With 2017 coming to a close and all but over for major boxing — there are, as always, a few big fights coming on December 30 and 31 in Japan — let’s take a look ahead at some of the best fights already official for the first part of 2018.
1 - Srisaket Sor Rungvisai vs Juan Francisco Estrada (February 24)
It was a tough pick, but I’m going with the “Superfly II” headliner as the best fight on tap for right now. Listen, if Canelo-GGG II was signed and sealed, it’d be the No. 1 fight here. But it’s not, and there are some reasons for concern, so I’m not putting it on this list.
That leaves me to go with Srisaket (44-4-1, 40 KO) and Estrada (36-2, 25 KO). I expect a tremendous fight here. Srisaket is brimming with confidence after his huge 2017, which left him a shortlist nominee for BWAA Fighter of the Year, in a year where he started off a virtual unknown outside of Thailand and diehard fans of the sport. His March win over Roman Gonzalez had some controversy, but the rematch in September did not. Srisaket took Gonzalez apart the second time around, and is the clear top guy at 115 right now.
Estrada, meanwhile, had been hunting a Gonzalez rematch since 2012, when “Chocolatito” beat him by decision, when both were junior flyweights. Estrada followed Gonzalez to flyweight, and then to super flyweight, winning a pair of world titles at flyweight when he beat Brian Viloria in 2013. This year, he stopped Anuar Salas in March, then got to HBO and defeated former titleholder Carlos Cuadras on the first “Superfly” card.
With Srisaket’s style and power, and Estrada’s resilience and skills, I expect a great fight.
2 - Oleksandr Usyk vs Mairis Briedis (January 27)
It certainly comes across just by being No. 2, and I debated between this and Srisaket-Estrada pretty heavily. This is a great matchup, and the World Boxing Super Series has really — knock on wood — turned out to be something great so far.
Usyk (13-0, 11 KO) may not be a highlight reel machine, but he’s a terrific boxer, skilled and slick, with power to boot. Michael Hunter didn’t do much engaging in April, so Usyk won a wide decision. Marco Huck tried a little harder in September, and Usyk stopped him in the 10th. To me, Usyk is the best cruiserweight in the world.
But the cool thing is, we’re going to find out for real by the end of this tournament. Here, he’s in against Brieidis (23-0, 18 KO), a tough Latvian fighter on a really good run, with wins over Olanrewaju Durodola, Marco Huck, and Mike Perez in his last four fights. When he beat Huck in April, he won the vacant WBC title, and defended against Perez in September.
And Briedis will have home field in Riga, too, as Usyk is willing to go on the road and take that risk, confident that he’s simply the better fighter. This one has some sleeper qualities to it, at least for many American fans, since the WBSS hasn’t had a real U.S. TV outlet. Hopefully, they can find one for the next batch of fights and the final bouts of the tournaments. These fights deserve to be seen.
3 - Dmitry Bivol vs Sullivan Barrera (March 3)
This is the co-feature to a Sergey Kovalev-Igor Mikhalkin main event on HBO, but it’s the much more interesting fight. Bivol, who holds the WBA light heavyweight title, is unbeaten (12-0, 10 KO) and has trucked his opposition thus far. But he has yet to face someone who can fight at the level of Barrera (21-1, 14 KO), whose only loss came to Andre Ward.
2016 was a good year for both. Bivol blasted through Robert Berridge, Samuel Clarkson, Cedric Agnew, and Trent Broadhurst, and made his way to HBO in the process. Barrera stopped Paul Parker in April, then came up big against Joe Smith Jr and Felix Valera to close the year.
It’s a tremendous next test for Bivol. If he passes this one with the same flying colors he has in previous bouts, he’s an extremely interesting opponent for Kovalev later in 2018. If Barrera wins, then he steps in as the best opponent for Kovalev, as HBO tries to work its way to a “biggest possible” fight in the division for next year, at least with the fighters they have on their network.
4 - George Groves vs Chris Eubank Jr (February 17)
This one is going to have a lot of heat. Expect a raucous, split crowd in Manchester, as Groves (27-3, 20 KO) is sure to have his supporters, and Eubank (26-1, 20 KO) is a divisive and charismatic figure. There will be a lot of people rooting for Eubank to prove he’s as good as he says, and a lot rooting for Groves to shut his mouth.
But once the press conferences and whatnot come and go, they have to fight, and it’s a really good fight on paper. Some feel that Groves is a bit washed, but I don’t really see it. He’s looked very good for the past two years, following a hard-fought loss to Badou Jack in 2015, his third setback in as many world title fights. He got over that hump in May of this year, beating Fedor Chudinov for the WBA super middleweight title, then defended against Jamie Cox in the first round of the WBSS.
Now, he’s got Eubank, who is as flashy as they come in today’s boxing world. Eubank went 3-0 in 2017, beating Renold Quinlan in a move up to super middleweight, then routing Arthur Abraham in July to earn his spot in the WBSS. A first round wipeout of Avni Yildirim showed the second-generation fighter as destructive as he’s looked to date.
This one could be a barnburner, or it could honestly be Eubank thrashing Groves. He has those sort of physical gifts, and if he starts hot, it could be lights out early. Or he could find himself in the deeper waters, where he had real trouble in his loss to Billy Joe Saunders back in 2014. Eubank is better now than he was then, but Groves is a much bigger test than the Tom Dorans and Tony Jeters of the world, too.
5 - Murat Gassiev vs Yunier Dorticos (February 3)
Three of the five fights on this list are from the World Boxing Super Series. The other fight (Callum Smith vs Juergen Braehmer) wouldn’t make the list even if it were actually official, which it’s not, because all Braehmer fights are subject to a lot of logistics and whatnot.
Anyway, this could be another tremendous fight. Dorticos (22-0, 21 KO) will be going on the road to Russia for this one, giving Gassiev (25-0, 18 KO) home field advantage. But it’s not like Dorticos fights to win decisions, either. He’s a somewhat rare Cuban action fighter, a knockout puncher who fights to do damage. His second round waxing of Dmitry Kudryashov in September came after a 2016 Fight of the Year contender with Youri Kalenga. Gassiev sparked out former titleholder Krzysztof Wlodarczyk in the third round in October. Expect fireworks here, with the IBF and WBA cruiserweight titles on the line, plus that spot in the tournament final.