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Boxing

Sparks will fly as Ryan Burnett bids to come out on top in Belfast battle with 'ZZ'

Ryan Burnett, with trainer Adam Booth, and Zhanat Zhakiyanov, with trainer Ricky Hatton, ahead of tonight's world bantamweight title unification battle at the SSE Arena - the first world unification fight ever to be held in Ireland. Photo Colm Lenaghan/Pacemaker Press
Andy Watters

SPARKS have to fly and history has to be made tonight when bantamweight champions Ryan Burnett (IBF) and Zhanat Zhakiyanov (WBA) collide at the SSE Arena in Ireland's first ever world title unification fight.

Burnett, the home favourite, can be an unorthodox ball of energy, a dancer who stays on his toes and uses fast hands and quick feet to flit in and out of the danger zone.

Back in June, he ripped the IBF title out of Lee Haskins’ grasp with a masterful display of punch-and-move boxing that bamboozled the Welsh magician who couldn’t come to terms with Burnett’s speed or Adam Booth’s meticulous gameplan.

Although he made the final bell, Haskins was cut to pieces by a steady stream of murderous right hands, but Burnett faces a different proposition against Kazakh hardman Zhakiyanov tonight.

‘ZZ’ looks like he has been chiselled out of rock. A menacing, pressure fighter, he comes to go to war and to win and he’ll stalk forward tonight looking to fire in vicious Ricky Hatton-esque left hooks to the body and head from the first bell.

Zhakiyanov – who has followed in the footsteps of the great Gennady Golovkin by becoming Kazakhstan’s second world champion – operates out of a solid, wide stance with good upper body movement and Burnett will never be able to relax while he remains on his feet because the Kazakh has knockout power in both hands.

“He’s a tough as they come,” said Hatton, his coach and manager, a two-weight world champion who has seen it all and done it all.

“They say they breed them tough in Mexico, but Kazakhstan is the European Mexico - they don’t have anything there.

“It takes him two and-a-half days to travel to Manchester. It’s 14 hours on a coach and then 12 hours on a train and then he’s got to fly eight hours to somewhere… He leaves his family and kids behind him, so he’s as tough as any of the walls in this building.

“He’s the yardstick for all my fighters because I tell them ‘these Mexicans and Kazakhs are so tough because they haven’t got anything and you have to be as tough as Zhanat, you’ve got to want it like Zhanat does’.”

OK, toughness is the least you expect from a Kazakh, but set it aside and you’re left with a high quality operator. The one loss on Zhakiyanov’s 27-1 card came back in 2008 and he has flourished since joining Hatton’s Manchester gym, putting together a 12-fight stoppage streak until Yonfrez Parejo lasted the course in an interim WBA World Bantamweight rumble in Monte Carlo a couple of years ago.

Burnett was a stablemate when he began his pro career at Hatton’s Gym and he sparred enough rounds with ‘ZZ’ to know that the battle that lies ahead of him tonight.

Zhakiyanov is regarded as a slow starter, but former Holy Family ABC fighter Burnett says he won’t rely on his opponent’s supposed weaknesses to win this fight.

“It'd be immature of me to rely on his so-called weaknesses to be able to better myself,” said Burnett.

“I'm not going to rely on him being a slow starter, I'll think of him as the best he can be, and if I can deal with the best he can be then I win the night.”

Zhakiyanov’s coach Hatton has suggested that Burnett’s skill will allow him to shade the early rounds but that his man, who has shown an ability to turn fights his way before now, will seize the initiative in the championship rounds deep in the contest. Burnett’s coach Adam Booth says that mindset betrays the truth that this “is Ryan’s fight to win or lose”.

“On Saturday night Zhakiyanov is not going to be met with just equal determination and equal physical strength and equal desire to win, he’s going to be met with a whole range of adjustments whether they’re polished and skilful or rough and dirty,” said Booth.

“Ryan has many different ways he can win each moment and each round and Zhakiyanov has one, maybe two, and that’s going to be the interesting thing.

“He’s a strong presser, a busy, heavy-handed fighter and he’s one of the better ones out there and he’s going into the fight thinking: ‘We’ll get him late in the rounds’.

“You’re kind of hoping that the other fella has got a weakness if you think the other man is going to fade. If you go into the fight expecting the other man to win the early rounds and then hoping he’s going to fade then that’s an admission that this really is Ryan’s fight to win or lose.

“For Zhakiyanov to win this fight Ryan has to allow him to get to him mentally and emotionally and I don’t see that happening.”

Haskins was a box of tricks but Burnett took that away from him by making himself even trickier. Now the Belfast man is faced with an entirely different proposition - a relentless T-34 tank that will roll forward and look to break him down with pressure and salvos of power shots.

Master tactician Booth hints that Burnett’s tactics will change – his man will plant his feet tonight, set himself to hurt the Kazakh and meet him head-on.

“If Ryan had gone out and buried his feet and punched harder against Haskins he wouldn’t have caught him, he would’ve got picked apart,” he explained.

“It’s all about dealing with the style that’s in front of him.

“If he held his feet and loaded up, Haskins would have dropped into his flow and made Ryan miss. In that fight, Ryan out-tricked a tricky fighter.

“ZZ is the total opposite to that. You know his head is going to be there, you know his body is going to be there. You know that you’re not going to have to go looking for distance. If you don’t have to go looking for distance it means you can set harder for your punches...

“There’s a key difference there in what Ryan’s been able to show up until now and what he’ll be able to show on Saturday night.”

However you weigh this one up, it’s clear that Burnett will have to be at his best to win.

Zhakiyanov will dip and slip and burrow forward looking for the left hook, but his right hand is a dangerous weapon too and Burnett cannot afford to relax for a second or he could find himself on the canvas.

It would be out of character for him to do that though. Expect him to box clever, match Zhakiyanov and get his respect early on and then change tactics with a double jab and slick movement to keep him at bay and force a point win.

Belfast boy Burnett has all the skills to create history tonight.

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