his European title against the huge Alexander Ustinov, from Belarus, in a bout that is also an eliminator for the IBF #1 ranking. Pulev opened at odds of slightly under -200 but has been bet up to -500 and higher. The Pulev-Ustinov fight looks like being a gruelling affair between two big, tough men. Pulev, 6ft 5ins and about 245 pounds, is going to be giving away height and weight to Ustinov, a veritable man-mountain at some 6ft 8ins and 308 pounds.
Pulev, 31, was the 2008 European championships gold medallist and boxed in many big amateur tournaments: the Olympics, the Europeans and the world championships. Ustinov, 35, came straight into professional boxing from the kickboxing world, where a slimmer Ustinov was a top-level competitor in K-1 tournaments. Yet while Ustinov has adapted extremely well to the world of conventional boxing, Pulev has to be considered the more skilled, more “natural” boxer.
This fight is the toughest test for either man and I think that Pulev is something of an overpriced favourite. Ustinov won’t be easily beaten.
On form there isn’t much to go by. Ustinov easily outpointed Paolo Vidoz and Michael Sprott; Pulev defeated Vidoz comfortably on points and wore down Sprott for a win by retirement after nine rounds. (Ustinov had Sprott under heavy pressure towards the end of their 10-round bout and I had the impression that he might have stopped him had it been a 12-rounder.) Both men defeated Maksym Pedyura, Ustinov getting a stoppage win in five rounds while Pulev soundly outpointed Pedyura a couple of years later.
Saturday’s fight is, I think, going to be like two immovable forces meeting in ring centre. Ustinov never seems to take a backward step. He moves steadily ahead, hands somewhat low, jabbing his way in and seeking to clobber his opponents with somewhat cumbersome but heavy punches. Pulev is the more mobile, more versatile of the two fighters. Pulev has a good jab and he is adept in a rather mechanical manner: he uses the basic one-two effectively, goes to the body now and again, and has a steady, solid look about him. For instance, Pulev was cut in his fight with Travis Walker and took some heavy hits but he never wavered, and I thought he had Walker on the verge of being stopped in the 11th round.
Both Pulev and Ustinov are the types who wear down their opponents — neither is known for one-punch power. So this fight could become a long, drawn-out battle of attrition.
Pulev overcame a towering opponent in his last fight when he broke down Alexander Dimitrenko round by round before winning in the 11th. It wasn’t so much that Dimitrenko was hurt by any one punch; he just didn’t have anything left when the fight reached round 11. I noted a “calm certainty” about Pulev in that fight — he didn’t have it all his own way, and indeed the fight was level on all three judges’ cards after four rounds, but Pulev just kept plugging away, taking a little bit more out of Dimitrenko with each passing round until finally the big man from Ukraine just caved in.
Ustinov, it seems to me, hasn’t had to dig in and grind out a win — he’s been, for want of a better word, the bully in all of his fights, backing up and beating up a series of older, faded and not-very-durable opponents.
We’ve witnessed Pulev fight through adversity, but we haven’t yet seen this from Ustinov, although perhaps we will on Saturday.
Ustinov has sparred with Vitali Klitschko, his promoter along with Wladimir Klitschko under the K2 Promotions banner, and in every fight of his that I’ve seen he has demonstrated a good chin, so I think we can assume that he is durable. However, it does seem to me that Ustinov is quite easy to hit — even the limited Jason Gavern rocked his head sideways with a left hook. I’m wondering if Pulev can find Ustinov’s chin consistently with the right hand and, if he does, whether it will erode Ustinov’s resistance over the course of the 12 rounds.
Big and strong though he is, Ustinov hasn’t met anyone who hits as sharply and accurately as Pulev: Kertson Manswell had been KO’d in two rounds by Bermane Stiverne and collapsed in one round against Deontay Wilder in his first bout after losing to Ustinov; Paolo Vidoz was a 39-year-old; Monte Barrett was boxing a month before his 39th birthday and had been stopped in his last two bouts; Ed Mahone was 37 and had been stopped in three of his last five appearances.
It just appears to me that Ustinov hasn’t yet been tested — at least not in a severe way — but Pulev has, and this could make a difference if the contest develops into a give-and-take affair.
Initially, this fight could be a battle of the left jabs but the ultimate winner of the bout, I believe, will be the fighter who can show a bit more movement than his opponent, who can get there first with his shots and who can remain solid and steady and simply make fewer mistakes when the fight goes into the later rounds, and I think that Pulev ticks all the boxes here.
Yet while I expect Pulev to win, this is a fight in which punishment will likely be dished out on both sides — it won’t be for the faint of heart.
Visit fightwriter.com. I’ll be looking at wagering possibilities for the Pulev-Ustinov fight — plus other bouts — for subscribers.