July 14th is a big night for boxing in the States, but the British are coming to the party, too. At the O2 Arena in London, a strong three-fight card with British stars will take place, headlined by a Commonwealth heavyweight title fight between 40-year old champion Matt Skelton (right) and challenger Michael Sprott.
Sprott, 32, got himself into this position with two straight wins following a punishing defeat at the hands of recently-crowned WBA champion Ruslan Chagaev. He recovered from the loss to beat undefeated German Rene Dettweiler via split decision last November, then put what should be the final nail in the coffin of Audley "Fraudley" Harrison's disappointing career in March with a third round knockout.
Skelton is the more interesting case. While Sprott is a journeyman boxer with a 30-10 record and modest power, Matt Skelton is a former kickboxer whose professional boxing career started very late, at age 35 in 2002. Most fans of fighting sports aren't terribly interested in the rest of them, and I no longer have any real use for kickboxing myself, but at the time, I was a casual kickboxing fan. I knew who Skelton was -- he'd fought Peter Aerts, Sam Greco, Ray Sefo, Jérôme Le Banner, and a lot of other guys. (For the record, of those four, he beat only Sefo.) His reported kickboxing record was 57-8. He was a strong competitor, if not a top-level guy.
He wound up fighting once in mixed martial arts, for PRIDE in 2001, losing to American wrestler Tom "Big Cat" Erikson, a big, strong man who usually weighed in around 280 pounds or so. Skelton was choked out at 1:51 of the first round. Kickboxers have a pretty lengthy history of failing to adjust to MMA by not developing any sort of ground game, and Skelton wasn't the only guy who wasn't cut out for the deeper fight game that mixed martial arts presented.
And I remember that Skelton wasn't given much of a shot at being a successful boxer, either. I didn't really give him one. For one thing, he was old. For another, the sports are all different. To just use one's hands is a lot different than having options, and vice versa.
But as it turns out, the 6'3" Bedford native took to pro boxing quite well. After starting 12-0 with 11 knockouts, Skelton was matched up with Michael Sprott, who came in at 25-6. The two fought for the Commonwealth and BBBofC British heavyweight titles. In the 12th round, Skelton knocked Sprott out. He won his next fight fights by KO as well, before dropping a split decision to the ever-erratic Danny Williams last year, a loss he avenged when he pounded a slovenly, 288-pound Williams six months later over 12 rounds.
Since their first fight, Sprott's career has taken some turns. He won two, then lost back-to-back decisions to Paolo Vidoz and Vladimir Virchis. He then won another fight, and was hammered by Chagaev. Now he's on the two-fight win streak.
It's an interesting fight because they're both guys who are hard to get a good grip on in terms of analyzing their prospects. Sprott has spent most of his career all over the map, from good to bad and back again. Skelton is a 40-year old fighter with 21 professional bouts, 20 wins and 18 knockouts among them. He is a successful heavyweight fighter, but it's in a corner of the game. He's never fought in the States; for that matter, nor has Sprott.
By track record alone, it's difficult to pick Michael Sprott to win any fight, let alone against a borderline-top 10 heavyweight, which Skelton arguably is. Tougher still is assuming Sprott can stand up to Skelton's power, which isn't top-shelf stuff, but isn't well liquor, either. He couldn't handle Chagaev last year; I don't think he can handle Skelton in 2007.
Pick: Matt Skelton TKO-9 -- He's the stronger puncher, the more reliable guy, and, simply put, the better fighter. And I don't think it's all that close. This is probably Sprott's last shot at the top, even just among the other British heavies. What we really could use is Skelton/Williams III, with Danny in perhaps the best shape of his career and coming off of a destructive knockout defeat of Scott Gammer in March. If Danny Williams can stay around 230 pounds, Matt Skelton can't beat him.
The undercard on Saturday features Nicky Cook (27-0, 15 KO) against American Steven Luevano (32-1, 14 KO) for the vacant WBO featherweight title, a fight that has real ramifications on its weight class. Both guys have real futures in the division. Give me Nicky Cook close in that one. Plus, super hyped prospect Amir Khan takes on light-punching Scot Willie Limond for Limond's Commonwealth lightweight title, a tailor-made fight for Khan's aggression and youthful exuberance. Should be another Khan KO, but at least Limond is something of a real boxer.
It's really a pretty nice card, better than the two American PPVs on the same night.