By Danny Armstrong
Danny Armstrong is a Moscow-based British journalist, reporter and presenter for RT Sport. Follow him on Twitter @DannyWArmstrong
Russia’s Zaur Abdullaev stopped boxing great Jorge Linares in the 12th round of a thrilling WBC silver lightweight title fight in Ekaterinburg on Saturday to set up a possible rematch with American champ Devin Haney.
A spectacular 12th-round technical knockout victory from Abdullaev after two heavy knockdowns of the former three-weight world champion made sure the Ekaterinburg-based boxer made a determined defence of his WBC silver lightweight title.
The 27-year-old, who showed laser-like concentration, guts and grit throughout their 12-round thriller, moved a step closer to a return with US idol and WBC champ Devin Haney, the only man to best him in 16 fights, doing so by bullying the Russian into a 4th round retirement in 2019.
Abdullaev now moves to 15-1 and registered the ninth early win of his career with the final stanza victory to stop 36-year-old Linares at 2:28 gone of the final three minutes at RCC Boxing Academy.
Russian lightweight boxer Abdullaev was just eight years old when veteran ex-champ Jorge Linares made his professional debut.
Since a paid bow in 2002, Japan-based Venezuelan has gone on to become one of the sports superstars and TV darlings, by virtue of his blinding combinations, footwork and KO punching power that have delivered him three world titles in as many weight divisions.
Linares conquered the featherweight, super featherweight and lightweight divisions after winning his first world title 15 years ago, and had shown enough to mix it with some of today’s stars in his career twilight, evident when he knocked down one-time pound for pound king Vasyl Lomachenko in 2018.
Shorts reigns at the top of the feather and super feather classes and a longer stint as 135lb king were punctuated by five years and early shock KO losses for Linares, but his reputation as a lighter weight great had been cemented.
When he met Abdullaev in Russia’s Ural region on Saturday, those days seemed long gone.
Abdullaev had not quite scaled the heights of Linares; his biggest and only step up to world level ended in retirement when taking on rising superstar Devin Haney for the WBC title in 2019.
Linares showed little of the dazzle that had been his trademark of his distinguished career in a cagey opening few rounds, and although there were a few stinging combinations up close, the younger and rangier Abdullaev undoubtedly looked the fresher of the two.
A crisp shot to the liver in the 5th round seemed to slow down the Tokyo-based Linares, who had until then looked menacing in all black shorts trimmed with gold in honor of his golden boy nickname.
Abdullaev sensed he’d hurt his man and piled on the pressure in the 6th, stalking Linares and adding more combinations as his confidence grew, buoyed by a slight swelling under and over Linares’ right eye.
The fight opened up in the eighth and was the scene of perhaps Linares’ best success: the traveling man landed a series of combinations to the body, but Abdullaev responded with a swinging long right hand and then trapped Linares momentarily on the ropes.
The ex-champ would later respond with a right hand of his own that thudded against Abdullaev’s head.
In the eleventh, the fight seemed to swing the way of Abdullaev. He continued to hound Linares, whose feint and flashy footwork had slowed to a patter and whose famous movement was constricted to working himself off the ropes.
In the twelfth and final round, both men met at the center of the ring and exchanged scathing blows, each sensing the fight was there for the taking. However, Linares’ combinations were restricted to pawing out double jabs and skimming the occasional hook off Abdullaev’s tight guard.
Then the breakthrough came.
Abdullaev sized up his man with a straight one-two, then threw a left hook that landed like a bolt to Linares’ chin as the Venezuelan returned fire, sending him crashing to the canvas.
Linares got straight up, paced the ring, shook his head and spat in a show of defiance and to prove his senses were within his power, an expression of his irritation at being put on the seat of his pants as the referee counted to a mandatory eight.
When the action continued, Abdullaev pounced and landed a carbon copy of the same combo, the one-two hitting Linares’s gloves but a left hook swept across Linares’ jaw and put him down a second time, falling into the bottom two ropes.
This time, Linares got up under much less sturdy legs as Abdullaev celebrated, knowing victory was within reach. When the referee beckoned the action to continue Abdullaev launched a series of unanswered punches to pelt LInares into the ropes and the referee waved the action off with just over half a minute to go.
With the defense Abdullaev, tearful at the final bell, moved a step closer to making a rematch with Devin Haney a reality and recorded a career-best win over an admittedly shopworn but capable Linares, who moved to 47-7 and must surely now be considering retirement.
Ironically, Linares had fared a little better against their common foe Haney, going a close 12 rounds for the full WBC strap last year, of which the 23-year-old has made three defences since picking up the belt in his fight after beating Abdullaev.