Despite its constant flaws, it’s been a bumper year for boxing inside the ring.
Oleksandr Usyk cleaning out the cruiserweight division; Canelo vs. GGG II; Srisaket Sor Rungvisai’s continued ascent; Loma passing tough assignments; Wilder’s Ortiz scare; Saucedo vs. Zappavigna’s fourth round and Tyson Fury rising from the ashes: 2018 has served up a myriad of shocks, unifications and controversy all in equal measure. Now, as we countdown to the new year, it’s time to turn our attention to the possibilities of next year’s boxing menu.
Let’s start with an hors-d’oeuvre, and some of the smaller, less headlined divisions. The superflys have had a renaissance in the past couple of years with the emergence of Thailand’s underdog hero — Srisaket Sor Rungvisai — dominating a majority of the column inches. A successful defence of his WBC 115-pound title against former flyweight world champion Juan Francisco Estrada was supplemented by two fairly routine defences against Young Gil Bae and Iran Diaz in the second half of the year; all roads lead to superfly unifications in 2019 with Filipino — and IBF world champion — Jerwin Ancajas top of the list.
Ancajas attended Sor Rungvisai’s October fight with Diaz in Bangkok, with the pair of champions refraining from verbal assaults and WWE style head-to-heads in the ring afterwards. As is common with pugilistic rivalries in Southeast Asia — in stark contrast to what is deemed a requirement in the US — respect was paramount in their meeting, with a bow to each other signalling the start of a build towards one of the purest unification fights possible in the new year.
Sor Rungvisai has positioned himself firmly in many pound-for-pound top 10s, with a potential victory over the dangerous, yet recently underwhelming ‘Pretty Boy’ likely to prove a further bow to his string as he aims for the sports summit.
This fight could have been made last year. It could have, arguably, been bigger last year. Despite this, it’s still one of the most mouth-watering of prospects in the lower weight categories and not to be ignored.
Jumping up a weight division allows us to splash into the bantamweight pool; a pool currently entertaining the gala that is the World Boxing Super Series knockout tournament.
Naoya Inoue is the pick of the bunch for many at the 118-pound limit, and with the ‘Monster’ due to fight for Emmanuel Rodríguez’s IBF strap in the TBA semi-finals, it becomes harder to state a case for the following addition to the wishlist: Naoyo Inoue vs. Luis Nery.
I will anyway. Partly due to the ongoing rumours surrounding the tournament’s future — Mike Coppinger from the RING wrote recently that “turmoil has been brewing behind the scenes” with investors, and “several fighters still waiting for their victory bonuses” — and partly due to the fact that this tournament should be done and dusted by September anyway.
If either of these eventualities transpires, I firmly believe that Inoue will remain a belt holder at bantamweight; either unified or WBA “regular”, with the Japanese superstar remaining the man to beat in the division.
In steps Luis Nery. Putting aside his failed drugs test which has subsequently been ruled as failing due to “contaminated food”, the 24-year-old Mexican has made no secret about his desire to regain the WBC bantamweight strap after being stripped following his first win over Shinsuke Yamanaka.
Nery is still unbeaten with a growing record of 27-0; the southpaw has shown enough to argue his case for a place in a super fight in 2019 whether it be at 118-pounds or 122. This is an important point that leads to a potential fight with Inoue. Nery made 121-pounds in his rematch with Yamanaka weighing three pounds over the limit. Whether Nery is confident in making bantamweight again could prove crucial for this fight to materialise with Inoue already winning “world titles” in three different weight classes.
With unbeaten records on the line, this would be a true clash of styles between two slick operators. My fear, however, is that this one may slip through the net.
Next, we step into the Matrix. With wins over Jorge Linares and Jose Pedraza, Vasiliy Lomachenko cemented his place in everyone’s pound-for-pound top three; topping the list of a majority.
Despite getting the wins in convincing fashion, the Ukrainian three-weight world champion has shown a few vulnerabilities that will entice future opponents into the ring with him. He hit the canvas in his beat-down of Linares and didn’t have it all his own way over the 12 round dissection of Pedraza — these criticisms, however, come only due to the highest standards Loma has set himself.
He may struggle to move up to light welterweight with the ease that he has so far climbed from featherweight to lightweight; this is where Mikey Garcia plays his part. We know that Errol Spence Jr. vs Mikey Garcia is live for March 16 in Texas, however, we also know how that fight will play out.
I won’t go over old ground, but Garcia’s jump up to welterweight looks a suicidal mission against the hard-hitting Spence. ‘The Truth’ is expected to play out in fairly routine style, with Garcia looking to move back down to a more natural lightweight in the second half of the year.
Garcia is 31 years old, still unbeaten (for now), with 39 wins in a 13-year professional career: the four-weight world titlist is looking for career-defining fights at this stage of his ride, with Lomachenko a prime candidate.
Garcia got a unanimous decision over Sergey Lipinets in March weighing in at 140-pounds - claiming the light welterweight IBF strap — so dragging Loma up to his fourth professional weight class is a likely option for this bout to materialise in 2019.
Lomachenko has made his desire clear to fight Garcia, with his résumé speaking volumes of his willingness to enter the ring with the best. As much as this fight holds a deserved place on the wishlist, it’s clear that Bob Arum and Top Rank will prove the biggest hurdle to jump in the new year. Promotional politics will continue to plague our sport for years to come, so to assume that Loma vs. Garcia is in any way above it is fanciful.
Speaking earlier this year, Arum made his opinions on Garcia very clear in speaking to the RING Magazine: “(Garcia) doesn’t like to take chances; that’s the way he always was,” Arum said. “Excellent talent, he has that.” Arum thinks Garcia is looking to fight Spence because “Spence will beat him and (Garcia) can say I got beat up by a guy two weight classes bigger. He’s desperately afraid of fighting Loma at the same weight. Loma makes him look like an idiot. If Mikey fights Loma in the same style he fought Easter, he will get destroyed.”
But hey, this is a wishlist, not a prediction. Who would be stupid enough to make a prediction in boxing..?
[Part two to follow...]