With fighters, particularly those with bigger names, generally hating to fight in the early part of a new year due to not wanting to train over the holidays, January and February are often a wasteland stretch for the boxing schedule.
January 2021 isn’t exactly filled with blockbusters, and there’s a woeful lack of balance in the schedule — we’ll have a big fight on Jan. 2 and then basically nothing for three weeks — but there’s maybe a bit more than normal, as the sport is still to some degree playing COVID catch-up after being basically shut down for several months in 2020.
Here’s a look at seven fights of interest coming in January. (All fights subject to change, more than normal, and there could of course be some good undercard bouts for various cards announced soon, too, so keep an eye on the schedule and news!)
7) Karim Guerfi vs Lee McGregor (ESPN+, Jan. 22)
The 24-year-old McGregor (9-0, 7 KO) is an in-house favorite at MTK Global, which is not a sly shot at anyone, they just really like the Edinburgh bantamweight and see big things for his future. And it’s easy to see why. McGregor is charismatic, fun to watch fight, and has talent. He did get a really stiff challenge from Kash Farooq in Nov. 2019, eking out a victory on the cards, which some felt Farooq deserved.
But perhaps more than being a sign that McGregor isn’t what he’s meant to be, it was just a sign that Farooq was even better than expected. That’s the hope, anyway. French veteran Guerfi (29-4, 9 KO) is the current European bantamweight champion, his third time with the belt. He’s very good at this level, but this is his level. If McGregor is what he’s been cracked up to be, he should win, but that’s the question going in. We know how good the 33-year-old Guerfi is. How good is McGregor?
6) Raeese Aleem vs Vic Pasillas (SHO, Jan. 23)
This one will likely really fly under the radar, because on paper there’s nothing overly special about it. The 30-year-old Aleem (17-0, 11 KO) is no blue chip prospect or anything, but he’s scored a couple of solid wins in his last two, beating Adam Lopez and Marcus Bates. The 28-year-old Pasillas (16-0, 9 KO) may be the real story here, and may be a real story in general.
Pasillas turned pro in 2011 and was considered a blue chip type, but his career has been repeatedly derailed and just never quite gotten out of the starting blocks. But back in September, he got a shot on a PBC card that aired on FS1, and he was the absolute show stealer, looking sensational in a win over Ranfis Encarnacion.
If Pasillas is going to make his move at 122 or 126 (he’s even said he can do 130), the time is now. He’s not old, but 28 is the time to give it a run. There are levels to go up the ladder for sure, but 2021 could be a great breakout year for him if things go right, and it could all start here.
5) Felix Alvarado vs DeeJay Kriel (DAZN, Jan. 2)
Alvarado (35-2, 30 KO) defends the IBF 108-pound title on the Garcia-Campbell undercard, facing former 105-pound titlist Kriel (16-1-1, 8 KO) in a big Nicaragua vs South Africa showdown in Texas.
The 25-year-old Kriel beat Carlos Licona for the IBF 105 belt at in Feb. 2019, but never defended it, moving up in weight instead. He hasn’t fought since a nothing win in Nov. 2019, but now he takes his crack at another belt. The 31-year-old Alvarado beat Randy Petalcorin for the vacant IBF 108 title in Oct. 2018, and defended against Reiya Konishi in May 2019, which was the last time he fought. That’s a long layoff.
This will also be the U.S. debut for Alvarado after his signing with Golden Boy this past February. Kriel’s one and only fight in the States was against Licona. So it’s a rare chance to see two good fighters, both top 10 type guys in their division, fight in the U.S. Hopefully we’ll see even more chances for the lower weight divisions on U.S.-televised cards in 2021, and this is a good start.
4) David Avanesyan vs Josh Kelly (DAZN, Jan. 30)
This fight is long overdue. Avanesyan (26-3-1, 14 KO) and Kelly (10-0-1, 6 KO) were originally supposed to fight in Dec. 2018 on the Kell Brook-Michael Zerafa undercard in Sheffield, but the morning of the fight, Kelly pulled out with an illness, and to say the Avanesyan camp were pissed off would be an understatement. They accused Kelly and his team of simply being afraid of the fight.
Since then, the 32-year-old Avanesyan has been on something of a tear in Spain. He upset Kerman Lejarraga in Mar. 2019 to win the European welterweight title, stopping the home fighter in the ninth round. At the time, there was some belief that Lejarraga was just about ready to go abroad and chase higher glory, but Avanesyan derailed that. And when Lejarraga tried to go right back at Avanesyan for revenge six months later, the Russian stopped him in the first round. In Dec. 2019, Avanesyan beat Jose del Rio in another defense in Spain.
Kelly, 26, has received sort of mixed reviews as a pro. He can fight, but many feel his overly flashy style is just going to get him exposed against better fighters, and that belief gained momentum when he went to a draw with Ray Robinson in June 2019. He returned in Dec. 2019 to beat Wiston Campos, but there is still a lot of doubt about Kelly’s ceiling and how he’s going to fare against tough foes. Avanesyan is not an elite fighter by any stretch of the imagination, but he is good and if he picks up steam in a fight, gains confidence, he can be a real handful. It’s a good matchup, not easy to pick a winner, and there’s some legitimate beef here. What’s not to like?
3) Angelo Leo vs Stephen Fulton (SHO, Jan. 23)
Leo (20-0, 9 KO) and Fulton (18-0, 8 KO) were scheduled to meet for the vacant WBO 122-pound title in August, but Fulton got COVID and was replaced by Tramaine Williams. Leo, 26, won the fight and the belt, and is now set to face Fulton, this time as the title-holding A-side.
Fulton, also 26, was going to be the favorite against Leo the first time around, and still will be. Fulton is a legitimately slick, skilled boxer, with one of the best, most effective jabs in the sport once he gets it working, and he never takes long to get it working. That punch was on full display in his wins over Paulus Ambunda, Isaac Avelar, and last January against Arnold Khegai, his best win to date.
But Leo is a good fighter, and he may match up to Fulton better than the others have thus far. He doesn’t have any big, exceptional qualities or attributes, but he is well-rounded and smart in the ring, doesn’t make a bunch of mistakes. This was a nice matchup last summer, it’s one now.
2) Sergey Kovalev vs Bektemir Melikuziev (DAZN, Jan. 30)
Fights at the crossroads don’t really come a lot ballsier than this one too often, and that goes for both sides of this Moscow main event.
The 24-year-old Melikuziev (6-0, 5 KO) has trounced his opponents so far, but the best guy he’s fought has been either Vaughn Alexander or Alan Campa; Alexander went the distance while Campa only got into the third round, but Alexander’s much more of a spoiler than Campa, better at surviving. He lost every single round of that fight. Melikuziev also beat up on a pre-cult hero Clay Collard in Nov. 2019.
Kovalev (34-4-1, 29 KO) is 37 and absolutely, without question past his best days. It’s not just that he got knocked out by Canelo Alvarez last time we saw him in Nov. 2019; he’d had a bit more trouble with the extremely limited Anthony Yarde two-and-a-half months before then, too, and split fights with Eleider Alvarez in 2018-19. He’s just getting older, and the reality is he also probably hasn’t taken the best care of himself between fights a lot of the time.
Still, Kovalev is a top three or at the very worst top five light heavyweight at the moment, and that is an enormous step up from Alexander or Campa. Melikuziev is also short for a light heavyweight at 5’9”, and will be giving up size to Kovalev. “Bek the Bully” is probably really best off at 168, but this is just a big, big chance for him in Russia. A win here and Melikuziev breaks through. A win here and Kovalev redeems himself and extends his career into another possible money fight. Both guys have so much to gain, and Kovalev has a lot to lose. They can also both crack, and the fight could be a banger.
1) Ryan Garcia vs Luke Campbell (DAZN, Jan. 2)
It’s easily the biggest fight of the month, and probably the most intriguing matchup, too. Garcia (20-0, 17 KO) has been a controversial name the past couple of years in boxing. Now 22, “Kingry” has his supporters and his legion of social media fans, and has started to redefine the ways boxers can market themselves if they’re smart. Given that boxing promoters are so often out of touch and clueless when it comes to anything that’s come along as a tool in the last, I don’t know, 15 years at any given time, Garcia taking the reins himself in one area has increased his value hugely even without facing world class opposition yet.
How to Watch Garcia vs Campbell
Campbell (20-3, 16 KO) is that opponent. To Garcia’s credit, he has not only called for this sort of fight, but once the offer was there via WBC order, he quickly accepted the idea and negotiations between Golden Boy and Matchroom went pretty smoothly, and the fight got done. It was meant to happen Dec. 5, but Campbell tested positive for COVID and we got a postponement.
The 33-year-old Campbell has a particular ceiling. He’s got losses to Vasiliy Lomachenko (clear), Jorge Linares (competitive), and Yvan Mendy (clear, but also avenged) in his career. He’s a very good boxer-puncher, maybe just that tick below the true top-top level, but a lot of fighters not as good as Campbell have won world titles over the years. A lot of fighters not as good as Campbell hold world titles right now.
Garcia has the chance to back up his talk and maybe silence at least some critics who flat-out think he will not hold up against better opponents. And for Campbell, this is a big chance to score a big win against a big name and thrust himself into a possible (likely, in his case) fight with Devin Haney for the WBC lightweight title, as this is for the interim belt, which does not need to exist, but the whole WBC lightweight situation has been a disaster ever since Vasiliy Lomachenko vacated to avoid getting an order to fight Haney in 2019.
Belts and whatever aside, Garcia-Campbell is a terrific matchup of a rising would-be superstar in Garcia, a fighter Golden Boy have had a lot of problems with but also now have a lot of their post-Canelo hopes on to carry the company, and a really good pro in Campbell who really might “expose” Garcia for being a lot less than sold.