2017: Champions whom will stay, whom will go and prospects to watch – Part one
It is that time of year again. Welcome to my annual look into the future of boxing, hopefully an edifying preview of every weight class from strawweight (105 pounds) to heavyweight (200-plus). I strive for inclusivity, embracing neglected European, Asian, South American regions and fighters whom weigh under 118 pounds. Yes, I take the time to investigate boxers below bantamweight, where few American surnames and U.S. television networks are to be found. Over three installments, I will unveil predictions for a champion whom will retain his crown, a champion whom loses his title and a prospect to keep an eye on. You may ask what my success rate over the last couple of years has been. Let’s just say it is above Vince Lombardi’s win percentage but below Anthony Joshua’s kayo ratio.
The 17 weight classes are talent-packed with only the junior lightweight and junior flyweight divisions lagging, in terms of intrigue. Titlists from the IBF, WBA, WBC and WBO were considered when selecting beltholders whom I believe will keep or lose their statuses as champions. As an aside, only the sanctioning bodies’ “real” champions are considered, so do not expect to see “interim” or “regular” champions that the alphabet bandits elevate for cash infusions considered. The only limitations I have for selecting the boxer to watch in 2017 is that the man chosen did not yet have a world title opportunity or I have selected the boxer in a previous year.
Every year, I separate this feature into three parts to keep it from taking on book-length form, rivaling all the “Star War” scripts. In Part One, I focus on heavyweight down to middleweight. Usually, I begin my predictions with the smallest weight class and work my way up to a heavyweight crescendo but because of a slew of lower weight title fights that occurred in Japan on Dec. 30 and 31, I will be counting down from heavyweight this time. So, let’s get started!
Champion who will stay: Joseph Parker – I am still not entirely convinced by the WBO champion but he showed a solid skill and mindset, defeating tricky but under-motivated Andy Ruiz Jr. Seems to add to his arsenal with every outing and has adaptability to employ divergent strategies to unlock opponents. Since IBF titlist Anthony Joshua and former IBF/WBA/WBO/THE RING magazine champion Wladimir Klitschko will face soon each other, those dangerous fighters are off the list of foes and a clash with WBC beltholder Deontay Wilder only has an outside shot of happening in 2017. Even if a Wilder bout were to happen, there is reasonable possibility that Parker emerges victorious. Dangerous No. 1 challenger David Haye is schedule to fight WBC cruiserweight titlist Tony Bellew, while second-rated Hughie Fury would be a considerable underdog. A rematch with Ruiz is a possibility too but Parker has more potential of improving on his performance than Ruiz does.
Champion who will go: Anthony Joshua – A tough call, as I think Joshua has a 60/40 chance of beating back the considerable challenge of Wladimir Klitschko, given his lengthy layoff. I am simply playing the odds here and will be rooting on Joshua for the health of boxing and the heavyweight division, yet banking on a once-dominant former champion like Klitschko having one final bullet in his chamber to score a minor upset and retire on top. If Joshua gets by Klitschko, because he is an active champion, there is the prospect of a shock loss or cut-induced stoppage causing a fluke change of titles. If I thought Joshua and Deontay Wilder had a chance of fighting this year, I would have picked Wilder in this position.
Will rise in 2017: Oscar Rivas – Unlike the last couple years, with Anthony Joshua and Joseph Parker, there is not an obvious or threatening new candidate who looks likely to make a title push in 2017. I like my heavyweight hopefuls to have extensive or successful amateur careers at a high level. Rivas checks that box but I have to say I am worried about his limited 6-foot stature and average reach. Defeated current Top 10-rated Kubrat Pulev in the 2008 Olympics and, to date, has racked up 20 wins with 15 stoppages, fighting mostly in Canada under guidance of experienced Yvon Michel’s promotional group. A worrisome failed eye test scratched a showdown with fellow undefeated Gerald Washington but his people assure it is a temporary setback and Rivas should be back for a full slate of step-up bouts in 2017. Others considered were Jarrell Miller, Hughie Fury, Agit Kabayel and Adrian Granat.
Champion who will stay: Oleksandr Usyk – My 2015 choice for “boxer whom will rise” looks like a settled and dominant force at cruiserweight with his convincing victory over Krzysztof Glowacki and eventually dominant win over tricky southpaw Thabiso Mchunu in Usyk’s American debut. For the past couple of years, I have maintained that cruiserweight is the most difficult division in boxing, so it will not be easy to maintain his WBO title, given HBO will want to keep featuring the Ukrainian upstart against quality opponents. Unless Usyk moves up to heavyweight by the end of the year, I do not see anyone outside of Yunier Dorticos, who can match Usyk for power, or maybe Marco Huck’s experienced guile unseating Usyk.
Champion who will go: Tony Bellew – Not only is Bellew the weakest of the four main champions but the brave and undersized Liverpudlian has signed to fight former heavyweight titlist David Haye in a hotly-anticipated all-English showdown. That is a large hurdle, especially as it will be at heavyweight, and getting back down to cruiserweight could be difficult, so Bellew being stripped of his title is a probability. I admit Bellew has impressively defied my expectations at cruiserweight but I cannot look past his kayo defeat to Adonis Stevenson and getting outboxed by Nathan Cleverly, both at 175 pounds. Bellew is on a hot streak but, at age 34, I do not see it continuing, given potential bouts against fast rising Mairis Briedis and Marco Huck looming as the two top ranked mandatories.
Will rise in 2017: Mairis Briedis – I always seem to be one year ahead of schedule in this division, going with Usyk in 2015 and Yunier Dorticos last year. Dorticos did well in 2016 and should ascend to a crown this year. So the question is: Who will the fast riser in the most competitive division in boxing be this year? My pick, from a slew of possibilities, is Latvian Mairis Briedis, who bounces back and forth from heavyweight but seems settled below 200 pounds and looking rock-solid there. At age 31, he will be pushed hard this year and has the right combination of abilities and experience to take on Tony Bellew in Liverpool (where Briedis last fought, to showcase himself) if needed. Briedis is not as scintillating as recent picks Usyk and Dorticos but is solid in every department, enabling him to compete with any Top 10 foe. Americans Michael Hunter and Andrew Tabiti have potential in European-dominated division, while Poland’s Michal Cieslak and Belgium-based Ivory Coast boxer Ryad Merhy are dark horses worth keeping an eye on.
Champion who will stay: Adonis Stevenson – Al Haymon-affiliated boxer has managed to avoid the challenge of IBF/WBA/WBO champion Andre Ward and Sergey Kovalev for the past two years. I do not see that changing, enabling the power-punching dynamo to hold his title another year, since he fights twice a year maximum. Stevenson is the light heavyweight version of Guillermo Jones, who inexplicably kept a title at cruiserweight year after year. He does have a tough mandatory in Eleider Alvarez but that is a winnable fight for the more battle-tested Stevenson since Alvarez has, at times, shown lack of power or ability to cut off the ring. Yes, it is a risk picking a 39-year-old champ but this choice is based on my low expectations of Stevenson, not his actual ring merit.
Champion who will go: Andre Ward – I believe Sergey Kovalev beat Andre Ward by a small margin in their controversial fight but I am basing this on Ward not being able to hold on to all three titles (IBF, WBA and WBO) because of political machinations instead of ring performance. There is a chance of a rematch with Kovalev this year, which is a dangerous proposition, and rapidly-rising Russian knockout artist Artur Beterbiev is a potential threat, as well as IBF mandatory, although he boxes on Showtime. Ward has the arsenal to defeat anyone in the division inside the ring; I am not sure the same can be said for Ward’s promoter Roc Nation Sports, given the Machiavellian nature of the sanctioning bodies.
Will rise in 2017: Oleksandr Gvozdyk – A talent-rich and tricky division for new talent and not one suited for title shots, given there are two champions on top whom are hardly noted for an abundance of ring appearances! Not going to cheat and pick Eleider Alvarez or Artur Beterbiev, who I chose in past preview pieces, and instead go with Oleksandr Gvozdyk, who I expect to make an impact without getting a title shot. Should get some American TV appearances, to heighten his name recognition, and has a fan-friendly style, stopping 10 of 12 foes. In 2016, Gvozdyk showed everything necessary to be champion, registering a “Knockout of the Year”-type win against Nadjib Mohammedi, but also frailties against limited Tommy Karpency. He looks like type of boxer who rises to the level of his competition, beating out solid Erik Skoglund on dynamism and intriguing Dmitry Bivol on level of opposition.
Champion who will stay: James DeGale – While the choice is not simple, this decision comes down to who I think wins in a fight between IBF titlist James DeGale and WBC beltholder Badou Jack, since they face each other on Jan. 14. I believe that will be DeGale, as he should consistently beat Jack to the punch. (Jack has been scrapping by with split and majority decision wins and a draw in his last three outings.) To be fair, DeGale has been no great shakes in his last couple fights but seems to have mastered the art of rising to whatever level necessary to earn a win. The safer pick is WBO champion Gilberto Ramirez, who has more upside than DeGale or Jack but appears frozen out of a big fight this year. Top Rank Promotions does not have keep-busy options for Ramirez, with Jesse Hart being the mandatory contender and George Groves having some name recognition looming as possibilities this year.
Champion who will go: Badou Jack – Not much to add here. While I appreciate Jack bouncing back from a devastating kayo loss to Derek Edwards in 2014, he has not risen to the height many others projected for the amiable Swede.
Will rise in 2017: David Benavidez – No one stands out as a sure thing, with the five fighters I chose narrowed down to displaying flaws or not facing opposition that reveals failings. However, none have weaknesses that can’t be fixed or overcome, leaving me with 20-year-old Benavidez, who has the highest probability of improving. Considered somewhat of a boxing prodigy, Benavidez sparred in his mid-teens with former and current middleweight champions like Kelly Pavlik and Gennady Golovkin, respectively. Benavidez has been throwing punches, in a positive sense, since age six, under the tutelage of his father Jose Benavidez Sr. and younger brother Jose is highly-ranked by the WBA at junior welterweight. Will get TV time and be pushed by Top Rank this year but a title shot is still a couple years off. The other choices were Tyron Zeuge, who lacks the “it” factor, intriguing but unknown Indian Vijender Singh, untested Zac Dunn, one-dimensional Avni Yildirim and solid-but-unspectacular Jesse Hart.
Champion who will stay: Gennady Golovkin – The Kazakh hitman may be past his athletic prime but has one of the best boxing brains in the business to compensate for slowing reflexes. One of the few in recent times to develop an aura of invincibility, it drives the IBF/WBA/WBC champion Golovkin to victory well before the opening bell sounds and creates an air of excitement not seen at middleweight since Marvelous Marvin Hagler. His genius punch selection and accuracy, of which NASA computers would be envious, has seen him avoided by WBO junior middleweight titlist/THE RING magazine middleweight champion Saul “Canelo” Alvarez, who has been mocked for abandoning his WBC belt instead of facing Golovkin. No one matches up favorably with Golovkin at 160 pounds and it looks like he can make weight with ease, ensuring he keeps the belt another year, no matter who challenges him.
Champion who will go: Billy Joe Saunders – You do the math. I have no other choice since Golovkin owns the other three belts. There is a calculable chance Saunders loses the belt anyhow, since he is the second choice of Saul Alvarez, if a fight with Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. does not materialize at 164 pounds or whatever the Alvarez camp deems an acceptable catchweight for that big-money fight. Saunders is not a bad boxer at all, and could trouble Alvarez early, but looked awful in his most recent outing, a unanimous decision over Artur Akavov, after a lengthy injury layoff.
Will rise in 2017: Maciej Sulecki – There is a lot of talent being held back by its management, waiting for Golovkin to move up in weight or for a sanctioning group to give Alvarez a title belt to defend for big money. I am going against my preferences, picking Poland’s Sulecki over former amateur standouts Ryota Murata, Sergiy Derevyanchenko and American Terrell Gausha. First appeared on my radar, beating once-promising Grzegorz Proksa, and confirmed his potential, stopping undefeated Hugo Centeno Jr. in his most recent outing. The maturity he displayed in those fights sets him apart from the others so far and I like that he showed focus, stopping his best opposition, despite having only average power. Jason Quigley and Yamaguchi Falcao are two others further down the evolutionary ladder to keep an eye on.
In Part Two, we venture from junior middleweight to featherweight, then finish with everything down to strawweight in the final installment.