The National Tennis Centre, Astana was the venue for the first leg of the World Series of Boxing Season V Finals between Astana Arlans Kazakhstan and defending Champions Cuba Domadores, where after five legs featuring some of the greatest matches in WSB history, Kazakhstan built up a 3-2 lead over their Cuban rivals.
A hot and humid climate inside of the arena was matched by an atmosphere which reached phenomenal levels of volume from the very beginning of the event.
Kazakhstan began the first leg having lost just once in Season V, while Cuba’s lone competitive defeat in WSB came in the group stages of Season IV, but the dominant undefeated record of the Domadores was finally broken by Astana Arlans, whose success began in the opening contest at Light Flyweight (49 kg).
Home favourite Temirtas Zhussupov (4-1 in Season V, 6-2 overall) was not an overwhelming favourite against 18-year-old Cuban Joahnys Oscar Argilagos Perez (6-3 in Season V), but the Kazakh star produced his greatest ever performance in this competition at the most important time.
Zhussupov is almost a decade older than Perez, and his extra experience was clear from the outset as he overwhelmed the 2013 AIBA Junior World Champion with great workrate and accurate shots.
Perez set a high pace in the early stages of the fight, but could not use the combination punching which has made him so successful this season, with his attacks frequently nullified by Zhussupov.
As the rounds progressed, the Kazakh veteran took the young Cuban out of his comfort zone, and targeted both the head and body of Perez.
The Astana Arlans fighter looked fresher throughout, while fatigue and frustration began to show on Perez’s youthful features towards the end of round five.
Zhussupov was named the comprehensive victor after winning every round on all three scorecards, which gave himself and his Franchise a perfect start to the Finals.
Cuba’s London 2012 Olympic Games gold medalist Robeisy Ramirez (4-0 in Season V, 6-0 overall) evened up the scoring in the second match of the evening when he narrowly defeated Kazakhstan’s Kairat Yeraliyev (3-1 in Season V) at Bantamweight (56 kg).
Ramirez displayed a beaming smile of anticipation before the fight began, and stung his opponent with a fierce right hand thirty seconds into the contest.
Yeraliyev recovered well, and baffled Ramirez by incorporating a southpaw stance which allowed him to box on the back foot with surprising ease.
The second round exploded into life very early, with both men finding success during the rapid frame.
After being hurt slightly by a Yeraliyev powershot, Ramirez proceeded to show signs of his blistering best, with furious combinations impressing the judges.
Rounds three and four followed a similar format, as the contest ebbed and flowed between a high level tactical battle, and an all out war where each man refused to give up ground.
From an entertainment level the bout was absolutely incredible, with a high tempo that can only be seen and maintained in WSB competition.
At the beginning of the fifth round the boxers were level on the scorecards with everything to play for.
Ramirez began the last frame with serious intent, and dominated the first minute with relentless pressure.
Yeraliyev made yet another one of his famous comebacks, but was unable to fully defend himself against the Cuban onslaught.
All three judges eventually awarded the match to Ramirez by a score of 48:47, which levelled the overall scoring on the night.
Kazakhstan retook the lead in match number three as their popular Light Welterweight (64 kg) Samat Bashenov (7-0 in Season V, 14-5 overall) became the first man to defeat Yasnier Toledo (7-1 in Season V, 12-3 overall) this season.
Toledo enjoyed a height and reached advantage in the match, and opened the contest with his usual lightness of feet and intelligent punches allowing him to win the round.
Bashenov is made of extreme resilience however, which enabled him to work his way into the match by constantly pressuring the two-time AIBA World Championships silver medalist with strength and nous.
The reflexes of Toledo remained strong into the third round, and when a head injury opened up on his opponent, the writing seemed to be on the wall for Bashenov as the blood began to drip down his forehead.
Unconcerned with the wound, Bashenov instead grew stronger in spite of the stinging pain, and took the fight to Toledo with his marauding style beginning to wear down the iconic guard of the Domadores..
Just as the Bantamweight (56 kg) bout had been decided by the last three minutes, so too was this one, with a final round producing incredible drama.
Bashenov would just not stop coming forwards, and his tenacity was rewarded by a victory of the narrowest margins, as he won 48:47 across the board.
Cuba had only previously lost two matches in a fixture once this season, but their loss count increased further at Middleweight (75 kg) when Meiirim Nursultanov (7-0 in Season V, 9-1 overall) outpointed Arlen Lopez (7-2 in Season V, 8-3 overall).
2010 Asian Games gold medalist Nursultanov struggled in the opening minutes to tag Lopez, as his Cuban opponent offered the better workrate in the early stages.
Things began to change from the beginning of round two, when Nursultanov began to find the target regularly with his devastatingly accurate right hand.
The Cuban regrouped after losing rounds two and three with a controlled round four, which once again left the last frame as the crucial indicator for who would ultimately prevail.
Nursultanov’s savage right hands began to materialise once more in the final stanza, and though the combination punching of Lopez was successful in spurts, the Kazakh found extra energy sourced from the magnificent support he was receiving, and clinched the contest 48:47 on all three scorecards.
His victory ensured an opening night first leg win for Astana Arlans with one match to go.
As if the Heavyweight (91 kg) shootout between Vassiliy Levit (8-1 in Season V, 14-1 overall) and Erislandy Savon (9-0 in Season V, 17-0 overall) needed any more hype, the ramifications for the final bout of the evening were even higher following the earlier action in Astana.
If Levit succeeded, Kazakhstan would have opened up a huge 4-1 lead heading into the second leg, but despite a brilliant effort full of aggression and courage, he was unable to become the first man to defeat the unbeaten Erislandy Savon.
The entire boxing world was eager to observe just how these two phenoms would square off against each other, and it was Levit who impressed early as he enjoyed his traditionally fast start.
Tension was draped throughout the entire building, and no doubt across television sets all over the globe, as both men traded vicious shots which reverberated with potent noise around ringside.
Savon’s height and reach advantage became telling in the middle portion of the contest with his fast hands beginning to make inroads into Levit’s tight guard.
Round four produced one of the most absorbing frames of the entire evening, as the majestic class of each competitor resulted in shot after shot of the most beautiful and effortless quality.
While the power clearly belonged to Levit, Savon’s slick movement saw many punches bounce off his gloves, and as the round finished, he was two rounds ahead on a brace of scorecards, while Levit was well ahead according to the third judge.
The decibel level heading into the fifth and final round almost raised the roof of the National Tennis Centre, and Levit needed a monstrous finish to take the victory.
Despite waves of attacks against a clearly tiring Savon, the Kazakh warrior could not remove the outstanding Domadores from his feet to claim two much needed 10-8 rounds, and the boxers respectfully appreciated the breathtaking show they had put on as the final bell sounded.
It was Savon who won the contest by split decision, which gave Cuba a vital second triumph of the evening.
Sunday evening will see the second leg in Astana, where Kazakhstan know they only need to win three further matches to claim their second WSB Championship.