It's remarkable how quickly things can change between the amateur and pro ranks in boxing. Someone who doesn't have the skill set for the higher levels of amateur boxing can make a great transition to the pro game. The catastrophic failure of the 2012 U.S. Olympic men's boxing team has shown us quite a bit of evidence that amateur success and pro success are not the same thing.
Errol Spence Jr, Joseph Diaz Jr, Jose Ramirez, Terrell Gausha, and Marcus Browne have all become serious prospects as professionals. Rau'Shee Warren has already challenged for a world title, suffering a narrow defeat, the only pro loss any of the former Team USA members has taken. Jamel Herring and Michael Hunter both remain undefeated, as well.
Dominic Breazeale was a curiosity among that team, and remains somewhat so today as a professional. Breazeale was scouted and funded from 2008 by Michael King, the late television distribution mogul who passed away in May of this year. King had given some life to the super heavyweight (201+ pounds) division for American amateur boxing, where funding had been a major issue. Seeking football and basketball players from the college ranks who weren't going to make professional careers in those fields, the project found Breazeale, a 6'7" athlete who had played quarterback for the University of Northern Colorado.
The NFL wasn't knocking down his door, but King and boxing were willing to give him a shot. So at 23, Breazeale took up boxing. At 26, he was the U.S. amateur champion in his weight class, and was preparing to head to Rio for Olympic qualifiers.
"There are 14 superheavyweights signed up for Rio," he said then. "I like to think of it as me and 13 victims."
Breazeale beat Venezuela's José Payares, Brazil's Gidelson Silva, and Puerto Rico's Gerardo Bisbal before a final round loss to Ecuador's Ítalo Perea Perea on a score of 14-10. Those two and Canada's Simon Kean all qualified to go to London three months later for the Olympics.
Once there, Breazeale met Russia's Magomed Omarov (above), and was soundly beaten in the opening round, 19-8. Breazeale looked overmatched and underprepared for Omarov, four years his junior but a more experienced and refined amateur boxer, one who came from inarguably a better amateur boxing system than what Team USA had become by 2012.
But like pretty much all of his teammates, Breazeale seemed like he had a better skill set for the pro game than the amateurs. And since turning pro in November 2012, he's racked up a record of 15-0, with 14 of those wins coming inside the distance. It wasn't until his 10th professional fight, an eight-round domination of veteran Nagy Aguilera, that Breazeale even made it out of the fourth round, and he hasn't done so since, either.
Now 30, Breazeale is on the surface old for a prospect, but he's still a youngster in boxing, still learning and developing his skills. In his last outing on June 6, he impressively stopped previously unbeaten Cuban Yasmany Consuegra in the third round, dropping his opponent three times in the process.
On Saturday, Breazeale gets a chance to show his stuff in front of a network TV audience, as he has fortuitously been bumped into the co-feature slot for the Premier Boxing Champions on NBC card from Birmingham, Alabama. Headlining will be WBC heavyweight titleholder Deontay Wilder (34-0, 33 KO), the current top American star and himself a former Olympian, with a boxing path somewhat similar to what Breazeale. Wilder won bronze at the 2008 games in Beijing, after taking up boxing in 2005 at the age of 20.
If you look back at the first 15 fights of Wilder's pro career, he was facing worse opposition than Breazeale has to date. He and his team ignored criticism, kept doing what they thought best prepared "The Bronze Bomber" for true pro success, and now have gotten to the level they were targeting. It has worked out very well for them.
Breazeale's fight on Saturday night may well be the better reason to tune in, too. While Wilder is an overwhelming favorite against lightly-regarded French fringe contender Johann Duhaupas, Breazeale is taking on a level-appropriate opponent in Fred Kassi, a Cameroonian who lives and fights out of New Orleans.
Kassi (18-3-1, 10 KO) may be 0-1-1 in his last two fights, but he stood tough against Amir Mansour last November before losing by seventh round knockout, and he went to a ten-round draw in July with Chris Arreola, a former world title challenger. The 36-year-old "Big Fred" isn't a gimme on paper for Breazeale, but the prospect will have some major physical advantages, including seven inches of both height and reach.
Breazeale should win this fight, and wouldn't be put into this position if his team, ultimately headed by power broker Al Haymon, didn't think he would win. It's not even as if this is set up merely as a TV showcase; the show's original NBC co-feature was to be a junior welterweight fight between Omar Figueroa and Antonio DeMarco, before a Figueroa injury bumped Breazeale to the main show.
But there is some danger here for certain. Kassi is no world-beater, but he's also no pushover, and Breazeale is still at a point in his career where an upset is hardly unthinkable. Breazeale does still make mistakes in the ring, things he can learn from and generally has thus far, but he's still a bit off from being a finished product, and we've seen not-quite-finished products in American heavyweight boxing fall many times in recent years, hyped or not.
The obvious name that pops out immediately is Seth "Mayhem" Mitchell, a top athlete with big power who turned to boxing after a football career at Michigan State University. From 2008 to 2012, things were going pretty well for Mitchell, another Al Haymon prospect. He had been featured on TV plenty, making his way to HBO a few times, generally performing impressively. He was well-liked, and for good reasons -- not only was he exciting to watch in the ring, but he was a charming, affable personality outside of it. Nobody had a bad word to say about Mitchell, really, with everyone noting his dedication to his new craft. Mitchell took boxing very seriously and was determined to become a top star and the world heavyweight champion.
Then he was drilled in two rounds by Johnathon Banks, a veteran fighter and former cruiserweight best known for his work as a sparring partner and coach for Wladimir Klitschko, the fighter he has trained since the passing of Emanuel Steward in 2012. Mitchell got a measure of revenge seven months after that loss, beating Banks over 12 dull rounds, but it seemed as though the spark that made Mitchell the buzz-worthy emerging star he'd become was gone. If it wasn't, Chris Arreola knocked it out of him in 2:26 just a couple of months later. That night, September 7, 2013, was the last time that Seth Mitchell fought.
Breazeale has yet to reach the critical hype stages of his rise up the ranks, and his fight with Kassi probably won't -- or at least shouldn't -- lead to any great demand that he start fighting serious contenders immediately. The Wilder approach may be best -- slow, steady, and ignoring any critics who may find his case worth barking about.
To us, it's just the next step of a boxing career, something we see all the time, a prospect taking on a credible but far from elite veteran. For Breazeale, however, this is the biggest fight of his budding career. He's going to want to impress against Kassi, a fighter good enough to expose him if Breazeale has gotten ahead of himself.