Tommy Langford, the Baggies diehard set to boing-boing into boxing’s elite class of big names and bumper pay cheques, can be forgiven for staring down at the middleweight rankings and being swept by a feeling of vertigo.
Just five months ago, Tommy – one of the game’s most articulate exponents – captured the British title by grinding out a fairly uninspired points decision over Sam Sheedy.
Sheedy is many things – tough and brave among them – but he is a sea-mile from world class.
Just weeks ago, Langford was scheduled to meet Eastside gym’s Craig Cunningham in a mouthwatering all-Birmingham defence of the Lonsdale Belt.
Now the 27-year-old, born in Barnstaple, Devon, but fight-educated in our city, is set to compete for the richest prize of all. On Saturday, at Leicester Arena, the unbeaten former Birmingham University graduate fights for the interim WBO world title, a crown previously worn by Billy Joe Saunders.
Standing between Langford and destiny is the flint-tough slab of muscle and sinew that is Georgia-born, Brooklyn-based Avtandil Khurtsidze, a no-nonsense operator ranked top contender for the title.
It’s a fight that needs to be put into context. Langford may grab a portion of the world crown, but it is a division dominated by Gennady Golovkin. Those who believe Langford – a fine craftsman – is the best middle in the business are probably also convinced the Earth’s flat.
Tommy, honed by Hall Green’s Tom Chaney and unbeaten in 18, admits it’s a step into the unknown. Precious little footage exists of 37-year-old Khurtsidze. The sparse video out there reveals a sawn-off slugger prepared to bludgeon his way through walls to wreak pain and misery.
If Tommy, a middleweight minus truly concussive power, is to do this, he’ll do it with guile, distance and unerring delivery of that magnificent broomstave jab. He will be much the bigger man and must use height and reach advantages.
Those drawn into the trenches by Khurtsidze have endured a bloody and bruising night’s work.
Langford, groomed for stardom since signing pro following a dazzling international amateur career, won’t be lured into Khurtsidze’s fight.
Sparring, including sessions with world title challenger Martin Murray, has gone well, boiling down to 11st 7lbs has been achieved safely and sensibly, the prospect assured Ringside. “Khurtsidze looks tremendously strong, but on Saturday we’ll find out if that’s what it is or if it’s hype,” said Langford, positively buzzing for the impending battle.
“He has been avoided by everyone. They know how dangerous he is and what a hard night he can give you. I’m doing what all the other champions didn’t want to do.
“He’s very tough, he looks physically strong. With him, what you see is what you get. He comes to take you out, he’s never going to outbox you. It would be stupid for me to get involved.”
And what you see is a fighter with the compressed, coiled core akin to Mike Tyson.
For Tommy, victory will pave the way for fight-game fortunes.
“If I win,” he said, “I open the doors to the elite names, Golovkin, Canelo.
“If Billy Joe Saunders wants the title, he’s got to fight me. That could be a big summer fight.
“People haven’t seen what I can really do or my physical strength because I’ve not had to use it. People still don’t know what I’m capable of. The training has gone very well. The weight is fine and I’ve had fantastic sparring with Martin Murray, a strong, tough middleweight. In fact, the hardest part has been finding the right sparring partners.
“I’m not surprised to get a world title shot. I am surprised the opportunity has come my way now. I’ve always had the ambition. I’ve always thought I should be a Commonwealth champion, a British champion.
“I’ve always put pressure on myself, always been self-critical, but on Saturday all I have to concentrate on is getting the job done.”
Khurtsidze is far above anyone Langford has encountered to date in his pro career and represents the local favourite’s first foray into true world class.
A man of few words, Khurtsidze bristles with bad intention. “I am looking forward to April 22 and beating Langford in front of all of his fans,” he said. “I know he will be looking to run from me all night and to steal a decision, but I’m coming for the knockout. I am coming to crack bones that night.”
Khurtsidze has the build to crack bones. He will be bolstered by Langford’s British title victory over Sheedy, a beefed-up light-middle who succeeded in pushing Tommy back in the late stages. In those closing rounds, Langford – huge for a middle – boxed with the economy of a fighter who had struggled with the scales.
“It was not an exciting performance,” he conceded, “but I still won. If you are still winning with a bad performance, what are you going to do when you’re 100 per cent on the programme?
“I won. I did the job I had to do. You are always going to get criticism.”
Perhaps the Sheedy performance has clouded my judgement, but I fear that if the Sheffield switch-hitter can force Langford back, a bull of a fighter like Khurtsidze can overwhelm him.
The Georgian comes with no fear and a 32-2-2 career that shows the hardman has been given few favours. He’s been stopped once, a 2005 loss to Tony Marshall, and was outpointed by Hassab N’Dam N’Jikam for the interim WBA crown.
But he’s on a nine-fight unbeaten run, the last five by stoppage, and seems to be enjoying the form of his life. Significantly, he squeezed past Ossie Duran by majority decision back in 2011 – a good, but beatable, fighter well known on these shores. Duran stopped Jamie Moore but was outpointed by Bradley Pryce. Logically, what Pryce can do, Langford can do better.
Tommy cannot allow himself to be drawn in. He has to bank points at distance from the get-go because I feel sure he’ll be dragged to a deep, dark place down the stretch. Khurtsidze will chug forward, looking to break his opponent’s will.
Most believe Langford will survive the storm and be declared a points winner. I, however, fear Khurtsidze will eventually find him.
My heart says likeable Tommy, my head says Khurtsidze in 10.
The bill also sees white-hot Birmingham featherweight prospect Raza Hamza (7-0-1) face Rafael Castillo over six. Castillo, a Nicaraguan based in Barcelona, has won 14 of 49 fights (three draws) and is on a nine-fight losing streak.
Raza, now trained in Manchester by Haroon Headley, said: “He’s a journeyman, but he doesn’t usually get stopped. Winning is all-important, but I want to put on a performance.”
What the experts say
Jason Lowe , trainer, MC and The Ringside pundit who has picked every fight correctly for this column: “I’m going for Langford. I can’t see him losing, that ain’t going to happen. “But if Tommy starts to fade around the eighth, he’s in for a very uncomfortable night. He’ll be caught with big shots. It’s Tommy on points.”
Craig Cunningham , Birmingham middle originally slated to face Langford for the British title: “I haven’t seen anything of Khurtsidze, but they say he’s aggressive for the entire 12 rounds. If he’s as aggressive as people say, he could be Tommy’s worst nightmare. If Tommy keeps him at range, he should make it a comfortable night’s work. Langford on points.”
Andrew Robinson , middleweight contender: “This guy Khurtsidze, Billy Joe Saunders was offered him and he avoided him. He is a mirror image of Mike Tyson and very powerful. He is going to make Langford deal with things he’s never had to deal with before. I think this guy will stop him – it could be early.”
Ryan Kelly , unbeaten Birmingham prospect soon to fight Adam Harper for the Midland lightmiddle title: “I think Langford’s got the beating of him. I hope he pulls it off and his boxing ability should do it.”
Source : BirminghamMail