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Dublin: 10 °C Friday 26 April, 2019
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Ryan Burnett overcomes old pal in gruelling encounter to become unified world champion

Burnett beat former gym-mate Zhanat Zhakiyanov via unanimous decision in Belfast.

Image: Presseye/William Cherry/INPHO

Gavan Casey reports from the SSE Odyssey Arena, Belfast

RYAN BURNETT IS the unified bantamweight champion of the world after an absorbing 12-round battle with former stablemate Zhanat ‘ZZ’ Zhakiyanov at Belfast’s SSE Odyssey Arena.

In what was the first ever world title unification fight on Irish soil, the 25-year-old hometown hero was awarded a unanimous decision as he added the WBA title to his IBF strap in just his 18th professional outing. The judges scoring the contest 119-109, 118-110 and 116-112.

The first round wasn’t so much a typical ‘feeling-out process’ as it was a figuring-out process; Zhakiyanov marched Burnett towards the ropes, head down, and attempted to impose himself on the inside – this the kind of approach many ringside expected to transpire predominantly in the second half of the fight.

Burnett, meanwhile, spent the round attempting to forge some sort of distance between the pair, finishing strongly as he finally broke free of the Kazakh’s grip. Still, it was a Zhakiyanov round, concerning in that his usual fare is to finish strongly.

His solid start continued apace in the second. Two winging shots from either hand certainly shook Burnett in his boots, and while Belfast’s IBF champion stifled much of his old pal’s work, Zhakiyanov rubber-stamped the round with a crunching left hook seconds before the bell.

Burnett returned from his stool with more intent in the third, targeting Zhakiyanov’s body early before moving upstairs, although the visitor still enjoyed some success of his own during centre-ring exchanges in which both let fly with bad intentions, though landing very little.

Ryan Burnett ahead of the fight Ryan Burnett soaks in a chorus of 'Olé Olé Olé' at Belfast's SSE Odyssey Arena. Source: Presseye/William Cherry/INPHO

The hometown fighter’s jab began to make its mark in the fourth, snapping back the head of ‘ZZ’ on several occasions, a thudding right hand and more solid body work the best of the rest in what was – to that point – Burnett’s finest stanza.

He began to enjoy himself in the middle rounds, opening up with his back to the corner in the opening seconds of the fifth, backing Zhakiyanov up in the process – an exchange which roused a crowd which had gone relatively quiet during an abrasive opening.

The 33-year-old responded with a combination against the ropes, but Burnett brought the crowd to its feet with a strong finish to the round, throwing a vicious four-punch combination through gritted teeth.

The sixth was Burnett’s too, if only just, as he and ZZ stood for the most part head-to-head, ripping each other with shots to the body. ZZ went to the head a round later, however, and immediately: having backed Burnett to the ropes, three thunderous shots around the guard made their point, though Burnett was scarcely troubled.

Indeed, after a sloppy first half to the seventh, he dropped his hands at centre ring, punishing Zhakiyanov’s moment’s hesitation with a strong straight right followed by a stiff jab. It was a pick’em round, however, as was the case with many.

By round 8, the fight had either evolved or devolved to a battle of sheer bloody-mindedness, and though on away soil, Zhakiyanov was showing no intentions of relenting. Neither was his IBF equivalent, to his credit; Burnett was either enjoying himself or he was throwing shapes in an attempt to convince his old sparring partner or the judges – or both – that he was enjoying himself.

He landed a jolting uppercut in the ninth which got the crowd going once more, a cupping left hook and searching straight right hand finding their target and sailing wide of the Kazakh respectively. It was a Burnett round in spite of a by now typically ferocious response by Zhakiyanov, whose bulldog-like approach was still reaping rewards.

Approaching the championship rounds, there was a burgeoning sense that if either man was to edge an absorbing if not aesthetically pleasing contest, it might just be the hometown boy, who finished the 10th with a powerful combination with ZZ backed to a neutral corner, the bell being greeted with a potentially round-swinging roar by the home fans.

Liam Cunningham and Nathalie Emmanuel at the event Game of Thrones stars Liam Cunningham and Nathalie Emmanuel were ringside in Belfast. Source: Presseye/William Cherry/INPHO

Burnett took that momentum into the penultimate verse, teeing off on Zhakiyanov’s rib cage in a take-one-to-give-two type of round. The Kazakh lived up to his side of the bargain in that regard, but was conclusively second-best for the majority of the three minutes.

Another three, and Burnett would be unified bantamweight champion of the world – or at least that was the consensus at ringside. He seemed to believe it too, unleashing a picture-perfect uppercut on Zhakiyanov to start proceedings. The WBA champion, as was his wont, backed Burnett up once more but to little effect; the Belfast man came off the ropes swinging in the final minute, marching ZZ back a couple of yards and drawing a raucuous response from his supporters.

When the final bell sounded, their reply was similar.

The first two judges’ scorecards of 119-109 and 118-110 were wide, the third the same as this writer as well as Joe O’Neill of Irish-boxing.com.

To his credit, however, Ricky Hatton admitted in his post-fight interview that his current fighter had been bested – just – by his former charge, before adding that “even the most hardcore of Belfast fan” couldn’t have seen it 119-109 – probably a fair comment.

Zhakiyanov drops to 27-2 (18KOs), and relinquishes his title belt to old friend Burnett (now 18-0, 9KOs).

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