If the first three light heavyweight rounds have proven anything, it is that it takes near-perfect performance to fend off Imam Khataev.
Benjamin Whittaker was up to the task.
After Whitaker’s split-decision win over ROC’s Khataev in the semi-finals on Sunday afternoon at Tokyo’s Kokugikan Arena, Britain is sure to have at least one silver medal in the light heavyweight division. Khatav won 30-27 on Moroccan judge Makfouni Abdellatif’s card, outvoted by 30-27, 30-27, 29-28 and 29-28 in favor of Whittaker.
Khataev was on the path of destruction in Sunday’s semifinals. The compact light heavyweight representative of the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) scored two knockout victories, including a sensational interruption in the third round of Gazimagomed Jalidov (Spain) in the quarter-finals.
Before this viral moment, Khataev had angered number one seeded Bekzad Nurdauletov (Kazakhstan) in the round of 16 to leave the light heavyweight wide open.
Whittaker’s journey couldn’t have been the exact opposite.
The boxer and aspiring hip-hop artist, who goes under the stage name B £ NZO, boxed his way to victory over two two-time Olympians in Jorge Vivas (Colombia) in the round of 32 and Abdelrahman Salah Orabi (Egypt) in the round of 16. A victory over Keno Machado (Brazil) advanced Whittaker to the semi-finals and meant successive Olympic light heavyweight medals for Great Britain after Joshua Buatsi won bronze in Rio in 2016.
Khataev was looking for his third Olympic knockout, an approach Whittaker was well prepared for. The Briton took full advantage of his five-inch height advantage and long range, stretching his jab and using sideways movements to disrupt Khataev’s rhythm.
The action was hardly a way. Khataev managed to work his way inside while exhibiting excellent fighting and defensive skills. Still, it was Whittaker’s crisp jab and stellar defense that won the jury’s approval as he is now one win away from delivering its first gold medal to Britain – which boasts 20 Olympic victories – at the Tokyo Games.
Khataev will take home bronze as the male ROC team suffer their first loss in Tokyo. The independently represented team is now 14-4 in total, the men’s team is now 12-1.
Whittaker meets Cuban Arlen Lopez, who wants to become a two-time gold medalist in as many weight classes.
Lopez moved on after a hard-fought win against Loren Alfonso, a Cuban defector who now represents Azerbaijan. Lopez overcame an early deficit to prevail by unanimous decision, winning 29-28 on all five scorecards.
Alfonso left Cuba in 2017 out of a desire to compete internationally, which would not happen as long as he was third on the nation’s depth chart with his weight. The trip took him to Azerbaijan, where he became the nation’s first light heavyweight to win a medal.
After one lap, Alfonso seemed well on his way to fighting for gold. However, he was unable to keep Lopez in check and it would cost him dearly.
Lopez fought mostly out of a conventional stance, switching to southpaw only occasionally. Lopez had little time for tricks, who enjoyed a huge shift in dynamics after rocking Alfonso in the middle of the third and final lap. Alfonso received a standing 8-count, which did not affect his score so much, but betrayed the balance of the round and ultimately the fight.
Cuba improved to 13-0 with Lopez’s win, but since their first loss when Pero fell to Richard Torrez Jr. (USA) in the super heavyweight quarter-finals.
The gold medal pairing between Whittaker and Lopez is the second such final round game between Great Britain and Cuba. The rivalry can also be seen in the welterweight division, with Pat McCormack facing Roniel Iglesias for gold on August 3rd.
Whittaker and Lopez clash one night later as the last fight of the day on August 4th.
Jake Donovan is a senior writer for BoxingScene.com. Twitter: @JakeNDaBox