Tiny meal portions, tinier Speedos, a strange aversion to ice cubes, an even stranger infatuation with David Hasselhoff’s singing voice: Some things are distinctly European. Add boxing’s 200-pound division to that list—just not for long, if Isiah Thomas has his way.
“That’s why I’m in this division, because I want to put an American stamp on it,” Thomas says. “I want to let it be known that it’s not just a European division. We can take it over also.”
In recent years, it’s become a common refrain among U.S. fight fans to bemoan the lack of American heavyweight titleholders since the 1990s heyday of Hall of Famers such as Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield and a then-resurgent George Foreman. This has at least started to change with Deontay Wilder becoming a world champion earlier in the year.
But the division just south of the heavyweights, the 200-pound class, has similarly been in a European headlock of late. Most current champs hail from that continent, with Russian, German and Polish fighters dominating the rankings. The lone exception is Argentina’s Victor Emilio Ramirez.
Enter Isiah Thomas (15-0, 6 KOs).
The 6-foot-4 Detroit native’s steady climb toward the upper reaches of the division continues Friday when he throws down with—who else?—yet another promising Russian fighter, unbeaten 22-year-old Murat Gassiev (22-0, 16 KOs).
Against Gassiev, Thomas returns to the Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas, the site of the biggest win of his career in July, when he handed fellow Michigan prospect Jordan Shimmell his first loss. That was a baboon-ugly scrap/wrestling match in which Thomas was able to fend off a grappling Shimmell with precision punching, deft footwork and the more cleanly landed blows.
In Gassiev, the southpaw Thomas will be facing a younger fighter with a less decorated amateur background than his. As such, he plans on testing Gassiev’s mettle early to see what he’s made of.
“I’m going to wage mental warfare on him, use my experience on him, most definitely,” says Thomas, 26, who on Thursday weighed in for the fight at 198.8 pounds while Gassiev was 197.8.
Prior to his clash with Shimmell, Thomas’ career was hampered by periods of inactivity. He had a 19-month layoff between fights from 2012-14, then was out of action another eight months prior to his next bout, giving him just one fight in more than three years.
When Thomas takes on Gassiev, however, it will be his third fight of 2015. He says he’s feeling the benefits of getting after it on a more consistent basis.
“I’m sharper, more technically sound. Everything’s clicking now,” he notes, characterizing himself as a heady, confident presence in the ring. “I consider myself a smart fighter, a boxer-puncher, a guy with speed and great ring generalmanship.”
He’ll need all those attributes against Gassiev, who will likely be the aggressor in the fight.
When talk turns to the type of tactics Gassiev might employ against him, Thomas practically salivates at the thought of his opponent trying to walk him down, get in his face and engage.
“Ah, man, if I don’t have to look for the guy …” he says, his voice trailing off.
He doesn’t finish the thought. That's what Friday is for: finishing things.
For full coverage of Thomas vs Gassiev, visit our fight page.