Murat Gassiev belies the stereotype that Russians are cunning and humorless, and if he has his way Saturday in his World Boxing Super Series semifinal and title-unification bout against Cuba's Yunier Dorticos, he may also change the perception of boxing's overlooked cruiserweight division.
International Boxing Federation champion Gassiev (25-0, 18 knockouts) will meet World Boxing Assn. champion Dorticos (22-0, 21 KOs) at Sochi, Russia's, 12,000-seat Bolshoy Ice Dome, with the winner advancing to the May 11 World Boxing Super Series final in Jidda, Saudi Arabia.
"It doesn't matter where the fight is. I just need an opponent and I'll fight him on the moon," the good-humored Gassiev told The Times recently. "As long my family and friends can watch the fight."
He wants them to enjoy his work, with skills developed in Big Bear while fighting under 2016 trainer of the year Abel Sanchez while counting unbeaten three-belt middleweight champion Gennady Golovkin as a stablemate.
Golovkin, between fights as he awaits his May 5 rematch with Canelo Alvarez, hasn't been around Sanchez's The Summit gym as often as he is during training, although Golovkin will attend Gassiev's Saturday fight.
There's an ongoing, eleventh-hour effort to attempt to have the fight televised by a mainstream cable network after Gassiev's third-round knockout of Krzysztof Wlodarczyk in his Oct. 21 opening-round WBSS bout was televised by the Audience Network.
That deal would likely also include the airing of the May 11 fight, with World Boxing Council/World Boxing Organization champion Oleksandr Usyk (14-0, 11 KOs) meeting Saturday's winner. Usyk defeated Mairis Briedis (23-1) by scores of 115-113, 114-114, 115-113 last week.
The showdown with Usyk can only come by toppling Dorticos, nicknamed "The K.O. Doctor."
"It's a cruiserweight division fight, so all fighters have a 50/50 chance because everybody hits hard," Gassiev said. "This fight is definitely 50/50. It's the toughest fight in my professional career. He has a lot of experience. I feel I do too, but he's undefeated so it's the next step for me."
It's an opportunity for Gassiev to further display a personality seen vividly inside his gym, but hidden from most outsiders.
Not only is Gassiev quick-witted, he can smoothly perform Russia's national dance, often smiling through the grind of Sanchez's high-intensity training methods.
The results come in the form of the gut punch that dropped Wlodarczyk for good.
"I know I need to do my best and prepare myself for 12 rounds every time," Gassiev said. "So we do a lot of body and head work in the gym. I feel comfortable in taking the chance [to pursue knockouts] now after all the hard work."
Golovkin perfected Sanchez's routine.
"I'm very happy training with him because he's my friend and the best fighter in the world," Gassiev said. "He helps me a lot in the gym and with life."
Gassiev fully understands he hasn't reached the popularity of others, like Golovkin and his countryman and UFC lightweight title contender Khabib Nurmagomedov.
By emerging as the winner of this tournament that has sparked the most worldwide interest in the cruiserweight division in more than a decade, however, Gassiev can propel his profile with an eye toward one day moving up to heavyweight, where champions Anthony Joshua and Deontay Wilder reside.