2020 is pretty much over in the boxing world, so now let’s look forward to 2021, which could be a big one for the sport — if the big fights get made. We can say that every year, of course.
So let’s take a look at 10 picks for 2021 fights we want to see, or at least I want to see. There are a lot of other fights we could include here with bigger names — Tank Davis vs Ryan Garcia! Jermall Charlo vs Demetrius Andrade! — but we wanted to spread the love around some, too, and not get fixated on just the names. There’s more to boxing than just the names; OK, maybe there kind of isn’t in some ways, but it’d be nicer if there were.
10) Mairis Briedis vs Ilunga Makabu
Briedis (27-1, 19 KO) has the IBF cruiserweight belt, and Makabu (28-2, 25 KO) has the WBC, so this would be unification. Could be tough to get done, as Makabu is promoted by Don King, who is decades past relevance and barely operates anymore. King may or may not actually be aware of whom Makabu is, to be honest, and we hear more about the 89-year-old promoter when he gets in the way of something happening than when his name is actually attached to something that does.
But it’s also definitely an overseas fight, has no real business happening in the U.S., and that might make it easier. Makabu is a dangerous puncher who always comes to fight, and his leaky defense can make him vulnerable, which makes him fun to watch every time out. Briedis is rugged, tough, heavy-handed, and has underrated skills. He had a couple mediocre performances in 2018, but he also gave Oleksandr Usyk his toughest pro test early in that year, and looked really good beating Yuniel Dorticos in September of this year. Makabu just knocked out Olanrewaju Durodola over the weekend, so he’s active, too.
9) Kenshiro Teraji vs Hiroto Kyoguchi
Teraji (17-0, 10 KO) and Kyoguchi (14-0, 9 KO) are the best in the division at 108, which has good talent and there are other, possibly easier fights to make with these two against Felix Alvarado or Carlos Canizales or Elwin Soto, for instance. Those are also good fights. But Teraji-Kyoguchi is The Fight to make in the division.
Teraji is currently on suspension in Japan, but only for three months. He will fight in 2021. Neither of these men fought in 2020, and they likely won’t link up until the end of next year if at all; this could be a great New Year’s Eve fight going into 2022. If it were a really easy deal it probably already would have happened, but no matchmaking is truly impossible.
8) Artur Beterbiev vs Dmitry Bivol
Beterbiev (15-0, 15 KO) is one of boxing’s most exciting fighters, but the Russian, who turns 36 in January, has had some injury and promotional issues over the years which have limited his exposure. Now with Top Rank, he’s set to return Jan. 30 in what should be a frankly easy WBC/IBF title defense against Adam Deines.
Bivol (17-0, 11 KO) has the WBA title, and hasn’t fought since Oct. 2019, when he beat Lenin Castillo in a forgettable defense in Chicago. He’s a good boxer-puncher, maybe better than good, but his opposition has mostly been tailor-made, even the better opponents like Joe Smith Jr, Jean Pascal, and Sullivan Barrera. He also can be a bit dull, as he doesn’t take big risks and has a tendency to cruise when ahead. But nobody cruises against Beterbiev, because he’s so ferociously relentless that even if you were to get ahead of him 10 rounds to none, he’s still going to keep forcing the fight.
This fight should be doable; it’s not a blockbuster, but it’s a very good one to make. It could bring out the best in Bivol, and Beterbiev is must-watch, period.
7) Naoya Inoue vs Murodjon Akhmadaliev
Inoue (20-0, 17 KO) will probably stay at bantamweight a bit longer, where he holds the WBA and IBF titles. There’s been a lot of smoke around a fight between Inoue and WBO titleholder John Riel Casimero, but after it didn’t happen as planned in the spring, a bunch of other issues have come into play, like Inoue needing to either deal with his IBF mandatory or give up that belt or whatever he’s going to do. Casimero might fight Guillermo Rigondeaux instead.
But let’s say Inoue keeps dominating at 118. Eventually, there’s a move up that will interest him, and waiting at 122 could be the unified WBA/IBF titleholder there, Uzbekistan’s Akhmadaliev (8-0, 6 KO). Inoue is definitely the better fighter pound-for-pound, but Akhmadaliev is a sturdy junior featherweight, tough and physically very strong, a good boxer — there’s a potential barnburner here, and it might be someone who can stand up to Inoue better than most have to date. There will come a limit to how high Inoue can go and still be INOUE. We haven’t found it quite yet, and I think it’s ridiculous to demand great fighters keep climbing in weight until they lose what makes them special, but Inoue is sort of like a Manny Pacquiao, he has that drive to compete that will push him to test his limits until he finds them.
6) Juan Francisco Estrada vs Roman Gonzalez 2
This one’s already done and is happening on March 13, but I didn’t want to leave it out. Maybe it’ll raise your optimism that some of these other fights not only should happen, but actually will.
Estrada (41-3, 28 KO) has been chasing Gonzalez (50-2, 41 KO) up through the weight classes since they met at 108 pounds in 2012, with “Chocolatito” winning a decision. As of now, Estrada is considered the No. 1 man at 115 with his WBC belt, and Gonzalez has shown he’s far from done, regaining the WBA title this year with a smashing of Kal Yafai. They shared a bill on Oct. 23 in Mexico, which was meant to set them up for the long-awaited return bout, and now we’ve got it coming. There’s legitimate Fight of the Year potential here. Both of these veteran fighters are still really good, technically sound, and they’re also both warriors.
This one might now be a better fight than it would have been at any time had it happened in the last eight years, and it always would have been a good one. I think there’s some Vazquez-Marquez potential in this matchup in 2021.
5) Josh Taylor vs Jose Ramirez
Taylor (17-0, 13 KO) has the WBA and IBF belts at 140, Ramirez (26-0, 17 KO) the WBC and WBO. So this would be a true undisputed title fight; we don’t get many of those, but this one is relatively easy to make, as both men are promoted by Top Rank.
Ramirez does have a WBO mandatory against Jack Catterall due, but Catterall might be willing to step aside for the moment. Taylor is co-promoted by Queensberry Promotions, who promote Catterall, and there’s simply a lot more money in Taylor-Ramirez than there is in Ramirez-Catterall, where Catterall would be a significant underdog. And waiting could mean that Catterall gets a chance at a vacant WBO belt.
Taylor-Ramirez might not be a super great fight in the ring, but then it might be. Taylor would be the favorite for most, but when Ramirez is given the right matchups, he’s really good, and he can bring some heat. He was lulled a bit by Viktor Postol last time out, and scraped by with a decision. Taylor obliterated a comically overmatched mandatory challenger in Apinun Khongsong in his last fight.
4) Canelo Alvarez vs Gennadiy Golovkin 3
3) Teofimo Lopez vs Devin Haney
Some of you had a real situation in your hearts and drawers when I kept saying that Teofimo Lopez is not the undisputed lightweight champion of the world, no matter what Top Rank and ESPN will tell you. You might not like it, but it’s just the way it is. Devin Haney holds the WBC title. Teofimo Lopez does not. That is the dispute. You don’t just get to be called undisputed because you’re the obvious No. 1 in a division, and no, Vasiliy Lomachenko vacating the WBC title so he didn’t have to be ordered to fight Devin Haney doesn’t make Lopez’s claim somehow better.
Anyway, fuck all that, here’s the point: you want undisputed at 135? Make Lopez (16-0, 12 KO) vs Haney (25-0, 15 KO). There. Done. Lopez has proven he’ll walk the walk as well as talk the talk. Haney has to this point talked the talk, and he’s looked really, really good against a limited set of opposition.
These are young fighters — Lopez is 23, Haney just turned 22 in November — and this is a great fight to make. All four belts for real. Two young fighters who have spoken of huge ambition. Teofimo probably doesn’t have a whole lot longer left at 135, maybe just this coming year. Haney says he wants it. The money would be there, as ESPN and Top Rank are clearly behind Teofimo at this point, he’s an obvious star and leading fighter for their joint brand. There’s no reason this can’t get done unless one of the fighters simply don’t want it, and suspicion there would lean to Haney, because Lopez stepped up and fought Lomachenko.
2) Errol Spence Jr vs Terence Crawford
We’ve talked about this plenty, too. I’ve said already, and will say again that I am through blaming Bob Arum and/or Al Haymon for Spence-Crawford not happening and apparently not being any closer to happening. These two guys could absolutely force this. ESPN and FOX worked together fine on the Wilder-Fury 2 pay-per-view, which meant Top Rank and PBC also worked together fine when the fight was right and the money was there. This fight is right and worth plenty.
This is THE fight to make at 147 pounds, but both of them seem really fixated on getting a fight with Manny Pacquiao. On the one hand, I honestly do understand the logic of that. If Spence or Crawford get Manny and are the man to send a genuine, elite-tier legend out of the sport, that’s a big notch on the ol’ belt. Even with Manny being a grandpa fighter now at 42 years of age, he beat Keith Thurman last time we saw him, and he holds the WBA title. He’s also still by far the biggest name in the division. I get it. I really, really get it.
But that’s not what the sport’s fans really want to see, either. That said, the best hope might really be one of them does get Pacquiao in the spring or early summer, the other one does whatever fight, and we get Spence-Crawford at the end of 2021 for all the marbles at 147 and a great P4P argument. In that case, my ideal would be we see Pacquiao-Crawford, Spence-Porter 2, and then Spence-Crawford — not to totally discount Pacquiao or even Porter, mind you. (Wouldn’t it be kinda funny if in a year The Fight to make at 147 is actually 43-year-old Manny Pacquiao vs Shawn Porter? Wouldn’t everyone kinda have that coming?)
1) Tyson Fury vs Anthony Joshua
It’s the undisputed heavyweight championship of the world. That’s why it’s No. 1.
In my opinion, let it wait until late 2021. Let Joshua fight Oleksandr Usyk and take care of his WBO mandatory, keep all the belts in place, and set them up at a full stadium with fans in about a year. Yes, it’s the fight to make now and I won’t argue with it, but “the belts” are simply not going to stop being a thing in boxing. Would be nice, maybe, but realistically you’d probably just replace the evil sanctioning bodies with ideas just as bad, like PBC and ESPN and DAZN all having their own belts. If you think Joe Tessitore and Brian Kenny are bad now screaming about what they’ve decided matters and doesn’t, imagine then. Though it might force BK to pick a lane between PBC and DAZN, I guess.
Fury-Joshua is a huge fight. They’re different in almost every way. Joshua is mostly pretty quiet, gives the air of being very humble but has an arrogance to him, big puncher and a good boxer. Fury is loud, boastful, colorful, will give you different opinions on the same topic from one sentence to the next depending on what he feels like saying, to the point it’s hard to get a read on what Tyson Fury really thinks about much of anything. He is not a monster puncher, but he is a huge man and has an incredibly unique style, there’s really nobody quite like him and never has been in combination of his size, skills, and attributes.
It’s a great fight to make. Might be boring as all hell once we actually get it, but it’s the only fight at heavyweight that truly matters, with respect to the still-dangerous Deontay Wilder and the laundry list of contenders, veterans and rising hopefuls alike. I say save it for when it’s free and clear for all four belts and the full recognition, but if they ditch every damn belt and just do it for LINEAL!!!!!!!!! in April, I ain’t arguing, either.