The Cruiserweights: Stacked

By Matt McGrain on May 13, 2012
The Cruiserweights: Stacked
Although he sometimes looks crude, Huck can weld together a surprisingly varied offense

Big, but not the biggest, cruiserweight is and was and will continue to be a division without a true identity…

Suddenly, the cruiserweight division looks red hot.

One result can do that to a division, and so it was for the 200-pounders when Marco Huck and Ola Afolabi turned in a Fight of the Year candidate in Germany last weekend, producing a stunning 12-round draw. As soon as the final bell rang the pack had to be reshuffled to accommodate first of all Afolabi, an unexpected hero and newly anointed top man behind his outstanding display, but also Marco Huck, who had seemed bound for the heavyweights but who may now find that he is bound instead to his WBO cruiserweight title.

Perhaps of all the divisions cruiserweight was most in need of and least likely to receive such a boost. Boxing’s least favorite stepchild, the cruiserweight division has the most difficult history to unpick, its identity undermined by the British habit of referring to the light heavyweights under that name as late as the 1970s and by the original weight limit being pegged at 190 lbs. and only later being moved to the current roof of 200 lbs. It can hardly be a surprise that the first ever title fight made under the cruiserweight banner ended in a draw, fought between the unheralded Mate Parlov and Marvin Camel in December of 1979. The division comes with all the negatives associated with huge size, the relative slowness of hand and foot, the terrible drag on stamina such a huge frame imposes on a fighter, the inherent nervousness seen between fighters who understand each can end the fight with a single blow and the inevitable drain on talent from the big bucks on offer in the weight division above—but it has never enjoyed the associated glamour that the heavyweights enjoy. Big, but not the biggest, cruiserweight is and was and will continue to be a division without a true identity.

But these are high times. Cruiserweight may be the best division in boxing right now. It is stuffed with talent, punchers and prospects. Whether or not these men will get to settle the argument concerning which of them is best or unify a hopelessly fractured title is a question as open for debate as the question of which results the fights themselves would produce, but that is not a question we are going to explore here. What we’re going to do here is admire the talent on offer, working our way through my personal choice for the division’s top five; who they are, what they can do, how they might do against one another and then sneak a peek at the men hovering just below them. 

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you: The Cruiserweights.

#1 Marco Huck

Huck’s rambling offense is good dirty fun, but it is not the blunt tool that many presume. Whilst he does, at times, look crude, Huck can weld together a hugely effective and surprisingly varied offense. Against Rogelio Omar Rossi, his final opponent of 2011, Huck showed time and time again why he opponents write him off as an uneducated banger at their peril. Often a slow starter, Huck sits behind a high guard and fights in the occasional flurry against an opponent he seems to want to place firmly in control of the fight. This is a double-edged sword, as demonstrated by Afolabi in Germany last week. The opponent can take control of the bout and begin to build rhythm. But on the other hand, a planless opponent will play right into Huck’s hands. Rossi was such an opponent. Devoid of ideas, he simply pushed out a questioning jab and tossed out the occasional body punch, certainly nothing the WBO cruiserweight beltholder couldn’t handle. His own offense was limited in the first and second round to some gloriously violent short-arm work. He is a fighter expert at making space in such situations shifting slightly and then bringing either fist across with a full quota of power behind it. Huck is dangerous at this type of range and nobody in this division will outfight him there.

In the fifth, he really began to bully Rossi, pursuing him with a brutal and clubbing attack. This is the style that has earned Huck his reputation as an unrefined, bullying fighter, but a closer look tells a different story. Whilst the inelegant and raw punches were the ones that bought him the payoff on what even his harshest critic would have to admit was an educated pressure, the ones that really did the damage were combination blows of the highest quality. For all that his right hand was winged in throughout the fight, his best punch was a straight right he landed on Rossi as he was going away in this round. He followed this up with a straight right/left hook combo, and for the second knockdown in the fifth an even more impressive lead left hook to the body followed by a straight right to the head. Huck uses his more thundering attacks to subdue opponents but that sledgehammer can become something more akin to a blade when it is time to close the show. Huck did so against Rossi with a very clever straight right hand behind which he closed the distance before landing a double uppercut to body and head, then scoring a KO6 with a double right hand landed on a retreating opponent.

Huck moved up to take on Povetkin next, winning the fight 8-4 on my card but losing out on the scorecards that mattered. Although Huck didn’t show his best boxing at heavyweight, he did, for me at least, confirm Teddy Atlas’s theory concerning the Povetkin’s “lack of identity.” No matter how big or good the opposition, a fighter without a concrete plan isn’t going to beat Huck. He is too economical, too steady, too good at what he does. But he isn’t great at what he does. Huck is a very solid pro but he is a hard rather than a devastating puncher, his hands are quick but not fast, his defense is stable but not impregnable, his economy and engine are good, but he can be pushed over the edge as he was against Steve Cunningham (TKO12). 

We were given another reminder of this by Ola Afolabi last weekend. 

Controlling the German with a jab, aggression and variety in punching, Ola looked set to pull off an upset, winning the first five rounds on my card. Although this underlines Huck’s vulnerability to a concrete plan turned in by a competent fighter it is also indicative of Huck’s unacknowledged depth of strategy and technique that he basically solved Afolabi to pull even on the cards, “steadily introducing punches as the fight wore on,” as I wrote for this website. “Huck now weaved them together in a positive tidal wave of hurt, battering Afolabi across the ring with hooks, uppercuts, straight right hands and body punches.”

Only Afolabi’s deep reserve of heart and will kept him in the fight. Huck is more than people say he is, but probably still not quite good enough to get out this division unscathed should the principles be matched. If you like your boxing exciting, that is the perfect description for a divisional #1.

We Would Like To See Him Fight: Ola Afolabi is the only match in town for Huck right now. Their drawn war seems to make a second rematch inevitable. Hopefully Huck won’t try to sneak in some more heavyweight action first.

#2 Yoan Pablo Hernandez

A Cuban amateur now boxing out of Germany, Hernandez is the exact combination of schooled and staid that you would expect such a combination to bring about. Sporting a guard not dissimilar to Marco Huck’s, Hernandez’s is slightly more fluid—not always a good thing for a fighter who lacks head movement. But Hernandez brings a welcome dose of Cuban sunshine to the stodgy if affective German style, moving gracefully and punching beautifully from the southpaw stance. In his most recent outing against Steve Cunningham he showed a patience that bellied his experience (26-1). Cunningham did a reasonable amount of boxing and moving in that fight and did a great deal of it in the first round. Hernandez showed his man almost nothing, controlling the space well with effortless footwork keeping his toe outside of Cunningham’s left foot almost throughout, jabbing the body when the chance presented itself before moving upstairs. The jab is a punch that tends to define any given round for Hernandez, and although it’s a well formed punch, he can be lazy with it.

Essentially a conservative fighter who wants to control the pace, Hernandez’s lack of aggression can be of concern, and although he dominated Steve Helerius in their February 2011 meeting he seemed inexplicably reluctant to throw at times. The fifth against Helerius was such a round and I actually thought at the time that Hernandez may have been hurt to the body at the time, such was his propensity for standing off rather than attacking an opponent with a less than watertight defense.

He certainly showed no such qualms in the fourth round of the second meeting with Cunningham. Hernandez showed some of the most sensational boxing of his professional career, dropping his opponent twice and coming close to stopping him in the final seconds of the round. Hernandez had been building towards this attack for the first three rounds, showing his superior speed and variety of punching throughout. A right hook to the body and an uppercut thrown behind a jab or as a lead had been the stars of a real variety performance. In the third he landed these punches in quick succession, going downstairs with the uppercut before patiently stalking Cunningham out of the fight. By the fourth he was ready to drop the hammer and did so via a beautiful cross with just over a minute left in the round. Cunningham held on and tried desperately to mix up punches with moving in a bid to keep the referee off as Hernandez drove him around the ring with the tight, hard punching typical of his countrymen. But Hernandez is not a puncher, and nor does he punch through the target. He is correct, but not technically brilliant. He had hurt Cunningham with perfect timing as the American stepped into him. Now, his limitations cost him the knockout—his brave opponent survived the round. As dominant as he was in that fourth round, Hernandez had to come out and fight the fifth, and although he may be commended for the discipline with which he boxed, clearly winning the round whilst giving Cunningham almost no chance to get straight back into the fight, it is possible that the challenger was there for the taking. When he appeared to take the sixth off, gifting Cunningham a round with his sheer inactivity, his strategy became genuinely questionable.

If Hernandez has as yet unrevealed stamina issues then his strategy is genius—but he has a problem that a fighter like Afolabi may be able to expose. If, on the other hand, he is just overly conservative, his willingness to wait for an opponent to make a move may make him a sitting duck for the likes of Huck. Hernandez may be good enough to beat everyone in this division or he may have unexposed weaknesses that make him vulnerable to more than one. I hope we get to find out.

We Would Like To See Him Fight: Krzysztof Wlodarczyk. In all likelihood he would baffle the WBC champion with handspeed and boxing, a winner at a canter. If he loses, it will be because he was broken late in a thriller, and the winner is the boxing public.

#3 Ola Afolabi

Afolabi is the man of the moment. Huck was clearly amongst the best one or two in the division before they met, but Afolabi was the surprise. The Brit has improved. Can he go all the way?

Prior to his meeting with Huck, Afolabi took out Valery Brudov in five one-sided rounds in his seventh consecutive fight on the road. Boxing away from home has done him absolutely no harm and he’s developed the type of resolution for the heat of battle that proves invaluable to a fighter with his defensive frailties. Whilst he has some of the cruiserweight division’s best head movement and shows an occasionally outstanding defensive instinct, Afolabi often drops his hands and against Brudov got caught more than once leaning forwards and into punches he could have been pulling back to miss. That his determination is married to an iron chin and superb conditioning means it is unlikely he will be stopped without moving up to heavyweight but it is clearly his strength on offense that will drive him to the top of this division, should he get there.

Punching whenever the opportunity presents itself, much of his attacking boxing is built upon a smart jab, a punch he often tries to double up. He shows good variety with this punch going upstairs and down, varying angles and targets, it is his best punch whether he is using it to control Huck, soften up Brudov or set up a veteran Terry Dunstan for an early knockout. It is also the basis for his reinvention as something of a bludgeoning technician where he was previously seen as a more limited brawler. 

Afolabi doesn’t always box correctly but he boxes with good fundamentals, punching through the target from a balanced stance, setting up his more powerful punches with that jab. If the right hands he used to finish Brudov were roughshod, the variety of punches he showed when outboxing Huck were par excellence whether he was stepping back to make room for a lead uppercut or stepping in with the jab to open up punches to the body. He has variety and the raw attributes to make an aggressive plan built upon boxing work against the most brutal of opposition.

Where Afolabi met with trouble against Huck was when the champion began to walk through him. He is too easily drawn into the pit, perhaps, though it makes for great boxing. He may also have more severe trouble against a patient, world class counterpuncher like Hernandez although the fact that Afolabi can get rough inside, where he was by no means entirely outgunned by Huck, mean that even in that fight he would be a live dog.

There is a sense that the momentum is with him. His style means he won’t be burning this bright for more than two or three years and as the oldest man on this list, he doesn’t have the time to tread water. This is a division “blessed” with multiple champions. He should get into the ring with whichever one will have him.

We Would Most Like To See Him Fight: Huck, Huck, Huck. If the German gets bigger ideas than anyone with letters after his name.

#4 Krzysztof “Diablo” Wlodarczyk

If ever a fighter needed a nickname, it’s this guy, and Krzysztof has a good one: “Diablo”—“Devil”. Does it fit? Well Wlodarcyk has an intimidating demeanor shaped in part by his decade in the ring and the 49 contests he’s fought there (46-2-1). It’s unlikely anyone on our list is going to be able to show him anything new.

But Diablo does not bring either the brutal punching or the layered trickery his name might suggest. What he does bring is a tempered, patient and adaptable style that has delivered 33 stoppages as a professional.

Fighting out of Piaseczno, Poland, Wlodarczyk’s best filmed performance is arguably his WBC title winning effort against Giacobbe Fragomeni, a 2010 rematch of their controversial 2009 draw (which I had 116-112 for Wlodarczyk). Giving ground steadily against the stalking Italian, Wlodarczyk delivered excellent footwork to augment his lateral movement and a stiff jab. Only an occasional counterpuncher, the Pole likes to bring his opponents onto him and then attack as they pressure his space, keeping the opponent guessing by mixing his attacks with lateral movement. Hugely reliant on the jab, he turns it into a nicely disguised hook on occasion but tends to neglect his right hand.

A tendency to snipe with that punch does often lead to his being able to land hurtful punches where the opportunity doesn’t exist for most fighters, not least because his opponents can become switched off to that right hand. This is certainly what happened to a rejuvenated Danny Green in Wlodarczyk’s most recent outing, where the Australian brought him to within six minutes of losing his title by forcing the champion to move forwards onto his own punches. Wlodarczyk is less comfortable leading the attack than he is giving away the space in return for being able to time or box his opponent, and Green took full advantage of this, winning the first five rounds on my card. Boxing behind a high guard his disguised hook did not work well with Green who was prepared to take that punch if it meant he could land offense of his own. Although Wlodarczyk got his jab working for spells, he threw almost no right hands in the first half of the fight and was badly hurt by, ironically, a sneaky left hook in the middle of the fifth.

Clearly behind on the cards and 8,000 miles from home, Wlodarczyk needed a knockout—and dully delivered.

It’s always a question open to interpretation and even the testimony of the fighters involved can’t settle the issue, but Wlodarczyk’s neglecting his right hand early here may have been deliberate. Certainly, as he introduced it for the first time in earnest in the 10th round of their November 2011 contest the fight swung violently in his favor and Green was suddenly struggling.

In the 11th he went to it once more, landing a beautiful right hand to the body before launching a sudden and explosive attack topped off with a picture-perfect if less than devastating left hook which untidily deposited a suddenly exhausted Green on the canvas. Up at nine and bleeding profusely the referee called the contest to a halt.

Returning for a moment to Poland, and Wlodarczyk’s second tilt at Fragomeni, we can see a similar pattern emerging. These are not devastating blows that the Pole lands on his opponents but they add up. Winning rounds with his jab and movement alone, as the fight progressed Wlodarczyk introduced more hurtful punches, a straight right hand, a left hook to the body. He is disciplined and controlled only allowing himself to fight with more commitment when he has his opponent off balance or out of step, flurrying Fragomeni hurtfully in the fifth up close, without fear of overextending. When he is busy like this, he manages to keep his opponent in line by virtue of his offense alone but on defense he’s also solid, often going away with the punches that land, sometimes slipping them to good effect. He clinches occasionally and intelligently when he’s feeling the pressure, but not prohibitively.

By the sixth the Italian was starting to show signs of fatigue and at the end of the round he was dropped by a hard right hand. Coming out aggressively in the seventh, Wlodarczyk took the time to put him firmly under the control of the jab before looking to land anything harder. In the eighth a left jab/right uppercut combination put the Fragomeni into the kind of trouble a fighter doesn’t get out of and Wlodarczyk had become only the second man to stop the Italian. David Haye had turned the trick in 2006, but needed an additional round to get the job done.

So whilst Wlodarczyk isn’t blowing up top professionals early, he’s winding some good ones down late. Never stopped, neither a fast fight nor hard punches seem to trouble him in terms of his own work-rate and although cruiserweight is awash with punchers, I suspect that there is nobody in the division that can expect to take him out, certainly not without landing something really special. A conservative style matched with his natural assets and defense means he will likely need to be decisioned. There are fighters at the weight capable of doing that—Steve Cunningham has already done so—but Diablo won’t be an easy ride for anyone.

We Would Most Like To See Him Fight: Steve Cunningham. The two haven’t been able to gel for anything we would call a classic yet and the chances are they never will, but given that the two are 1-1, finding out which of them is boss is probably what would be best for the division. Whilst Wlodarczyk has shown improvements in the intervening years, Cunningham may be on the way out and it might be a chance for the Pole to make a statement against a name opponent. If Cunningham still has the goods it’s a chance for him to pick up a title.

#5 Steve Cunningham

Cunningham is a talented American fighter with the build and dedication of a Marvel superhero but a perfect storm of publicity—he’s a cruiserweight who at one time showed a propensity for clinching and, worst of all, who conducts himself as a gentleman—has left the Stateside press disinterested. So here we have yet another road warrior, eight of his last ten fights having been fought in Europe.

Tall and rangy Cunnigham has come unstuck against Yoan Pablo Hernandez, beaten twice by the Cuban exile in his last two outings.  Having shown tremendous powers of recuperation and heart in his second fight with Hernandez to come back from that devastating fourth round knockdown he’s proven himself tough enough to recover from these defeats, I believe, although his third and fourth points losses have many wondering if Cunningham isn’t on his way out. 

Should he be able to continue to put it together for the ring, Cunnigham has significant resources to call upon. Out of Philly, he can be drawn into a brawl and can certainly fight that fight as he did against Troy Ross for spells, but he is also a capable boxer-puncher, mixing a deep stance with good mobility and a lengthy, sound jab. As Hernandez proved in their two contests however, that deep stance can make him vulnerable to hard and direct counters. Additionally, whilst Cunningham is unquestionably accomplished as a technician and has the physical attributes to fight a brawl, he arguably doesn’t have the natural fighting instincts of the men ranked above him here. Against Wlodarczyk this arguably cost him during the stretches where he preferred to stop and watch or clinch than work when a round may have been there for the taking.

Arguably at his very best when he’s boxing from the outside, using his jab to keep his opponent under control before bringing across a hard right hand, Cunningham sensationally went into the trenches against Marco Huck in the 12th and final round of their superb 2007 clash. Already safe on the scorecards of two of the three judges, Cunningham went right to his opponent, mauling and punching his man up close before backing off to regroup and then come right back…in short, fighting Huck’s fight. Cunningham brutally closed the show with swarming uppercuts and brutal right hands before Huck was correctly spared further punishment by the intervention of the corner and then the referee.

If that’s the Cunningham we still have in the division, division beware.

We Would Most Like To See Him Fight: Marco Huck. I don’t think he can beat Hernandez now but if he’s got enough left he may once again prove the better of my choice at #1. If he fails, he would likely be done at the highest level, having lost three in a row, but at least we would know one way or the other. And a win? Maybe behind that, “USS” Cunningham would get to fight in the US for a change.

Dark Horses & Prospects

So there we have my selection as to the five best active cruiserweights, but as the man once said, it’s the contenders that make the division. Fortunately, 200 lbs. is stewing nicely nearer the bottom of the pot. 

None of the division’s best punchers reside in the top five and perhaps Denis Lebedev (24-1 with 18 KOs) and top prospect Lateef Kayoed (18-0 with 14 KOs) can get together and sort that one out at some point. Guillermo Jones has staged an impressive rally since his 2005 loss to Steve Cunningham, winning seven on the trot, six by KO, and picking up the WBA strap from Firat Arslan. Pawel Klodziej has reached 30-0 without meeting anyone of note (unless you count a shot Rob Calloway) but at 31 years of age the giant Pole can’t wait much longer, with countryman Krzysztof Wlodarczyk the natural target. Finally, old man Tarver refuses to quit and this June he will step into the ring to take on undefeated power puncher Kayode. If this fight is coming too soon for Nigerian novice, expect Tarver to take full advantage with a title tilt at one of the above the likely outcome.

So there you have it. Not a division overflowing with pound-for-pound top 10 talent, just a solid grouping of excellent fighter who have consistently turned in close and entertaining fights on the occasions when they have met and will likely continue to do so.

It probably won’t last, but let’s enjoy it while it does. And hope the heavyweights don’t get overly jealous.

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

Marco Huck vs Rogelio Omar Rossi pt1

Marco Huck vs Rogelio Omar Rossi pt2

Marco Huck vs Rogelio Omar Rossi pt3

Steve Cunningham vs. Yoan Pablo Hernandez (1/2)

Steve Cunningham vs. Yoan Pablo Hernandez (2/2)

Ola Afolabi vs Terry Dunstan 02/07/11

20100515 Krzysztof Wlodarczyk Giacobbe Fragomeni part 1

20100515 Krzysztof Wlodarczyk Giacobbe Fragomeni part 2

20100515 Krzysztof Wlodarczyk Giacobbe Fragomeni part 3

20100515 Krzysztof Wlodarczyk Giacobbe Fragomeni part 4

20100515 Krzysztof Wlodarczyk Giacobbe Fragomeni part 5

20100515 Krzysztof Wlodarczyk Giacobbe Fragomeni part 6

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  1. Matt McGrain 02:25am, 05/17/2012

    No bother Cheekay.  Hopefully these guys duke it out/rematch one another.  Tarver may be on his way into that top clutch too.

  2. Cheekay Atomic 07:27am, 05/15/2012

    Great summary…..historically one of my favorite divisions but I had stopped following over the last few years and really needed this summary.

    Thank you for this.

  3. mike schmidt 09:57am, 05/14/2012

    Hey—what about my man Ran Nakash—gave as good as he got against Captain Huck

  4. Matt McGrain 06:28am, 05/14/2012

    I agree with you that he’s a great, great prospect. Along with guys like Masternak and Kucher he’s a part of an impressive next batch - but, he’s not going to meet any of these guys anytime soon.

  5. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo 06:09am, 05/14/2012

    Matt McGrain-Another great round up….but no mention of Rakhim Chakhkiev….can’t believe he’s not on your radar.

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