Avtandil Khurtsidze is 38 years old and all of 5’4″ tall. He also might be the most dangerous middleweight contender on the planet.
He is a hard, rugged man from a hard, rugged place–Kutaisi, Georgia. And nothing has come easy for him in his long professional career. He drew in his third fight. In 2005 he fought his first scheduled eight rounder, facing tough veteran Tony Marshall, who then sported a record of 36-12-6. He was stopped in Round 7, but way ahead on the cards at the time.
He regrouped, kept campaigning and by the end of the last decade he was defeating some of the top middleweights in Eastern Europe. In October 2010 he lost a close, contested decision to Hassan N’Dam, in N’Dam’s native France.
Khurtsidze’s performance against N’Dam should have been good enough to earn him another fight with a top contender. But we all know that boxing doesn’t always work the way it should. Instead, Khurtsidze got a reputation as a fighter to avoid–a tough out with an obscure, hard-to-pronounce name. Following his loss to N’Dam he won eight straight fights, but none of them against anything like a contender.
Finally, in March 2016, his big break came through. He was picked as a late replacement for rising contender Antoine Douglas. Fighting on two-weeks notice, Khurtsidze brutalized one of the most lauded young fighters in the sport. He dropped Douglas in Rounds 3 and 7 and finished him off 33 seconds into the 10th and final round. He followed that performance by stopping Tommy Langford, another undefeated, rising contender in Round 5 last April.
Those two big wins in a row have put him in a spot where he can’t be ignored any longer. And in July, he will get a crack at Billy Joe Saunders, the WBO belt holder at 160 pounds.
Saunders has a pair of close but good wins on his resume–over Chris Eubanks Jr. and Andy Lee. But since collecting his belt from Lee in December 2015, he has fought just once, against the lightly regarded Artur Akavov. His inactivity and refusal to face other top contenders made him one of the most criticized fighters of 2016.
Saunders sounded confident in the press conference announcing the fight this week. Well, to be more accurate, he sounded like a poor man’s Connor McGregor. He made particular hay over the fact that he is over a decade younger than Khurtsidze.
Age can be a factor in a sport like boxing. But in the case of the Little Big Man from the Caucasus, it’s just been ten more years to grow hungry. Come this summer, I expect him to bob and weave and chop Saunders down.