The festive slumber is all but a distant memory, as the mini-hibernation of the boxing world awakens in anticipation for the 12 months that follow. Seldom does a sport offer such gargantuan highs caveated with heartbreaking lows, but – as I have mentioned many times previously – no matter how many times boxing knocks us down, we’ll always find a way to clamber to our feet and make the count.
2020 has arrived, but what do we hope for around the corner?
Errol Spence Jr vs Terence Crawford
The search for supremacy in the 147-pound division tops many lists as we turn the page on another year. PBC’s apparent monopoly of the welterweight division allows Errol Spence Jr – WBC/IBF titlist – endless opportunities to consolidate and pad his unblemished record. A revisit to his 2019 Fight of the Year contender with Shawn Porter; following the preferred, planned path towards Danny Garcia; Keith Thurman; Manny Pacquiao – all sensible, measured options to keep the belts “in-house” as we await transparency – as well as a return from a horrific car crash – from “The Truth” as to his next move.
The call for unification against Top Rank’s “Bud” may grow too deafening to ignore. Crawford has recently doubled down on his perceived stance as the man to beat in the division, citing the PBC as the B-side in potential negotiations against any of their fighters. Crawford believes the PBC needs him more than he needs them, with Bob Arum alluding to a 2020 schedule packed with fights against junior welterweights on the move upwards of seven pounds.
Regis Prograis and Josh Taylor went hell-for-leather in their World Boxing Super Series final, with calls for Crawford to dance with either should they decide to swim in welterweight waters. Add the WBC/WBO 140-pound titlist Jose Ramirez to the mix, and you’ve already got a bank of recognized champions for “Bud” and Bob to fall back on — as reasonable as these sound on paper, we can’t be blindsided by alternatives to what could be regarded as a fight to determine the current pound-for-pound star of boxing.
The pair took to Twitter this week in what appeared to be the genesis of potential negotiations. “Errol Spence Jr is a cool dude on some real shit, we both agree the fight will happen,” Crawford tweeted after an entertaining back-and-forth culminated in a phone call between the two. Their confrontation spiked as Crawford claimed he would make Spence “cry in his car” if the fight was made, claiming the unified champion wasn’t “built for this shit.”
Stylistically, it’s a fight that ticks all the boxes between two incredible technicians competing at the peak of their powers. Spence vs Crawford is easier said than done, but when once in a generation match-ups — especially in a division dripping in such history — come knocking, the door must be forced open. FOX and ESPN are joining forces in February for Wilder vs Fury 2, so assuming any difference are ironed out, one hurdle looks set to be cleared with a precedent to be followed.
”I do want the top names and I do want to be the undisputed welterweight champion of the world,” Spence confirmed in an interview at the end of 2019. We need fewer question marks and more exclamation marks this year, with “No Mas” conversation at welterweight. The rewards and status for the winner are too alluring to disdain.
A chance for “Chocolatito” to regain world glory
In a piece towards the back end of the year, I held my nose and contributed to the arbitrary award that Fighter of the Decade became across the boxing media. It’s the first time in my memory that the end of a decade has been played out so visibly across social media, with accolades assigned to fights, fighters, trainers, heck, even promotors, for their body of work between 2010-2019. My award — based on dominance, achievements, longevity and, granted, Mayweather-hesitance — went to Roman “Chocolatito” Gonzalez.
Now, aged 32 with a record of 48-2, the Nicaraguan enters his 16th year of combat with a desire to reclaim a world title still burning bright. Back-to-back losses to my 2017 Fighter of the Year Srisaket Sor Rungvisai derailed “Chocolatito’s” cruise into the junior bantamweight sunset as well as handing him his only losses of a previously unblemished record scaling three weight classes. A return to action at the end of December after a 15-month layoff sowed the seeds to a re-blossoming in 2020 in an attempt to regain a world title.
With 50 professional fights under his belt in the lowest weight classes, Gonzalez is regarded as a veteran, despite not celebrating his 33rd birthday until June. His second-round blowout of Diomel Diocos in Yokohama just before the turn of the year allowed any cobwebs to be brushed aside; any joints to be oiled under the unparalleled microscope of professional fighting.
His future may, and should, be considered at flyweight. Gonzalez is a fleshy 115-pounder and has been found out amongst the elite of the division. Eddie Hearn has stated his interest in making Gonzalez vs Kal Yafai for the WBA title at junior bantamweight in the early part of 2020, but despite this obvious payday, the Nicaraguan may be best suited to ply his trade back at flyweight, with opportunities in Japan seemingly open.
Gutsy, gritty, efficient and one of the purest fighters you’ll see — for all that “Chocolatito” has given the sport, he deserves to retire on his own terms in a final shot for glory.
Lessons need to be learned as heartbreak follows heartbreak
It’s an unforgiving juxtaposition that fight fans tussle with daily. In a sport which focus is placed on knocking your opponent unconscious, the cruellest of realities are faced in the most sobering of ways when a fighter is hurt or – notably in 2019 – killed due to punishment taken inside the ring.
Maxim Dadashev, Hugo Santillan, Boris Stanchov and Patrick Day’s names were added to the heartbreaking list of deceased fighters in 2019, with immediate calls for improvements to safety in boxing echoed louder and further following each announcement.
Boxing is polluted with hypocrisy on a myriad of topics, and unfortunately, the health and safety of fighters seem nonexempt to this insincerity across vested interests. Failed drugs tests are excused by some yet lambasted by others; detrimental methods of making weight are encouraged to save revenue on a show; organisations and bodies contradict each other’s rulings to secure an edge in competition; mismatches are encouraged, with B-side fighters risking life and limb for a payday; cuts to immediate medical attention ringside are all too common – sure, boxing can never be made safe, but improvements to these huge issues are necessary yet appear too easily blocked.
This conversation only ever seems to arise in the aftermath of a tragedy. Yesterday’s news too often becomes today’s fish and chip paper, with monetary gain placed above the life of the gladiators that put the bums on seats in the coliseum of combat.
”Boxing will forever save more lives than it takes,” is a line I fall back on predictably whenever another tragedy occurs. Whilst being true, it’s also the equivalent of covering my eyes and putting my fingers in my ears. One stolen life will always be too many. The sport needs to grow on a united front.
World Boxing Super Series for the 175-pounders
Build it, and they will come. That was the vision of the Sauerland brothers as they embarked on the World Boxing Super Series tournament in 2017. Since it’s inception, four champions have lifted the Muhammad Ali Trophy in thrilling all-action finals worthy of the Ring Magazine’s belt on each occasion – Oleksandr Usyk, Callum Smith, Josh Taylor and Naoya Inoue all stated their claims for pound-for-pound inclusion following three successive wins over the tournament format.
Now, as we await the final of the second season of cruiserweight action, thoughts turn to the next instalment – assuming that problems found at the start of 2019 have been resolved – and the next nominated weight class.
It’s bordering on fantasy, sure, but its hard to argue against the light-heavys being the best positioned to duke it out over an eight-man tournament to determine – or confirm – who reigns supreme at 175 pounds. From champions, Artur Beterbiev, Dmitry Bivol and (secondary WBA) Jean Pascal, to former champions and contenders such as Oleksandr Gvozdyk, Badou Jack, Marcus Browne and Sergey Kovalev to up-and-coming potentials including Joshua Buatsi and Anthony Yarde, the intrigue is mouth-watering in a stacked and dangerous division.
Boxing politics will, of course, stunt the simplicity of such plea, but after Gvozdyk and Beterbiev went to war in 2019 there is enough hope to cling onto in assuming that these top-tier, unification match-ups will be forced regardless of the WBSS backing.
Top to bottom, it’s hard to look past the current crop of light-heavyweights as my favourite division in the sport.
Canelo vs 168-pound titlists
Canelo has spent his last three fights dipping into three different weight classes. Scooping the secondary WBA title at super-middleweight was followed by unification at middleweight with his 2019 punctuated by a move up to light-heavy to crush “Krusher” to the bottom rope in a flummoxed heap.
The Mexican superstar is expected to return on May 2 this year, but the occupant of the opposite corner is still to be determined.
Topping my list are two of the belt holders at 168 pounds – Callum Smith and Billy Joe Saunders. Both champions have suffered greatly from stagnation in their careers, with opportunities knocking less frequently, edging them towards the entrance of the “who needs him club”.
Supremely talented, both owning unique artillery in the super-middleweight division, Canelo’s resolve should be tested from unfamiliar quarters if either of the Britons receives the golden ticket in the post. Long, rangy, well-balanced, strong with a devastating check left hook, “Mundo” has the ability to out man Canelo if both decide to trade – vulnerabilities shown in an under-par victory over John Ryder in November may work in Smith’s favour to lure the Mexican into battle. Billy Joe Saunders offers a completely different challenge, using his slick, dexterous, southpaw evasiveness to frustrate opponents into wild Lemieux-Esque misses.
The Gennadiy Golovkin trilogy fight will never go away. DAZN’s $500 million investment was used to acquire both fighters, with a 25th round between the pair gaining unrivalled interest across the globe. The platform would be unwise to let such opportunity bypass, but to me, the intrigue doesn’t compare to what Smith or Saunders may offer.
Canelo will be expected to fight twice in 2020. Smith or Saunders in May would facilitate a steadier climb back down to 160 pounds towards the back end of the year where Golovkin will be waiting.
”After Feb. 22 there will be no more unanswered questions,” Deontay Wilder tweeted following the overdue announcement of his rematch with Tyson Fury. In 2020, heavyweight clarity needs to be obtained as we continue to crave an answer to the rightful ruler of the division.
An undisputed champion seems unlikely to emerge from the weeds created by the four recognised governing bodies, but that shouldn’t dissuade the necessity of champion vs champion fights in the land of the giants.
Anthony Joshua’s revenge over Andy Ruiz Jr in December has seemingly forced the WBO and IBF into uncompromising positions: Oleksandr Usyk and Kubrat Pulev have both been called as mandatories, with Joshua unlikely to satisfy both in the required time frame. This, arguably, is a blessing in disguise for Matchroom, Eddie Hearn and “AJ” who can now focus their attention on the *easier* IBF route of Pulev, with the Ukrainian “Cat” left waiting for the chance to fight for a vacated WBO strap.
This, in theory, should open the door for the Joshua/Pulev winner to fight the Wilder/Fury winner at the back end of the year; however, a proposed trilogy between the “Bronze Bomber” and “Gypsy King” looks the most likely barrier to seeking clarity within 12 months.
If compromises are made between the organisations, Joshua may spend his year fulfilling both mandatories, forcing a copy and paste job of this “heavyweight clarity” segment in the same piece at the start of 2021.
The formerly mentioned Usyk and Dillian Whyte look the best-positioned to break up this monopoly of column inches that Wilder, Fury and Joshua possess. Both men are snapping at the heels of the three flag-bearers, with 22-year-old Daniel Dubois touted to force his way into the conversation a little further along the line.
A successful Tokyo Olympics is needed in amateur boxing’s hour of need
It was off; it was on, it was off, and then it was on again. After a confusing and concerning period for amateur boxing, the sport was finally confirmed as being included in the 2020 Olympic schedule.
After the International Olympic Committee suspended the International Boxing Association (AIBA) early last year, the Olympic Boxing Task Force was created to deliver a tournament at the 2020 Summer Olympics. Concerns over AIBA’s finance, governance, ethics, refereeing and judging forced the hand of the IOC, who subsequently handed power to the independent group.
A new qualifying system was created with five locations – Wuhan, China; Dakar, Senegal; London, England; Buenos Aires, Argentina; and Paris, France – across the globe hosting events in the run-up to the Games starting on July 24.
The most notable change from Rio 2016 is the vast increase in female fighters competing in the 2020 tournament as the IOC look to improve gender equality at the Games. 186 men and 100 women will compete across the 13 weight classes (8 male and 5 female), an increase of 64 women from four years ago.
After years of corruption and a rotting core of boxing’s amateur heartbeat, a successful 2020 is paramount for the sport to continue to grow from its grassroots. Oleksandr Khyzhniak, Julio Cesar de la Cruz, Andy Cruz, Amit Panghal, David Ssemujju and Li Qian are amongst the names expected to challenge for medals this year after a distressing period where movements outside the ring have been deemed superior to that inside.
2020 fight wish list
- Errol Spence Jr. vs Terence Crawford
- Anthony Joshua vs Wilder-Fury winner
- Canelo Alvarez vs Callum Smith
- Josh Taylor vs Jose Ramirez
- Naoya Inoue vs Guillermo Rigondeaux
- Vasiliy Lomachenko vs Gervonta Davis
- Josh Warrington vs Leo Santa Cruz
- Artem Dalakian vs Kosei Tanaka
- Rey Vargas vs Emanuel Navarrete
- Dmitry Bivol vs Artur Beterbiev