The latest installment in Eddie Hearn's relentless Prizefighter continuum is all set for the York Hall, east London, with the dial again settling at the 154lb mark.
As a betting event, these tournaments are always a bit of a lottery, but there's usually some value to be had. Finding it, however, is often easier said than done, with the abridged round format and a general host of largely-unknown quantities in the line-up often wreaking havoc with even the best-prepared plans.
Scotland's Craig McEwan (+162) is justifiably the shortest price, having mixed - with varying results - at a higher level to the rest (Quillin, Lee, Vera), but, much like looking at a golf leaderboard on a Thursday morning, there's rarely much appeal in siding with the favourite ahead of the rest of the field, especially when his first bout on Saturday will be only his second at his new weight. Second in the list is Larry Ekundayo (+300), a 30-year-old, two-fight novice who's impressed - and has had some hype - following his debut in March. Given that he's only so far beaten guys with 1-5 and 2-25 records - not that you'd necessarily expect a two-fight novice to be up against anything sterner - it's surprising that the bookies have been quite so cautious about him, but that in itself speaks volumes about the nature of this setup.
There are some more familiar names to the British domestic scene here. Ryan Toms (+2000) comes into the tournament just eight weeks removed from an unsuccessful English title challenge, so does has some useful experience, but stoppage defeats each and every time he's stepped up in competition marginally (Erick Ochieng, Joe Selkirk and Steve O'Meara), looks to rule him out. Another is rank outsider Terry Carruthers (+2500), whose losing 11-13-6 record reads like a Who's Who of the domestic picture. With only one KO from that outnumbered win total, it's difficult to see him doing much, or indeed cashing in on the £2,000 per-stoppage bonus that's also up for grabs here. Kris Carslaw (+850) should see more support from backers, and he's also been around the block. With an early win over Carruthers under his belt (no great shakes in itself, but notable in this context), Carslaw's 16-2 (4 KOs) record stands up to all bar McEwan's here, and two competitive distance defeats to current British titlist Brian Rose and one-time European contender Matthew Hall are certainly no disgrace. Expect to see Carslaw there or thereabouts in the closing stages.
Current third-favourite, just ahead of Carslaw, is Curtis Valentine, another relative rookie, but one that could be worth a look. The +700 tag would initially appear short enough for a 31-year-old with just seven fights' (5-2, 4 KOs) experience, but what marks him out from the pack is his power, and his KO ratio is significantly up on a field that otherwise lacks any real one-punch menace. Valentine's two losses have both come by decision, and one of those was to the aforementioned Ochieng, the English champion at light-middle.
There are a couple of key considerations here: the first being that the three-round Prizefighter format shouldn't be a problem for Valentine - he's never fought beyond four. Five of his seven fights were scheduled four-rounders, and only three have gone the distance. Valentine's last fight, against then-unbeaten southpaw Ryan Aston, was pencilled in for ten. It didn't go two. The other is that, until now, he's campaigned at middleweight. The upside to that, of course, is that he's been knocking out middleweights. It's interesting to note that, in total, half of the line-up are dropping down a division from their last outing, so Valentine isn't alone with that particular conditioning challenge. He'll certainly have his eye on collecting at least one of those £2,000 prizes, and Curtis Valentine will carry a unique threat with him for as long as he lasts.
One boxer specifically attuned to the Prizefighter experience is Peter Vaughan (6-1-1, 1 KO), who reached the semi-final of the last 154 tournament (Saturday's, officially Prizefighter #27, is the third at the weight) in September 2011. Defeated by eventual winner Robert Lloyd-Taylor, Vaughan went into the competition with only four fights to his name and scrapped past another unbeaten fighter, Wayne Goddard in the first bracket. Quite how much Vaughan will have learned from his two subsequent fights, both decision wins, against 1-3 and 2-76-3 (yes, that's 2-76-3) opposition remains to be seen, but the 17/1 about him means he's favoured ahead of only Toms and Carruthers in the layers' reckoning.
Rounding out the eight is prospect Nav Mansouri who, at 26 years old and 8-0-1 (3 KOs), hasn't done too much wrong in the pro ranks so far. He may arguably be the quickest of the line-up and we've seen slicker, faster, high-output fighters do well in Prizefighter against what can often be more rudimentary fare. What's less sure is how good Mansouri actually is, or can be. Though unbeaten, the Yorkshire man is has been carefully matched - of his nine fights, eight have been against opponents with losing records, with his most recent outing against Nathan Graham (13-3 at the time) being the only exception. The hunch here is that he could have racked up a nine-fight unbeaten streak against names a notch above, but equally this tournament is an excellent chance to make a statement. At a best-priced +1600 (shortest available +1000), Mansouri could be a live outsider for fans of double-figure runners.
Finally, for those with the inclination, there's +2500 (at worst, an incredible +1400) on offer for the £32,000 grand prize to be won by a reserve fighter, i.e. one that steps in following the (usually medically-advised) withdrawal of the original line-up. There are probably plenty who'll back it, but if there's a betting column that recommends backing a TBA fighter, who may or may not even fight, who may enter at any stage of the competition, it's safe to say it's not this one.
Two high-profile names a few divisions north attempt to get back on track, after a set of results that may be very different in terms of how easy they are to move past.
Though now winless in two fights, it would be fair to say that Marco Huck (34-2-1, 25 KOs) has lost little to no stock on the back of a jump up to heavyweight for a contentious, extremely competitive (at the very worst) decision loss to Alexander Povetkin, followed by a terrifically entertaining draw back at cruiser in the Ola Afolabi rematch. Granted, Firat Arslan (32-5-2, 22 KOs) may be 42, and he may be a notch or so below either of those guys, but this is a sturdy enough test for the defending champion.
Huck's record is almost a peculiar one - after taking on (and mostly beating) a clutch of opponents that reads Cunningham, Lebedev, Povetkin, Afolabi, it's difficult to accuse him of shying away from the best, but a little more consistency would likely both quell some of the criticism he does get and save us from watching him beat up soft touches like Rogelio Rossi and Brian Minto. Nonethless, he's a fun fighter to watch and doesn't need much encouragement to be drawn into a war. Arslan, unbeaten since a pair of losses to Guillermo Jones and Steve Herelius over two years ago, falls somewhere between those two groups mentioned, and figures to persuade Huck to do exactly that. It's just very hard to envisage Arslan actually beating him. Huck is, as you'd expect, the massive favourite, but the prices vary wildly: from -2500 (which is too short), to -1000 (which is about right). Arslan's a market-best +1000 for the upset, but +700/+800 is more widely available.
Few could have envisaged the manner of Lucian Bute's shattering blowout loss to Carl Froch, but, unsurprisingly, the odds about his first comeback fight are altogether easier to predict. Bute, an overwhelming favourite at -700, is expected to make light work of Denis Grachev (+600) in what's been put together, to all intents and purposes, as a get-well for the home fighter. It should be straightforward enough for him, but Grachev has more pop than most of Bute's recent opponents and there's a big question mark lingering over Bute's punch resistance. What could possibly go wrong?