2020 has been an odd year for everyone, and boxing has been seriously impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, with the sport shutting down in mid-March, which is usually about when the boxing calendar starts revving up after generally quiet January and February months.
For three months, we had nothing. When we came back, it was nice to see some action again, but the novelty of “any boxing” wore thin pretty quickly, and there came a hunger to get better matchups and bigger names going once more.
We’re just starting to see the names trickle back in, and with it, some really good matchups. August and September were better for the sport, busy and dotted with some really good fights, and October is shaping up to possibly be a very exciting month for boxing.
Here’s a look at my picks for the 10 best fights currently on the October schedule.
10) Sergey Lipinets vs Kudratillo Abdukakhorov, Oct. 24 (Showtime)
What’s at Stake: The interim IBF welterweight title, which probably doesn’t really need to exist because Errol Spence Jr is defending the IBF belt in November, but it’s a way to placate people and give someone a belt and collect sanctioning body fees. In turn, a shot at the full IBF belt could await the winner at some point, and if said winner wasn’t interested in fighting Lipinets or Abdukakhorov, then they’d be the guy to get bumped to full titleholder status.
Why You Should Watch: Russia’s Lipinets (16-1, 12 KO) is a former IBF 140-pound titleholder, beating Akihiro Kondo for the vacant belt in 2017 before losing it to Mikey Garcia in 2018, but while he clearly lost to Garcia, he didn’t make it an easy night for Mikey, either, and came out of it more respected than going in, perhaps. He’s won three straight since going to 147, struggling a bit against Erick Bone before dominant wins over Lamont Peterson and Jayar Inson.
Abdukakhorov (17-0, 9 KO) is from Uzbekistan and has looked solid if not spectacular in wins over Keita Obara and Luis Collazo in his last two. That’s kind of the level for both these guys, actually — they are very good fighters, should match up nicely for a competitive bout, and the winner will be a top 10 welterweight. Are they serious threats to the top dogs of boxing’s alleged best division? Probably not, but it’s a good fight between good fighters.
9) Julio Cesar Martinez vs Maximino Flores, Oct. 23 (DAZN)
What’s at Stake: The exciting young Martinez (16-1, 12 KO) will defend his WBC flyweight title for the second time, and with Japan’s Kosei Tanaka planning his move up to 115, Martinez has as good a claim to the flyweight division’s top sport right now as anyone, really.
Why You Should Watch: Martinez is a hoot to watch fight, a 25-year-old Mexican who burst onto the scene in 2019 by first upsetting Andrew Selby via fifth round stoppage in Mexico, and then appearing to have the WBC title won against Charlie Edwards, before a controversial, in-ring ruling by the WBC changed it to a no contest.
When Edwards vacated the belt and fled the division instead of facing Martinez in a rematch, Martinez beat former titlist Cristofer Rosales via ninth round stoppage to win the belt in Dec. 2019, and defended two months later against Jay Harris, a spirited fight where Harris proved his mettle in defeat. Flores (25-4-2, 17 KO) is a 29-year-old fringe contender, but he comes to fight, and this style matchup could turn into an insane brawl. Martinez doesn’t shy away from a scrap, and Flores does nothing but scrap.
8) Juan Francisco Estrada vs Carlos Cuadras 2, Oct. 23 (DAZN)
What’s at Stake: The 30-year-old Estrada (40-3, 27 KO) will put his WBC junior bantamweight title on the line here, as well as his Ring Magazine championship, as he meets the 32-year-old Cuadras (39-3-1, 27 KO) in a rematch of a 2017 bout.
Why You Should Watch: When these two met a few years ago, Estrada won an extremely narrow decision over 12 rounds, 114-113 across the board, with a 10th round knockdown the difference on the tallies. (Cuadras was actually originally announced as the winner by Michael Buffer, who had to quickly correct himself.) It was also not just a competitive fight, it was a highly entertaining fight, too.
They’ve had different paths since then. Estrada lost to Srisaket Sor Rungvisai in 2018 but beat him in a 2019 rematch, and is 3-0 since otherwise. Cuadras lost a decision to McWilliams Arroyo in 2018, and entered rehab two months later, returning to action a few months after that, and he’s won three straight since. At 32, Cuadras isn’t old, but he’s starting to cut the edges of his relevance, perhaps. This is a shot for him to return to the higher end of the 115-pound rankings, where he hasn’t been for a couple of years, and a chance for Estrada to cement himself as the top guy in the division, as well as set up a long-desired rematch with Roman “Chocolatito” Gonzalez, who faces Israel Gonzalez on this card.
7) Jaime Munguia vs Tureano Johnson, Oct. 30 (DAZN)
What’s at Stake: Some minor WBO belt or other, but the real thing at stake is middleweight status for former junior middleweight titlist Munguia (35-0, 28 KO). Is he a real contender or not?
Why You Should Watch: The 23-year-old Munguia burst through at 154 in a title-winning domination of Sadam Ali in 2018, but despite going 6-0 since then, there remain big questions about his real ceiling, his upside, his standing at 160 pounds. Munguia is a good fighter and fun to watch usually, and after struggling through a debatable decision over Dennis Hogan in 2019, he accepted that he needed to make a change, and hired Erik Morales as his new trainer. The jury’s still out on how much anyone can make a difference with Munguia, though. He’s 2-0 with Morales, but neither Patrick Allottey nor Gary “Spike” O’Sullivan were meant to do anything but lose.
Johnson (21-2-1, 15 KO) is a 36-year-old from the Bahamas who isn’t a top middleweight, but is very solid. His losses have come to Curtis Stevens, which was a controversial stoppage in 2014, and Sergiy Derevyanchenko in 2017. After a disappointing draw with journeyman Fernando Castaneda in 2019, he came back five months later to smash previously-unbeaten Jason Quigley. Johnson is a good enough fighter to give Munguia serious problems if Munguia hasn’t made further improvement, but if Munguia has, Johnson’s a good enough fighter to be worth some real credibility at 160.
6) Jose Zepeda vs Ivan Baranchyk, Oct. 3 (ESPN+)
What’s at Stake: This fight, originally scheduled for July 7, will be a WBC eliminator at 140 pounds, with the winner in line for a shot at one of the belts currently held by Jose Ramirez. That order would probably not come for a while, but beyond that it’s two top five-ish guys at the weight, a meaningful fight.
Why You Should Watch: We’ll have more on this one in the next couple of days, but this one could be a really compelling style matchup. Zepeda (32-2, 25 KO) is a really good boxer at his best, but he’s wildly inconsistent, not just fight-to-fight but within single fights. Baranchyk (20-1, 13 KO), meanwhile, has one speed: full steam ahead. He just keeps coming and coming, throwing wild power shots and hunting for knockouts.
The clear top of this division is Josh Taylor, Jose Ramirez, and Regis Prograis, but Baranchyk and Zepeda are at the top of the next tier, they’re both real contenders. It’s a good matchup that really could be a very intriguing fight.
5) Naoya Inoue vs Jason Moloney, Oct. 31 (ESPN+)
What’s at Stake: Inoue (19-0, 16 KO) will put the WBA and IBF bantamweight titles on the line as he returns to the United States to fight for the first time since 2017, and also makes his long-awaited Top Rank debut.
Why You Should Watch: A lot of boxers have cool, tough-sounding nicknames that eventually don’t quite match up to their in-ring results. Inoue has fully earned “Monster,” though, as the 27-year-old Japanese star has won world titles in three divisions (108, 115, and now 118), and is coming off of the consensus 2019 Fight of the Year for his war with Nonito Donaire. (If you haven’t seen that fight yet, go watch it.) He is absolute must-see TV every time he fights.
The 29-year-old Moloney (21-1, 18 KO) is tough, can punch, and is a legitimate contender. He’s 0-1 in title fights, dropping a split decision to Emmanuel Rodriguez in 2018, which set up Rodriguez to get knocked out in two by Inoue. Naoya is a clear and obvious favorite here and it’ll be a massive upset if he loses, but Moloney tells us he’s got no fear of his opponent.
4) Emanuel Navarrete vs Ruben Villa, Oct. 9 (ESPN)
What’s at Stake: The vacant WBO featherweight title, recently given up by Shakur Stevenson. Navarrete (31-1, 27 KO) has the chance to become a two-weight champ at 25, while Villa (18-0, 5 KO) looks to surprise some folks and break out at 23.
Why You Should Watch: Navarrete has become a favorite of many since upsetting Isaac Dogboe in Dec. 2018 to win the WBO 122-pound title, then thrashing Dogboe in the rematch five months later. His fast schedule of defenses after the Dogboe rematch earned him some fans, too, even if the opponents were really over-matched and made for easy work. There’s a sense that since nobody thought Navarrete was going to beat Dogboe, it’s meant a sort of elongated development period for someone who had a claim to being a champion, giving us world title fights with challengers who simply weren’t world title level.
But there’s no denying that Navarrete can be fun to watch, and he finishes when he has the chance to do so (he’s won by stoppage in six straight fights). Villa is a ShoBox veteran who doesn’t have a power promoter and hasn’t gained a big fan base, but can really box and is a real sleeper in this matchup. His slick southpaw style could give Navarrete fits, and if it doesn’t, then it means Navarrete has really blossomed into a real deal fighter.
3) Oleksandr Usyk vs Derek Chisora, Oct. 31 (DAZN)
What’s at Stake: Usyk (17-0, 13 KO) is the former undisputed cruiserweight champion, and has a spot as the WBO’s mandatory challenger at heavyweight. That would disappear if he loses to Chisora (32-9, 23 KO), a battle-tested veteran and a legitimate heavyweight.
Why You Should Watch: Usyk, 33, is a great boxer, and nobody questions that. But at 6’3” with a 78-inch reach, he’s small physically for a heavyweight anymore, and he weighed in at 215 pounds for debut in the division last October, a stoppage of long-washed ex-prospect Chazz Witherspoon. Usyk’s display that night didn’t really wow anyone, and kept open some questions as to how he’ll do in the division with the biggest lads there are. Chisora, 36, has had a lot of high level opportunities over the year, and generally come up short. But at his best, he’s a fearless, hard-hitting, tough dude, and he is a much, much bigger threat than Witherspoon, who seemed perfectly content to just be out-boxed by Usyk.
Now to be fair, Chisora himself is only 6’1” with a 74-inch reach, so Usyk actually has some slight advantages there, but Chisora weighs in around 245 to 260 — he’s a big, thick guy, which Usyk isn’t. Chisora will surely try to force Usyk to brawl with him, because if he tries to box he’ll almost certainly just get picked apart. And if Chisora can force that brawl, it’s going to tell us a lot more about Usyk’s ability to physically stand up to proper heavyweights. Also, they’re both weird as hell and two of the real characters around in boxing these days.
2) Gervonta Davis vs Leo Santa Cruz, Oct. 31 (Showtime PPV)
What’s at Stake: Two belts in two different weight classes. This will be a 130-pound fight, but both the WBA junior lightweight title held by Santa Cruz (37-1-1, 19 KO) and the WBA’s secondary lightweight (135-pound) title held by Davis (23-0, 22 KO) will be on the line here.
Why You Should Watch: The 25-year-old “Tank” Davis has been hyped as a future star for what feels like a long time now, and while he’s never lost or even really come close to losing, it also feels like his development has sort of stagnated. He won his first world title in 2017, dominating a very good Jose Pedraza to pick up a 130-pound title, but missed weight for a defense later that year. He won another 130-pound title after that, then moved up to lightweight for a fight with ex-featherweight titlist Yuriorkis Gamboa in 2019. Between Pedraza and Gamboa, Davis marched through Liam Walsh, Francisco Fonseca, Jesus Cuellar, Hugo Ruiz, and Ricardo Nunez — not exactly the most inspiring list of opponents. Santa Cruz, 32, is by far the biggest name Davis has faced to date.
The Mexican veteran has won titles at 118, 122, 126, and 130. His own opposition has been criticized a fair bit over the years, but he’s had some legitimate tough foes, too, guys like Abner Mares and Carl Frampton, among others. He’s got the experience and the heart, but does he have the size and power to really stand up to Davis? Does he have the skills to keep Davis off of him? There’s something of a tiny Usyk-Chisora quality to this physically, as Santa Cruz is actually a little taller and longer, but Davis is the thicker, more powerfully built guy. Unlike that matchup, Davis might also be the more skilled fighter. Nobody was really demanding this fight, in all honesty, but it’s a good and notable fight all the same.
1) Vasiliy Lomachenko vs Teofimo Lopez, Oct. 17 (ESPN)
What’s at Stake: Lomachenko (14-1, 10 KO) will put the WBA and WBO lightweight titles on the line, and Lopez (15-0, 12 KO) is putting the IBF belt on the line. Lomachenko also has the WBC’s made up “franchise’ title, but no, this is not an undisputed title fight, even though the WBC have twisted their own stated rules to put that thing on the line here, too. They’re the top two lightweights in the sport today, so division rule is also up for grabs.
Why You Should Watch: It’s No. 1 vs No. 2 in the lightweight division, and not only that, but a potentially fascinating matchup between a still-great veteran in Lomachenko and a rising potential superstar in Lopez. Lomachenko has the experience and the incredible skills, the sort of all-around boxing ability rarely seen. But Lopez is younger, fresher, naturally bigger, fast, and hits like a truck.
Lomachenko is a tremendous lightweight, but he is a natural featherweight, and frankly could probably still make 126 if there were or had been better fights there. He’s moved up seeking glory and the best fights he can get at the moment, from 126 to 130 to 135. Lopez has said for about a year now that he expects to out-grow 135 soon enough, and really might have made the move to 140 if not for this fight.
This could be a dramatic, explosive crowning of a new king at lightweight. It could wind up being a lesson in class and experience, too. Is Lomachenko catching the 23-year-old Lopez before Lopez might have been better prepared, or is Lopez catching Lomachenko vulnerable at 32, at what really isn’t the Ukrainian’s optimal weight?