This Saturday night on NBC (8:30 p.m. ET), Premier Boxing Champions returns with a tripleheader from the UIC Pavilion in Chicago, headlined by local hero Andrzej Fonfara in the main event, and a bantamweight title fight in the co-feature.
Here’s a look at the three matchups set for the show.
Andrzej Fonfara vs Joe Smith Jr
Record: 28-3 (16 KO) ... Streak: W3 ... Last 5: 4-1 ... Last 10: 9-1 ... Stance: Orthodox ... Height/Reach: 6’2½" / 77" ... Age: 28
Thoughts: Gather ‘round, children, and listen to a tale from many moons ago. In 2012, a Polish-born Chicagoan named Andrzej Fonfara beat Byron Mitchell via third round TKO at the UIC Pavilion, and four months later, he beat washed-up ol’ Glen Johnson via 10-round unanimous decision at the same venue. A win over Tommy Karpency came next, an odd fight, also at the UIC Pavilion, where Karpency was very competitive and then something, uh, happened? In the seventh round?
If you’ve never seen the finish of that fight, here it is:
Keep in mind it’s Karpency the one throwing all the punches there, and Karpency the one who goes down after a side headlock and fall. Referee Pete Podgorski asked Karpency if he wanted to continue, and Karpency said no. There was talk that Karpency had suffered a shoulder injury, or that he felt ill, but whatever, it was a win, weird as it was.
After that, a bunch of promoters — Leon Margules, Dominic Pesoli, Frank Mugnolo, and Andrew Wasilewski -- got together to put on a fight card at U.S. Cellular Field, home of the Chicago White Sox, for the 2013 ESPN Friday Night Fights season finale. Fonfara headlined against former titleholder Gabriel Campillo, and won a ninth round knockout. After a stay-busy fight (a KO-2 win over Samuel Miller to close 2013), Fonfara was signed up to face WBC titleholder Adonis Stevenson in May 2014.
Stevenson was expected to easily handle Fonfara. He didn't. The Polish fighter gave a spirited effort on the road in Montreal, losing a decision on scores of 115-110, 115-110, and 116-109. Stevenson definitely won the fight, but Fonfara was much more competitive than most anyone was expecting going into the fight. In defeat, Fonfara was taken more seriously as an actual contender than he was before he got the shot at Stevenson.
And it’s pretty much stayed that way since then. Stevenson’s title reign has been a three-year bore of easy defenses and obvious ducks, but the Fonfara fight was actually pretty good. Andrzej beat Doudou Ngumbu back in Chicago in November 2014, and then was given another big fight, facing Julio Cesar Chavez Jr at the StubHub Center in April 2015.
Fonfara beat the shit out of Chavez. There is no other way to put it. Every time I talk about that fight, that's how I describe it, because that's what it was. This was not Chavez going 50-50 or 40-60 and getting a disputed decision, as he had many other times in his career. It was Fonfara just completely wiping the canvas with him for nine rounds, until Chavez was done. It was an annihilation. And it further established Fonfara as a serious contender, his biggest name win to date, easily.
Last October, he was again back in Chicago at the UIC Pavilion to face former titleholder Nathan Cleverly. Cleverly gave a tremendous effort, but was battered and outpointed in what wound up being a hell of a fight, a PBC on Spike main event. There was a lot of thought then that Fonfara would get the Stevenson rematch that he's wanted for two years now. But he's not getting it. Considering it might be the actual biggest fight Stevenson is going to take, maybe they’re marinating it. Or maybe Stevenson doesn't want to fight him. Who knows?
Anyway, Fonfara's story over the last few years has been very interesting. This is a fighter who lost in his fifth pro fight in 2006, and again in his 12th pro fight in 2008. He really wasn’t supposed to become a contender, but he is. And at 28, he's right in the prime of his career.
His opponent on Saturday isn't the most eye-catching name. On paper, this should be a stay busy fight, but on paper, Fonfara was supposed to be a stay-busy opponent for Stevenson.
Joe Smith Jr
Record: 21-1 (17 KO) ... Streak: W15 ... Last 5: 5-0 ... Last 10: 10-0 ... Stance: Orthodox ... Height/Reach: 6'0" / N/A ... Age: 26
Thoughts: Joe Smith Jr lost in his seventh pro fight in 2010 to Eddie Caminero, a fighter who has gone on to fight six more times between 2010 and 2015, losing every single time, and knocked out in five of those contests.
Since then, Smith has stayed on the club scene in New York, fighting at places like the Roseland Ballroom, Paramount Theatre, BB King Blues Club, Aviator Sports Complex, and Resorts World Casino in Queens. He’s faced veteran guys like Otis Griffin and Michael Gbenga, familiar club names like Tyrell Hendrix and Cory Cummings, and in his biggest win yet, Ozone Park veteran Will Rosinsky. Smith beat Rosinsky by decision last December at Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
Smith is not the opponent anyone was hoping to see Fonfara face. He's ranked 41st in the world by BoxRec and has never been on anyone's radar at 175 pounds.
The most likely scenario here is that Smith finds himself overmatched against a guy who is an actual contender. On paper, that’s the fight we’ve got -- a contender who needed someone to fight, and, well, this guy was available. But even if this is what it appears to be, you do never totally know until the fight has happened. There have been bigger upsets than Joe Smith Jr beating Andrzej Fonfara.
Matchup Grade: D+. I’m trying to be positive and all, but, well -- I mean, look, we’re talking about this on paper, and on paper, it's a pretty crap main event. Fonfara is expected to win without much trouble, and with very good reason. This is a guy who thrashed Julio Cesar Chavez Jr, who is tough if nothing else, and turned Nathan Cleverly’s face into a mess in his last two fights. Fonfara is not an elite talent or anything, and maybe Smith will be a surprise, but this also might be exactly the mismatch it appears to be. If it winds up being good, then that’s great, but on paper, it’s barely acceptable at best.
Juan Carlos Payano vs Rau'shee Warren
Juan Carlos Payano
Record: 17-0 (8 KO) ... Streak: W17 ... Last 5: 5-0 ... Last 10: 10-0 ... Stance: Southpaw ... Height/Reach: 5'5" / 64½" ... Age: 32
Thoughts: When I sit around tweaking my own personal divisional rankings for kicks, mostly to keep track throughout the year for the year-end review like we did at the end of 2015, Payano is someone I have difficulty rating.
He beat Anselmo Moreno to win the WBA bantamweight title in 2014. But that was a technical decision scored on six rounds, and I sincerely think Moreno is the better fighter. But he beat Moreno. And his only title defense thus far was the first fight with Rau’shee Warren last August, and that one was controversial. I thought Warren did enough to win. But Payano got the win, and I wouldn't class it as a robbery — this isn’t exactly like when I refused to rank Tim Bradley over Manny Pacquiao in 2012.
And past that, there’s not much on Payano’s record. Club fighters and gatekeepers, an old Luis Maldonado. As a fighter, he’s certainly held his own with Moreno, a world class fighter who is really tricky, and Warren, a spirited, younger fighter with a lot of determination. Two very different styles, and Payano was able to combat them both pretty well.
So there is plenty to like here. He's obviously a talented fighter, but how good is he? That’s still kind of an open question. He had half a fight with Moreno and the Warren fight was controversial and, at times, pretty dirty. Maybe he's a legit top bantamweight and will be for a while longer, or maybe he’s a guy somewhat fortunate to be in the position he’s in, and this will ultimately be a forgotten title run. A good, clear win on Saturday would go a ways in determining that.
Record: 13-1 (4 KO) ... Streak: L1 ... Last 5: 3-1 (1 NC) ... Last 10: 8-1 (1 NC) ... Stance: Southpaw ... Height/Reach: 5'4½" / 64½" ... Age: 29
Thoughts: Warren was a three-time Olympian, fighting for the United States in Athens in 2004, Beijing in 2008, and London in 2012. In Athens, he was the youngest boxer in the Games, and the youngest male athlete on all of Team USA, across every sport, at just 17. He lost to China’s Zou Shiming in the first round. Before the 2008 Games, Warren had won gold at the 2007 Worlds in Chicago, and in Beijing, he was expected to do much better, older and more mature. But he lost to South Korea’s Lee Ok-sung in the first round, a controversial decision. In London, he lost a terrific fight to France's Nordine Oubaali, once again exiting in the first round.
The Cincinnati native went pro three months after the London games, signing with Al Haymon as many of the Team USA fighters did. He won his first 13 fights (well, 13 with a no-contest, against a fighter he beat a few months after in a rematch) and got a world title shot last August in Winter Park, Florida. That was the fight with Payano, a controversial loss in a big fight, something Warren has probably grown quite tired of experiencing.
There was some question about why Warren didn’t just go pro after the 2008 Olympics. He was 21 then, had taken two shots at the Olympics, had won various medals as an amateur, including that ‘07 Worlds gold in Chicago, and there didn’t appear to be much more he could do. But Warren really wanted to win an Olympic gold medal, and I kind of understood other potential thoughts behind staying amateur. For one thing, Warren fought as a flyweight in the amateurs, and there is frankly not a huge market for American flyweights. There's more of one now, with the emergence of Chocolatito Gonzalez as an actual HBO player, but in 2008 that was not a division that was really getting any TV exposure. If Warren had gone pro then, he’d have been traveling all over the world to find decent fights anyway.
As a bantamweight in a changing sport, where there are simply far more TV slots open with PBC spreading itself thin all over the television world, he's got more options. He got a title fight on U.S. soil with Payano, and now the rematch is going to be an NBC co-feature. Maybe he gave up a few years that could’ve been spent as a pro. Maybe he should have gone pro and not bothered with London. I don’t know for sure. But overall it’s worked out OK.
I will say this: as a good amateur fighter, Warren never struck me as a big pro prospect, and I’ve had mixed feelings about his pro performances overall. At times, he seems to want to prove he can punch, but in all honesty, he’s not much of a puncher. He’s dropped plenty of guys -- including Payano -- but he certainly doesn’t have one-punch power, and he's not a terribly effective finisher, either. He’s a good, quick boxer, but sometimes watching him, I get the sense that he's simply trying to do too much — more than he needs to be doing.
But he proved he can fight at a high level in the first Payano bout, and now he gets another crack to prove he’s world title material. He’s come up short in Athens, Beijing, London, and Winter Park. But his biggest win as an amateur came in Chicago, where he fights again on Saturday. Is the Windy City his lucky charm?
Matchup Grade: B. A rematch of a controversial fight that deserved a rematch, on national TV where it belongs, for a recognized world title. These two were pretty evenly matched in a nasty fight the first time around. I’m also bumping this just a bit for being a bantamweight title fight on major TV. That’s something we need to see more of in the States. There’s plenty of room for a fight like this on a card like this, and it’s certainly nice to have a fight that actually means something instead of some filler co-feature. In all candor, this is the fight to tune in and watch on Saturday.
Erickson Lubin vs Daniel Sandoval
Record: 14-0 (10 KO) ... Streak: W14 ... Last 5: 5-0 ... Last 10: 10-0 ... Stance: Southpaw ... Height/Reach: 5'11" / 76" ... Age: 20
Thoughts: Lubin is a very good prospect — I had him as the No. 1 prospect at 154 pounds at the end of 2015, and that hasn't changed. A couple of times he's flirted with a disappointing performance, but being as young as he is, and the fact that he turned pro just after his 18th birthday with some hype already behind him, that’s forgivable.
Here’s what I said in December:
Lubin, 20, is not going to be in big fights any time soon, but as far as pure talent goes, I think he's a notch above the rest of the prospects at 154 pounds. He's got good size (5'11", 76-inch reach), speed, big power, and a lot of confidence. He has at times let that confidence make him look sloppy, but he's still a developing fighter. If he winds up able to harness his ability, he could be special. Lubin went 5-0 this year with good wins for his level.
Normally I wouldn’t quote myself, but that’s about how I feel today, too. I mean, it was six months ago and he’s had just one fight since, a predictable shutout win over Jose de Jesus Macias on January 31.
Record: 38-3 (35 KO) ... Streak: W3 ... Last 5: 4-1 ... Last 10: 9-1 ... Stance: Orthodox ... Height/Reach: 6'1" / 77½" ... Age: 25
Thoughts: Sandoval has 35 stoppages in his 38 wins, which indicates some big power. But who has he stopped, really? Well, no one great. The most notable stoppage wins on his record have come against Jorge Silva, who has been stopped six times; Michel Rosales, who has been stopped nine times; and Grady Brewer, who has been stopped 10 times and was also 44 years old when they fought last year.
But it's not easy to stop 35 fighters in 38 wins, either, even with some smoke and mirrors. That said, his power is probably more represented by what you can see in his fights with Richard Gutierrez and Omar Chavez, the latter Sandoval's only loss since 2011, coming in 2014. Chavez went 10 full and won a decision, never going down. Gutierrez went the eight-round distance and also was never down in his 2013 fight with Sandoval.
So while the knockout record looks good, it doesn’t mean that much. You can't just totally ignore it, but it’s not what it looks like without a more serious look at the record, or even just a glance.
"Galeno" isn't a bad fighter, but he is here to be a stepping stone for a top prospect, and nothing more. Surely he’ll come to win, yes, but if the matchmakers really thought that was a serious risk, he wouldn’t be here at all. This is a step up a bit for Lubin, though. Sandoval's only been stopped once himself, and that came back in 2009, when he was 18 years old. The expectation is that he has the ability to give Lubin some rounds.
Matchup Grade: C. It is, as we often must say, what it is, a prospect against a gatekeeper type. Lubin is thought to be a special prospect, and the physical tools are certainly there, so the questions are mostly about his mentality and, eventually, how he might respond to actual adversity. He hasn’t been tested in that regard yet, and with his youth, may not be any time soon. There’s a chance that Sandoval could do something here, but again, if the organizers thought that was a serious risk, it wouldn’t be happening. Sandoval's job is to prove them wrong. Lubin’s is to prove them right.