2015: Champions who will stay, who will go and prospects to keep an eye on
Welcome to my annual look into the future of boxing, hopefully an edifying preview of every weight class from strawweight to heavyweight. I strive for inclusivity, embracing neglected European, Asian, South American regions and fighters who weigh less than 118 pounds. Yes, I take the time to investigate boxers below bantamweight where few American surnames and no US television networks are to be found. Over three installments, I will present an overview of every weight class, unveiling predictions for a champion who will retain his crown, a champion who loses his title, as well as a prospect to keep an eye on. So you ask what my success rate over the last couple of years has been? Let’s just say it is well above the best baseball player’s batting average but below Gennady Golovkin’s kayo ratio.
All 17 weight classes look packed with talent with only the lightweight and heavyweight divisions lagging in terms of intrigue. It is a shame about the heavyweights since they drive the sport in America and that lack of excitement frequently prevents casual fans from finding out about great boxers below 200 pounds. Titlists from the IBF, WBA, WBC and WBO were considered when selecting champions who I believe will keep or lose their belts. As an aside, only the sanctioning bodies’ real champions are considered, so do not expect to see “interim,” “regular” or “emeritus” champions that the alphabet bandits elevate for cash infusions considered. The only limitation I have for selecting the boxer to watch out for in 2015 is that the man chosen did not have a world title opportunity yet.
In part one (every year I separate this feature into three parts to keep it from taking on book-length form), I focus on strawweight through junior featherweight, then featherweight to middleweight in part two and finishing with super middleweight to heavyweight in my final installment. Sorry for the wait between features but if I were to tally every weight class in one article it would take you longer to read than a Leo Tolstoy novel about War and Peace.
I am of the belief that the further you venture down in weight, the more skilled the boxers are, thus making even optional title defenses tricky propositions. This reinforces the greatness of Hall-of-Famer Ricardo Lopez, who made a division record 21 title defenses that may never be realistically challenged. Proof of this is that the three titleholders today (Hekkie Budler, Francisco Rodriguez and Wanheng Menayothin) have a combined total of three title defenses!
Champion who will stay: Wanheng Menayothin – Remember, I am not picking the best boxer at the weight. That is a toss-up between Hekkie Budler and Francisco Rodriguez but who I believe has the best chance of retaining his title for the calendar year because of circumstances as much as boxing skills. I am not picking South African Budler because he faces a stern test in his next fight against Jesus Silvestre, and might run into a tough domestic challenger after that. Menayothin, on the other hand, has a relatively easy mandatory defense in 10-3-2 Carlos Ortega and will probably defeat three unexceptional Thai countrymen on his home turf to round out the year without traveling abroad.
Champion who will go: Francisco Rodriguez – Most will see this pick as a stretch since Rodriguez is an exciting young champion reaching his physical prime whose only loss was a torrid challenge to pound-for-pound entrant Roman Gonzalez. However, Rodriguez is likely to fight four times this year and because he holds two belts, may be stripped of one because of politics involving mandatory challengers. So even if Rodriguez does not suffer a loss (a likely scenario), he could lose the IBF or WBO belt outside the ring, making this a correct pick. I am playing the odds a bit here and given the lack of strong contenders, I doubt any strawweight champion loses his belt in 2015.
Will rise in 2015: Kosei Tanaka – Over the last four years, Japan has really pushed talented young boxers like Naoya Inoue, Kazuto Ioka and Tomoki Kameda (with varying degrees of success) into world title shots or put them in bouts where they looked overmatched, judging purely by numbers. Tanaka is next in that lineage; in his fourth fight, Tanaka bested fellow unbeaten prospect Ryuji Hara (then 17-0) to earn a spot in the WBA and WBC’s top 10 rankings. Is only 19 and sports solid amateur credentials, reaching the medal rounds in several international youth tournaments. YouTube footage reveals a stirring combination of speed and power, darting in behind a blindingly strong jab to deliver accurate and well-timed hooks. Tanaka may get a title shot in December of 2015 and if he does, my pick for Menayothin to retain his title will not pan out.
My choices are limited at 108 pounds since there are only two reigning champions to chose from with the IBF and WBC titles vacant at this time. This seems a near impossibility given the way sanctioning bodies produce back-up champions with their multitude of interim titleholders [Editor’s note: various outlets have Javier Mendoza listed as IBF titlist at this time.]
Champion who will stay: Donnie Nietes – The Filipino is a fine veteran champion who has defended his title five times against solid challengers and as an aging titleholder, Nietes will be matched carefully in all probability, only fighting twice in 2015. Paipharob Kokietgym is Nietes’ mandatory challenger and if they face off in Thailand, that is a tough but winnable fight given Kokietgym has only bested one notable foe. Nietes is a late bloomer, is 32 now and looked better than ever in 2014, showing an ability to adapt knocking out Moises Fuentes in a rematch after struggling to a majority draw in their first bout. Nietes has fought two times a year since 2009, so my hope is he does not break that cycle in 2015 to aid this choice.
Champion who will go: Alberto Rossel – This 36-year-old Peruvian veteran was gifted the WBA “regular” title after being elevated from “interim” champion when Kazuto Ioka moved up in weight. Not a strong credential to start with and Rossel will travel to Japan and face a strong Ryoichi Taguchi, who holds the “three S” advantage, sporting superior size, speed and strength. I doubt the titleholder returns home with the belt but if he does, Rossel will probably return to Japan at the end of the year looking for another payday that is likely to undo his run of luck.
Will rise in 2015: Randy Petalcorin – Many of the top 50 guys have already had world title shots and the division has older title contenders holding it hostage thus making a breakthrough difficult for the young guns. I went with Randy Petalcorin over still-unproven Puerto Rican Angel Acosta, mostly on the basis of fighting more (23 bouts versus 9) and Petalcorin’s stoppage victory over former world title challenger Walter Tello. Petalcorin has suffered one loss, a TKO to naturally bigger southpaw Marlon Tapales, but showed mental strength bouncing back with 17 wins while stopping 71% of his foes. A solid young southpaw who is getting better as his body matures into that of a legitimate power-puncher.
One of the strongest weight classes, sporting a probable Hall-of-Famer in Roman Gonzalez and three dominant looking champions who, on their best day, could knock their rivals away from their thrones. It is so good that a big-name veteran like Brian Viloria is an afterthought and recently anointed “next big thing” Kazuto Ioka has struggled since moving up in weight and losing for the first time. Chinese hero Zou Shimming will get a title shot because he is an economic powerhouse but don’t be surprised if he enters a betting underdog despite massive support from home country fans. A thoroughly entertaining division that deserves more support and coverage from American shores.
Champion who will stay: Roman Gonzalez – Unless Godzilla is able to make the weight and fight on his home turf of Japan, no one will beat the near flawless “Chocolatito” Gonzalez, who may be the most complete boxer on the planet! I make this choice despite Gonzalez probably facing the toughest opponents of any flyweight this year, which may include a fight against rebounding-but-still-dangerous Kazuto Ioka in Japan. I just can’t see anyone unseating Gonzalez, a fighter in his physical and mental prime, who sports the best combination of power and skills at this weight since Hall-of-Famer Pascual Perez back in the 1950’s and 60’s.
Champion who will go: Amnat Ruenroeng – I don’t like making this choice as I am fan of Ruenroeng, and when asked to vote for the “2014 Boxer of the Year” award by The Ring editors, I chose this impressive Thai over Terence Crawford. However, he is scheduled to fight Chinese hero Zou Shiming in China, where there is a possibility of his being robbed on the scorecards if that fight goes the distance. If Ruenroeng survives that test (which I believe he will), there is a possibility of a rematch with Kazuto Ioka that could be a bridge too far for the 34-year-old former Olympian, who won his last two fights via split decision.
Will rise in 2015: Kevin Satchell – Beats out a South African Makazole Tete, who I found little info on (in terms of video or even age), and rising Japanese wunderkind Takuma Inoue, who is untested in three outings. The Liverpool technician does not have power despite an aggressive ring nature, using volume and a slicing jab to outwork or overwhelm foes with punches. Gets the most out of a skinny frame and despite lacking stopping strength, Satchell concentrates on delivering body shots. Won the European title in his last fight defeating a good mix of styles en route. May never win a world title because he lacks a defining weapon but it will not be for lack of effort and if he catches a champion who is less than 100% prepared, there is a possibility Satchell raises a belt in two years.
A division that lacks pizzazz despite containing a historically dominant champion in Omar Narvaez, as well as an intriguing mix of former champions, quality contenders and hot young prospects. Most of the time this has been a layover division with great fighters stopping in to win a title and make a defense or two before moving up a couple pounds chasing bigger paydays at bantamweight. That looks to be the case for the next couple years, unless Naoya Inoue can claim prestige by unseating Narvaez and establish himself as a roadblock no one wants to crash into on the way to bantamweight.
Champion who will stay: Zolani Tete – This was a flip-of-the-coin pick and ended up taking Tete because Mexican titlist Carlos Cuadras has a tricky No. 1 contender in Luis Concepcion. On top of that, Cuadras is likely to fight three or four times while South Africa’s champions are notorious for fighting twice a year as Tete has in five of the last six years, only making one appearance in 2014. Kohei Kono is the other champion who has an easy title defense against Norberto Jimenez lined up but afterward, may face a sterner test in David Sanchez that is hardly an unwinnable bout on home turf. Overall, this is a numbers game with Tete keeping his losing percentage low by not making many appearances.
Champion who will go: Omar Narvaez – This choice pains me as I am a big Narvaez fan who believes he has been underrated and ignored for a decade. However, I have to pick against Narvaez because he faces young Japanese juggernaut Naoya Inoue in Tokyo, which is not a wise thing for a 39-year-old champion who has slowed down in the last two years. Even if Narvaez wins (not a big stretch of the imagination), he may choose to retire in 2015 after a farewell bout in Buenos Aires. Either way, I don’t see Narvaez as an active participant in boxing beyond the next six to 10 months.
Will rise in 2015: Khalid Yafai – This Naseem Hamed clone (not as flashy but of Yemeni heritage with solid power) inches ahead of a McJoe Arroyo, who always fell at last hurdle in the amateurs, and Filipino Arthur Villanueva on style points. Yafai was a very good amateur, topping out at the Olympics, and showed professional grit fighting through a torn bicep that required surgery in his eighth fight. In last outing outclassed former world title challenger Everth Briceno, knocking him down three times over the 12-round distance. A constantly evolving gym rat, Yafai described his boxing technique as having, “mad style, to be honest with you. I hold a tight guard because of the scoring. I like to attack the body with a left hook. I press forwards but I like to box on the back foot once I’ve got my lead, then counter-punch.”
Traditionally a strong weight class that is in a down cycle but sports great diversity with champions from America, Japan, the Dominican Republic as well as quality challengers from all over the globe. A pretty open division as well, there is no unbeatable titleholder with two aging southpaw champions over the age of 30 nicely counterbalanced by two newly-crowned young guns under 25. There is not much talent in the pipeline though, so the champions have a year to build their résumés for big-money crossroads clashes in 2016.
Champion who will stay: Shinsuke Yamanaka – The Japanese champion has been the one constant over the last five years, a champion since 2011, he has made seven title defenses and improved every time out, starting with a dominant decision over Vic Darchinyan. Given current form, will not have a tough time with number one contender Zhanat Zhakiyanov of Kazakhstan and is not likely to face natural rival Tomoki Kameda this year with most Japan insiders saying the fight will take place in 2016. Even if Yamanaka were to face Kameda this year, he should be favored. As it is, look for Yamanaka to deal with his mandatory and fight one other time to keep busy before a seemingly inevitable showdown with Kameda.
Champion who will go: Juan Carlos Payano – Physically imposing Dominican won his belt beating highly respected Anselmo Moreno but it was a cut abbreviated affair ending after eight unsatisfying rounds. That left more unanswered questions about a Payano few knew before this fight and while there were glimpses of brilliance, we can’t be sure if that is sustainable over 12 championship rounds. No.1 contender Jamie McDonnell looks a beatable foe, tougher if bout lands in England, but a second meeting with Moreno would be difficult even for this two-time Olympian. A rematch victory would answer all questions and make Payano an attraction worthy of American TV dates, especially if matched against Tomoki Kameda but those are events that take us past 2015. At any rate, I do not see any bantamweight losing his title this year but Payano would seem most likely to fall given inexperience at the championship level.
Will rise in 2015: Ryo Matsumoto – As I stated in the opening, this division is weak for upcoming talent which has proven itself against solid or even good opposition. Russian Nikolay Potapov and Mexican Luis Nery were considered, both attractive prospects in light of displays against weak opposition that showed off their talents instead of testing them. Japan’s Matsumoto was chosen because he has the best win so far and, in YouTube clips, displayed the widest array of weapons, combining his speed and power to destructive effect. Tears at the body of opponents like a beast, which former champion Denkaosan Kaovichit can attest to as his ribs were not able to endure more than two rounds. The 19-year-old’s ceiling needs a basilica to house it and since Matsumoto belongs to the Ohashi Gym, he will be able to improve given the world champion-level sparring talent available there.
As in other weight classes, I don’t think any champion will fall at 122 pounds this year unless a pair of champions face each other. Even then, I could see a draw given the evenness of three of the four titleholders. Ironically, the best boxer is not the most TV-friendly. Guillermo Rigondeaux is much superior to fellow champions who sport more power but lack the Cuban’s finesse, reflexes and innate boxing abilities. If I could make a round-robin tournament between the four champions in any weight class, it would be here featuring Guillermo Rigondeaux, Carl Frampton, Leo Santa Cruz and Scott Quigg.
Champion who will stay: Guillermo Rigondeaux – I put Rigondeaux in the class of Wladimir Klitschko, Gennady Golovkin and Roman Gonzalez in evaluating boxers who are virtually unbeatable in their respective weight classes. The proof is that no one wants to fight him; instead, potential foes want to collect belts and paydays by facing each other before moving on to the inevitable loss Rigondeaux seems to represent. I did not even look at the potential list of opponents for Rigondeaux because it does not really matter; Rigondeaux will keep his undefeated record in 2015 while others build résumés to merit a challenge to his dominance.
Champion who will go: Leo Santa Cruz – This decision comes down to who I think wins a head-to-head clash between Santa Cruz and Carl Frampton (which I believe is Frampton, thanks to slightly superior speed and technique). Not much, mind you, and the location of the fight would give me pause if not held in a neutral location. I also picked Santa Cruz because he makes his fights harder by engaging in wars when he does not need to, plus he may have plateaued in terms of improvement. Frampton has a tougher mandatory in Chris Avalos but should be able to dispatch the valiant Avalos despite his sizable improvement over the last two years. Again, I don’t think any champion loses his belt but the variables point toward Santa Cruz.
Will rise in 2015: Albert Pagara – Flashy Filipino beats out a Jessie Magdaleno, who has more upside but has stagnated in terms of level of opposition in 2014. The 20-year-old Pagara came of age in his last fight, overpowering rough-and-tumble Mexican Raul Hirales (who gave Carl Frampton a tough fight) over 12 rounds, dominating from the opening bell and forcing his foe into survival mode after a third round knockdown. A big right hand is his most potent weapon, stopping 15 of 22 foes, which include some truly frightening knockouts stored on YouTube. Even scarier is that Pagara sets up those knockout punches more than just blasting through an overmatched foe’s weak defenses. If Pagara’s boxing IQ reaches the physical dimensions, he has shown he could become a legitimate title threat in what may be the most competitive division in all boxing.
Next week: Featherweight to Junior Middleweight