January is traditionally a very slow month for boxing, as generally speaking major name fighters don’t want to spend the holiday season in training camp avoiding all that good food and relaxing family time. Last year we did get Pacquiao-Broner and Keith Thurman’s return in the first month of the year, but in 2020 we don’t, being honest, have much for marquee fights lined up early in the year.
But there definitely are some good fights on tap this month, and they shouldn’t fly under the radar. Let’s take a look at five you don’t want to miss.
(Note: I’m only counting shows that we’re going to cover live and will be easy for everyone to tune in and watch, so we’re talking shows with US TV here.)
5) Eleider Alvarez vs Michael Seals, Jan. 18 (ESPN)
The pickings are, again, admittedly a bit slim this month, but I think there’s some real potential here. The 35-year-old Alvarez (24-1, 12 KO) hasn’t fought since his Feb. 2019 loss to Sergey Kovalev, where Kovalev looked revitalized in the rematch and Alvarez looked clueless on how to deal with that. Let’s not forget, either, that when Alvarez upset Kovalev in 2018, he did so with a barrage of knockdowns while trailing in round seven, and for as long as Alvarez has been considered a top 10 light heavyweight, he’s had a lot of nights where he wasn’t exactly inspiring in victory.
So he’s been off almost a year, he’s getting older, he’s coming off of his first pro loss, and he’s never exactly been a dominant fighter. Oppose that with Michael Seals, who is 37 but has never had the big breakout, and you might have someone on the other side with a hunger Alvarez has lost.
Seals (24-2, 18 KO) has never been a top 10 guy and one would think if he were going to be, it would have happened by now. Reasonable odds says that would be the most likely outcome. But Seals fights like a madman, always; it was a while ago, but his Nov. 2015 war with Edwin Rodriguez says all you really need to know about Michael Seals. He hasn’t really changed his approach since then.
Alvarez is not the willing-to-engage warrior Rodriguez is/was, but Seals will almost certainly look to push a brawl, as he’s unlikely to outbox Eleider. Plus, Michael Seals’ facial expression is constantly locked at “cartoon villain,” and that’s fun.
4) Stephen Fulton vs Arnold Khegai, Jan. 25 (SHO)
The bigger name PBC fighters in action this month are all in what appear to be mismatches or at the very least not fights that are going to get anyone excited — Danny Garcia vs Ivan Redkach, Julian Williams vs Jeison Rosario, Jarrett Hurd vs Francisco Santana. Hurd-Santana is excusable as Hurd has had lots of camp drama since his loss to Williams last May, and he’s looking to bounce back, plus Santana is a wily vet, no scrub. Of those three, I think that’s the most interesting. Redkach is a fun fighter but Danny Garcia tends to goom “fun fighters,” and Williams ought to roll over Rosario.
But the best PBC fight of the month on paper is this quieter matchup at 122 pounds. Fulton (17-0, 8 KO) is trying to make a case for a top 10 spot at junior featherweight. The 25-year-old Philly native went 3-0 in 2019, scoring solid wins over Paulus Ambunda in May, where he shut out the Namibian veteran over 12 rounds, and Isaac Avelar in August. The win over Avelar seemed to be setting up a clash with Brandon Figueroa, but that isn’t happening just yet.
Khegai (16-0-1, 10 KO) is a 27-year-old Ukrainian now based in Philadelphia himself, a scrappy fighter who has looked pretty good so far as a pro and will try to make a serious mark against Fulton. On paper, this is a well-matched meeting of a pair of unbeaten prospects who badly want to go to the next level.
3) Jesse Hart vs Joe Smith Jr, Jan. 11 (ESPN)
Another Top Rank main event at light heavyweight, and another Philly fighter in Jesse Hart. Hart (26-2, 21 KO) has been right on the cusp for a bit now; he stepped up to challenge Gilberto “Zurdo” Ramirez for a super middleweight belt in 2017, losing a very competitive decision, and after three dominant wins over marginal opposition, got a rematch with Ramirez in 2018. Again, Hart dropped a very close decision.
Last year, Hart moved up to 175 pounds (as did Ramirez), and scored a June win over veteran Sullivan Barrera, a longtime contender who never quite broke through with that big win. Jesse, son of Eugene “Cyclone” Hart, is trying to avoid that same outcome with his career.
Opposing him will be Smith (24-3, 20 KO), who’s had an up-UP-down-and-down run the past few years. The 30-year-old Long Island puncher broke out in a big way in June 2016, when he smashed Andrzej Fonfara in the first round in Chicago. That fight was laughed at as the main event of an NBC-televised PBC show, as it figured to be a mismatch with no star power, and it was, I suppose, just the other way around in the result than most anyone expected.
Smith followed that six months later by knocking the truly legendary Bernard Hopkins not just out of the ring with a final blow, but out of boxing. Smith’s run didn’t last, as he had his jaw broken by Sullivan Barrera in 2017, losing a brave decision over 10 rounds, then returned in 2018 with a low-level tune-up before a Mar. 2019 loss to Dmitry Bivol, where Smith was just outclassed.
Neither of these guys are old or anything, in fact they’re both right in what should be their primes, but to stay relevant and in the mix in a good 175-pound division, this is must-win for both guys. Both guys can punch, neither is afraid to mix it up, and unlike the Bivol fight, Smith doesn’t figure to be outclassed so badly in skills here, in with someone who is content to cruise to a decision without taking many risks.
2) Tevin Farmer vs Joseph Diaz Jr, Jan. 30 (DAZN)
Farmer (30-4-1, 6 KO) and Diaz (30-1, 15 KO) have been beefing for about a year, both online and in person. You may recall their goofy encounter during Canelo-Jacobs fight week last May, and neither guy has quieted down since then.
Farmer will be defending the IBF 130-pound title here, and while I have great respect for the 29-year-old Philly fighter’s (another one!) journey to a hard-earned world title, I still see him as a somewhat vulnerable titleholder. He won his belt from Billy Dib, who was washed, in Aug. 2018. Since then he’s defended against James Tennyson, Francisco Fonseca, Jono Carroll, and Guillaume Frenois. Frenois was a mandatory, but all in all it’s impossible to argue that Farmer has been fighting the division’s best contenders.
And in a way, I even respect that; Tevin himself was never considered “one of the division’s best contenders,” and was ignored many times because he wasn’t a big name, wasn’t worth a lot of money, and clearly had some skills that made him a difficult in-ring proposition. The first four guys to face him once he became a world titleholder were not heavily-promoted star fighters, they were guys who might otherwise struggle to get a shot, ever. (That’s the optimistic way of looking at it, the pessimistic way is that Farmer has avoided tougher challenges. Choose your path.)
Diaz, 27, was a 2012 US Olympian whose pro career has been solid but not spectacular to date. He challenged for a featherweight title in 2018, losing a decision to Gary Russell Jr, and he gave Russell more trouble than anyone other than Vasiliy Lomachenko has in the pros. He’s gone 4-0 since the loss to Russell, but it hasn’t all been roses — he missed weight against Jesus Rojas in Aug. 2018, so he moved up to 130 for 2019, where he beat a series of overmatched opponents, the last of whom (Jesus Cuadro) gave Diaz a lot more problems than anyone expected on Sept. 21 in Mexico.
Diaz has recently voiced his displeasure with his promoters at Golden Boy, and this could be a really key fight for his career. If he wins, I expect he and Golden Boy will hash it all out and be friendly, at least for a while. If he loses, well, ask Andrew Cancio what happens when you publicly complain about GBP and then go lose a fight.
1) Daniel Roman vs Murodjon Akhmadaliev, Jan. 30 (DAZN)
Another fight from the Super Bowl Thursday show on DAZN, which features three world title bouts. Demetrius Andrade will face Luke Keeler in the main event for the WBO middleweight belt, and the co-feature is actually Jake Paul’s novelty bout. Farmer-Diaz is third from the top. And Roman-Akhmadaliev is fourth from the top.
But this is absolutely, without question the best fight of the month on paper. Roman (27-2-1, 10 KO) will be defending the WBA and IBF junior featherweight titles against Akhmadaliev (7-0, 6 KO), the WBA mandatory challenger and a fantastic prospect who, like many with the Olympic pedigree in recent years, didn’t come into the pro ranks looking to futz around for 20 fights before taking his swing.
The 29-year-old Roman has been one of boxing’s best stories for the last couple of years. He went to Japan in Sept. 2017 to challenge unbeaten Shun Kubo for the WBA “world” title at 122 pounds, and not only did he beat Kubo, he beat the crap out of Kubo, winning every round and stopping him in the ninth. He returned to Japan, this time at Korakuen Hall, in Feb. 2018 and won a wide decision over Ryo Matsumoto to retain his belt.
After defenses against Moises Flores and Gavin McDonnell in Texas and Chicago, Roman returned home to the Los Angeles area last April and had an absolute war with TJ Doheny, winning a majority decision to unify the WBA and IBF belts. This is not a fighter with a big, powerful promoter; he’s promoted by Thompson Boxing, who are working with Matchroom now that Roman is a name fighter in bigger bouts. He’s traveled, he’s proven himself, he’s earned it the hard way. This is a guy who started his pro career 8-2-1. He wasn’t a blue chipper. He wasn’t handed anything. He’s earned it all, much like Tevin Farmer.
But Akhmadaliev, 25, is a serious test. The southpaw amateur standout from Uzbekistan won bronze at the 2016 Olympics, losing in the semifinals to amateur great Robeisy Ramirez, and silver at the 2015 Worlds, where he was beaten by Michael Conlan in the final.
Akhmadaliev has skills, but he had a “pro style” even in the amateurs. He’s a guy who can really bomb and isn’t afraid to let his hands go. He’s proven capable of taking guys out early, but he’s also shown at least some evidence that he can go deeper into a fight, when he fought on HBO in Nov. 2018 on a show nobody watched, going into the ninth with a game Isaac Zarate before closing the show.
This fight was supposed to happen in 2019, but Roman was injured training and had to postpone. It’s on now, though, and it’s one you don’t want to miss.