Somewhat lost in the hoopla around boxing lately and the excitement about tomorrow night's Lucian Bute-Librado Andrade rematch has been a lightweight title fight that is very, very interesting on paper.
Preceding Bute-Andrade II on HBO, the IBF lightweight title vacancy will be filled in a fight between Joan Guzman and Ali Funeka, two top-ranked fighters with vastly different skill sets and a whole lot to both gain and lose.
Fair warning: This could be a hideous fight to watch. Guzman (29-0, 17 KO) rarely makes for entertaining affairs, and I get the gut feeling he's not going to be too excited to mix it up with Funeka (30-2-2, 25 KO), a raw, powerful South African whose 6'1" height and 72" reach make him enormous for the 135-pound division.
Let's start with Funeka. The South African burst into the news in July 2008 when he knocked out former contender and ex-Olympian Zahir Raheem in the fourth round of their fight in South Africa. Raheem hasn't fought since and has given no indication that he ever plans to. For all intents and purposes, it looks like Funeka retired Raheem.
With that fight having been set up as an IBF eliminator, Funeka was now in line for a shot at titlist Nate Campbell. Campbell, coincidentally, was scheduled to face Joan Guzman in September 2008, but Guzman failed to make weight. Campbell struggled out of the ring with his finances thanks to the cancellation, and eventually got a fight scheduled with Funeka for February of this year. The fight was to be on the undercard of an HBO triple-header headlined by Ricardo Mayorga and Alfredo Angulo, but Mayorga did his usual gimmick and wound up pulling out of the show.
Campbell-Funeka was bumped to headliner status, but then the snakebitten card took another shot when Campbell failed to make weight. An emotional Campbell beat an emotional Funeka in a gritty, exciting main event, winning by majority decision on what seemed mostly to be savvy and experience. After the fight, I recall just about everyone hoping that Funeka -- who burst into tears after the decision was announced -- would get another title shot. He'd earned it.
And here we are.
The Dominican Guzman was once nicknamed "The Little Tyson" because he and Iron Mike look a bit similar in the face. That nickname has fallen by the wayside. Though his KO rate (59%) isn't bad, he's not a big puncher. His last stoppage victory came in 2004, when he got Agapito Sanchez out in seven.
Of course, he's also largely dominated. Though he's fought just twice in three years and has rarely faced truly top-level competition, his sheet is clean for a reason. He's a fantastic boxer when he's on his game, a spoiler sort who can frustrated and demoralize his opponents. The last time we saw him in against a top fighter now seems like ages ago, but Guzman routed Humberto Soto at 130 pounds in November 2007. The only fighter to really ever give him a major test was Jorge Barrios, back in 2006.
It's hard to say what this fight will really look like, but expecting a thriller would probably be too much, and if we get one, it means Guzman has almost surely slipped pretty hard. But inactivity and the fact that he's 33 and headed toward his downside could bring that result out for him.
Joanie (as he's been called by rival fighters) will be giving up six inches of height and five inches of reach, and while I really want to pick Funeka to win and will flat-out say I'm hoping he does, I just can't go against Guzman in this matchup. He's too slick, too polished, and unless his skills have rotted away, too good. Guzman by decision.