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Povetkin-Whyte 2, rest of Matchroom’s first 2021 schedule doesn’t have huge promise for British boxing

Is British boxing as good as it was five years ago? Matchroom’s first 2021 schedule doesn’t suggest so.

Andy Ruiz Jr v Anthony Joshua 2 - Final Press Conference Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

A rematch pitting Alexander Povetkin against Dillian Whyte tops the list of matchups sent out by Eddie Hearn and Matchroom on Friday.

The second fight between the heavyweight contenders will come March 6, when we’ll see if if Whyte experiences a flashback to the Aug. 22 evening when he had things in hand and then had his world exploded by a Povetkin uppercut.

And apart from that, the schedule suggests a few other things. One, Hearn doesn’t have the DAZN mega-wallet to use when crafting matches like he has in the past, and also, British boxing is in a place where spots are there for the taking for fighters who want to be seen as world class standouts. That’s a kind way of saying this Matchroom schedule doesn’t zap you with positive emotions, give you a feeling of looking forward to seeing ascendent talents, or practitioners in their primes who are a good bet to leave you a satisfied fan.

British boxing as a whole is not ensconced in a golden age. Anthony Joshua is seen as 1B in the heavyweight class, with Tyson Fury being the kingpin in the eyes of most outside the UK. Daniel Dubois experienced a harsh hiccup on his rise a few months ago, and Joe Joyce saw a reputation bump with his win, but isn’t chattered about excitedly among fans of the heavyweight division outside of the UK.

In the cruiserweight class, Lawrence Okolie is a featured player in coming Matchroom schedule, as he faces Krzysztof Glowacki for the vacant WBO crown on March 20. Okolie is no fan fave, even though he edges up the sanctioning body ratings. In auditions to broaden his appeal, too many of us were moved to yawns. He has no wins that stand as a signature victory. Does he “deserve” to be ranked No. 2 by the WBO? That’s a rhetorical question.

At 175, many Brits root for Joshua Buatsi to get to the next level, but he’s been the recipient of skilled management as he elevates. Just 13-0 (11 KO), he’s 27 and hasn’t been tossed into the sort of waters that prove he’s someone that the UK can rally round and boast about. Anthony Yarde, promoted by Hearn rival Frank Warren, is dogged by questions about his ceiling.

At 168, WBO titleholder Billy Joe Saunders is regarded as skilled, but prone to self-sabotage. He gains followers and then almost reflexively repels them with his actions and behaviors and inconsistent fight schedule. Callum Smith underperformed in his opportunity to show his homeland that he and Canelo Alvarez were of comparable class. He’s 30, and may have just “graduated” to be thought of as a scalp, a stepping stone for younger guys with higher upside.

Middleweights Liam Williams, who lost twice to Liam Smith, and Chris Eubank Jr will see opportunity knock louder for them in 2021, but both are in a “show me, don’t tell me” classification zone for Americans. Eubank is like so many of the talents on this list. He is not young anymore at 31, doesn’t fight often enough, and hasn’t been successful at converting a win into momentum toward greater prominence.

Amir Khan, age 34, with four stops in his five losses, is not seen as a true threat to the top tier at 147. He and Kell Brook, who turns 35 in May, are discussing a past-prime clash of chinny veterans.

Lewis Ritson, age 27, is ranked highly by the WBA at 140, and is enjoying a four-fight win streak. But he didn’t blow anyone away in his last effort, a controversial win over Miguel Vazquez last October.

At lightweight, UK fans hoped their man Luke Campbell would show Ryan Garcia that he was over hyped, but in “King Ry” instead sent Campbell back home to ponder heavy stuff.

Campbell is 34 in September, has gone 3-3 in his last six, and has to wonder how much longer this dangerous game is for him. British fans who just a couple years ago exulted in all the titles their fighters had won have to look at 135 as another division where Americans are enjoying a status edge. Teofimo Lopez, Gervonta Davis, and Garcia are head, shoulders, and bargaining power in an elite class. Brits look on with envy.

At 130, perhaps a Martin Ward (24-1-2, 11 KO), yet another one in that late 20s zone, will break out in 2021, get a break and secure an actual signature win. He’s yet another testament to skilled managerial and promotional effort, as well as the dilution the sport as a whole is faced with because of an excess of weight classes and titles.

Do British fight fans have more cause for optimism when they consider the featherweight space? Yes, they do. Matchroom has the IBF 126-pound champ on their first quarter schedule, Josh Warrington (30-0, 7 KO) faces Mexico’s Mauricio Lara (21-2, 14 KO) on Feb. 13. A win — and Warrington is a massive favorite, Lara’s record is built on a flimsy foundation — then keeps Josh in play for a higher-profile assignment to play out. Would the bigger deal bout come via rematch with Kid Galahad (No. 1 IBF) or Jazza Dickens (No. 3 IBF)? If yes, then Warrington’s rep worldwide wouldn’t likely be in play to flourish massively.

Junior featherwieght isn’t a white hot division, so maybe you could argue it’s ripe for a British athlete to stand out and announce their true worth. What about at 112, maybe WBO No. 2 Sunny Edwards is one who gives the UK a flyweight of bold-face note in 2021? Maybe his older brother Charlie makes a run to supremacy at bantamweight, where the WBC has him as No. 3.

I’m not being closed-minded, I know that boxing is still that place where a guy or gal can go from no-name to big damn deal in the half blink of an eye. I also know that COVID is still running rampant in America and in the UK, so everyone gets a pass for all their schedules, to a degree, until the pandemic truly is tamed.

Perhaps this Matchroom package will be remembered as a period when fighters graduated to more prominent places after turning in thrilling showings which reminded us what we love about pugilism.

Maybe Manchester junior lightweight Zelfa Barrett (24-1, 15 KO) looks good against veteran Kiko Martinez (41-9-2, 29 KOs) on Feb. 13, and his effort renders him an immediate sensation. It’s possible that Nottingham’s Leigh Wood (23-2, 13 KOs) downs Reece Mould (13-0, 6 KOs) for the vacant British featherweight title and lifts himself two levels.

The Matchroom Mar. 13 slate holds possibilities for big impact for guys like Fabio Wardley (10-0, 9 KO), who will get positive attention if he drops and stops heavyweight Eric Molina (27-6, 19 KO). And it’s a decent bet that Campbell Hatton, son of British fight legend Ricky Hatton, gets the W in his professional debut and spurs enthusiasm from British fans.

Chantelle Cameron (13-0, 7 KO) can make a mark on Mar. 20, when she makes the first defense of her WBC junior welterweight crown against Puerto Rico’s Melissa Hernandez (23-7-3, 7 KO). She’s angling to lure Katie Taylor, the Irish standard bearer on the women’s side, into a tiff. But let’s put it on the table, the growth of the women’s boxing scene, in America and in the UK, didn’t take off as was hoped for by people who put their chips on Claressa Shields, who got a big push courtesy of Showtime starting. Katie Taylor is highly respected, but no, the women’s scene didn’t grow incrementally in the last 3-4 years to where it’s in a stone’s throw in terms of impact compared to the men’s side. Shields thinks that’s because power players didn’t push the women’s space properly, and that’s a debate for another day and column.

And by April 10, a couple guys and/or gals who weren’t close to being on radar as stars will have demanded to be given attention. Conor Benn (17-0, 11 KO) will face Samuel Vargas (31-6-2, 14 KO), a matchup that gives him the chance to get a tick closer to the level of prominence his father Nigel enjoyed. The kid is 24, it’s not inconceivable that by age 26 or so, he’ll have rumbled in buzz-y matches like the ones “The Dark Destroyer” did against Michael Watson, Iran Barkley, and Chris Eubank, but I’d bet my house and yours against that taking place.

This is kind of a cold summation, but right now, this era is looking thin for British boxing, at least as compared to, say 2016. If you widened out the scope, and assessed UK boxing circa 2015-2016, optimism reigned with Tyson Fury, Carl Frampton, Ricky Burns, and Tony Bellew in the mix at high levels. James DeGale owned a super middle crown, Kell Brook was cresting in confidence, Terry Flanagan enjoyed a title reign at lightweight, as did Anthony Crolla. Lee Selby proudly wore an IBF featherweight strap around his waist. Jamie McDonnell had time with the WBA bantam belt in his possession, and Lee Haskins had the IBF bantam title.

Reasons for the “slide,” as compared to that golden period are varied, but probably the single biggest reason for the dip is a simple one: those guys got older. They went from being at or near their athletic peak, to a zone where the reflexes were a notch slower, and it became that much harder to make weight. If you think the state of British boxing is not so dim as I’ve laid out, you might note that plenty of the fighters that Matchroom wants fight fans to care about and tune in to are at their athletic peak or can still look forward to that sweet spot as pugilists.

But in many of their cases, they are behind in development as compared to the fighters listed above, who all conspired to make UK fans beam with pride.

It will be up to them to prove me wrong, and live up to the upbeat tone in the Matchroom 2021 kickoff release.

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