2017: Champions whom will stay, whom will go and prospects to watch – Part three
Today, I wrap up my predictions for 2017, delivering the final installment of a three-part preview covering all 17 divisions. The sprint to the finish line presents an overview from junior featherweight to strawweight, housing some of boxing’s most undervalued divisions, in which fluctuations in weight by elite boxers makes prudent foresight difficult. Again, I choose a champion whom will stay, a champion whom will go and a prospect to keep an eye on. The titlists from the IBF, WBA, WBC and WBO were evaluated in selecting the champions whom I believe will keep or lose their belts. Only the sanctioning bodies’ real champions are considered, so do not expect to see “interim,” “diamond,” “silver” or “regular” champs (which the alphabet bandits created to make extra money) listed. The one limitation I have for selecting the boxer to watch out for in 2017 is the man chosen must not have had a world title opportunity yet, and I also try to limit that choice to younger boxers with less visibility at this time. A very belated Christmas present to the aspiring youngsters, if you will.
Champion who will stay: Jessie Magdaleno – Guillermo Rigondeaux is the obvious and, frankly, best choice, given his dominance combined with an inability to lure quality foes into the ring but there is a chance the Cuban great moves up in weight in search of validation that has eluded him. In Magdaleno, you have someone similarly skilled to Rigondeaux, plus, in his physical prime at 25, someone who has emerged and matured at the same time. The Las Vegas-bred champ has lived and taken in the sport by osmosis since his preteens, making him a particularly dangerous boxer (like a Floyd Mayweather Jr.) who can adapt on the fly to almost any situation. Confidence should be sky-high, given Magdaleno just beat the best and most recognizable foe of his career , one time pound-for-pound entrant Nonito Donaire, and the Top 2 challengers from the WBO are competent but average Cesar Juarez and Rey Vargas.
Champion who will go: Yukinori Oguni – The Tokyo-based speedster scored a big upset to end the year, edging the IBF title from a hot-and-cold Jonathan Guzman, displaying movement and accuracy not consistently seen from the light-hitting technician, to that point. Given the respectfulness of the Japanese boxing establishment, a rematch of the closely-contested battle may take place late this year and, if that does not come off, tricky (and equally elongated as Oguni at 5-foot-7) countryman Ryosuke Iwasa is a plausible possibility for a title defense. Oguni has averaged three fights a year; a third fight would be a keep-busy bout to earn money, so if that is his schedule, I expect the light-hitting technician to drop one by decision.
Will rise in 2017: Kid Galahad – A choice that came down to two U.K. boxers, with Kid Galahad beating out equally dynamic Gamal Yafai on level of opposition. The saying is you don’t know what you have until you lose it; Galahad lost boxing for a full year because of a steroid ban he claimed was the result of his brother spiking his protein shakes over a financial falling out. Galahad learned to box at the famed Brendan Ingle Gym in Sheffield, which has a knack for producing unorthodox but maddeningly effective boxers like Herol Graham and Naseem Hamed. The Qatari-born – moved to England at age three – boxer-puncher possesses a unique blending of speed, power and movement to make it to a title shot and perhaps win it with that added mental edge. Considered Moises Flores but he fights Rigondeaux next, which means a loss is in his near future. TJ Doheny is a bit too old at 30, while Diego De La Hoya, Adam Lopez, Kazuki Tanaka and Shohei Omori lacked the spark of a Galahad.
Champion who will stay: Shinsuke Yamanaka – Does the venerable WBC champion have another 365 days at the top in him? It looks likely; at age 34, there is no sign of his slowing down consistently, dispatching two foes a year, in sometimes jaw-dropping fashion. The southpaw is rated in most fans’ Top 10 pound-for-pound lists and deservingly so, given his lengthy reign (11 title defenses) and not shying away from tough foes like Anselmo Moreno or Liborio Solis, whom Yamanaka comprehensively outboxed, after rising from the canvas twice in the third round. No one in the WBC Top 10 looks a threat and none of the other champions are likely to make a run at him. Even if they did, Yamanaka would enter the ring a favorite. Adding to my certainty are very real threats Naoya Inoue and Roman “Chocolatito” Gonzalez, who are likely to remain a division below eyeing a mouthwatering showdown.
Champion who will go: Lee Haskins – Rau’Shee Warren is just snakebitten enough to lose his title after years of futility, when given the big stage, but I am going with the Englishman, who has done the opposite, emerging with unexpected victories under the bright lights. The 33-year-old IBF titlist had to withdraw from a proposed title fight, in Japan against Shohei Omori, with a leg injury and is chasing a big payday in the autumn of his career. Some thought veteran warhorse Stuart Hall did enough to earn a victory in their meeting last year, which is not a good sign, and Haskins is likely to be lured out of country if a title unification is offered. It is not a choice I enjoy making or hope comes to fruition, but all the indicators are there for boxing nature to take its course.
Will rise in 2017: Takuma Inoue – Another dangerous member of the Inoue clan, a family whose cup runneth over with ambition and talent! While he lacks the power of brother Naoya, Takuma has the same speed, timing and anticipation that keeps him a step ahead of the opposition. He combines those elements with a willingness to take chances that keeps fans on the edges of their seats. Fought a high level of opposition from the start, which accounts for his low KO ratio in winning his eight bouts, a schedule that earned Takuma “Prospect of the Year” from THE RING magazine in 2015. Lacks nothing, except maybe power, which may come with age, as he is only 21, and is part of what I see as the Golden Age of Japanese boxing. My hope is he fights three times this year, with Takuma’s final appearance being a title shot. Two-time Olympian Nordine Oubaali, Ryan Burnett and Nikolay Potapov were my other considerations. All are quality boxers, but none are likely to break out from their European bases to threaten Asia this calendar year.
Champion who will stay: Naoya Inoue – When making this choice, I simply had to pick who I think will win a fight if Inoue and Roman “Chocolatito” Gonzalez were to fight this year. Yeah, not a simple task. What that decision came down to, for me, is that Inoue is a little faster, a little bigger, a little more powerful and a little younger…and, in boxing, a little means a lot! Yes, Gonzalez has the edge in experience but Inoue can make up for that with his unquestionable dynamism. The 23-year-old Inoue has earned the nickname “Monster” and will become a ratings monster for the foreseeable future if HBO were to invest in him from his next fight forward.
Champion who will go: Jerwin Ancajas – I am not certain Inoue and Gonzalez will be matched against one another, so I won’t pick Gonzalez in this slot. I am going with the overachieving Filipino, who upset McJoe Arroyo in the Philippines, since I believe WBA titlist Khalid Yafai has bigger upside and is more title defense-ready. Ancajas has a pretty easy title defense against Jose Alfredo Rodriguez lined up for the end of the month, so, in all probability, there are two more title defenses in store for this year. One will likely come against a Japanese foe in Japan, rarely an easy assignment, which I am banking on becoming Ancajas’ downfall.
Will rise in 2017: Sho Ishida – There was surprisingly little to choose from in this division, so I went with Sho Ishida, who is at least likely to get a title fight within the year. A converted kickboxer with an awkward look about his combinations, at times, his sense of distance is not perfect either but he gets the job done and that lack of perfect balance results in an average kayo ratio. This despite his almost freakish size, an elastic-looking 5-foot-8, which should help him if he needs to stay at range with his jab against more powerful foes. A solid pick with flaws, I still see Ishida as having the tools to become a champion if matched correctly. My other two considerations were Rex Tso and Kyle Yousaf.
Champion who will stay: Kazuto Ioka – At this weight, the smallest things make a considerable difference, so I am going with an Ioka, who is likely to enjoy a hometown advantage in his title defenses. Also, Ioka looks to have finally grown into the division, in terms of body size and ability to endure punishment, after rushing up to the weight, in my opinion. Has stopped his last three foes, another sign of his maturation and enjoys a big fan base, as well as solid promotional backing to aid his title reign. There is a greater likelihood that the best overall boxer in the division, Donnie Nietes, who recently moved up in weight, will face off against IBF titlist John Riel Casimero, as well, which is a large consideration.
Champion who will go: Zou Shiming – Never thought much of the newly-crowned WBO champion, a Top Rank Promotions-manufactured titlist, who was steered to a title because of his popularity in China and Juan Francisco Estrada vacating his belt. Long serving WBO junior flyweight champion Donnie Nietes has moved up and may be a opponent this year and, despite his 34 years of age, I think Nietes dismantles Shiming with his more mature and attacking style. I am not entirely convinced by John Riel Casimero either but he is on a hot streak and, unlike Shiming, boxes in a more professional style not reliant on a pestering jab and movement. I do fear Shiming will be further protected by Top Rank’s matchmaking but have been told Shiming’s ambitions go beyond that of Bob Arum’s and may get his way given his advanced age (35) and pressure within the Chinese boxing community.
Will rise in 2017: Nawaphon Por Chokchai – Daigo Higa would be most people’s choice but something I can’t put a finger on, as a missing ingredient, has left me unconvinced. So I am taking a chance on Thai Nawaphon Kaikanha. Like many of his countrymen, he has faced no one of note, while racking up 36 victories, and we won’t really know how good Nawaphon is until he enters the ring for a title shot. Reviewing YouTube clips, he shows a consistent and snappy jab that both leads and disrupts and, asking around, I think he can handle himself against all but the very best. Seems better than many of his failed predecessors, who find themselves too one-dimensional, when faced with a foe whom gives them more than one look. Former Olympian Andrew Selby will probably be my pick next year, as I see the Englishman learning and picking up a European title this year. Others considered are physical freak and southpaw Vincent Legrand and Ukrainian boxer/puncher Artem Dalakian, who rounds up a stronger-than-usual European force, emerging in a division dominated by Asian and Central American boxers.
Champion who will stay: Kosei Tanaka – I would not be surprised if Tanaka is the only remaining champion after 2017. In only his eighth professional bout, defeated Moises Fuentes, the highest rated WBO challenger, so his next two defenses should be relatively easy. He won the vacant title after moving from strawweight, where he also held the WBO title. Even in this diluted boxing world, winning two world titles before your 10th pro outing is a special feat, which deserves more recognition then it has gotten because of the extremely light weight class. If Tanaka racks up three more victories this year, as I envision, he may well earn a third world title early next year, if no unification offers come his way. Undefeated Angel Acosta is Top 10-rated and may be a threat but not sure his promoters want to take risk of a title fight this year and may seek an easier titlist to dethrone.
Champion who will go: Ganigan Lopez – Mexican veteran has been consistently good but never looked convincing at the highest level. Always held his own but lacks the speed or overwhelming power to establish himself as a consistent force. Especially now, at age 35, but, to his credit, the last two wins indicate a revival, as they came against solid foes. On top of that, Lopez has countryman Pedro Guevara, who already decisioned Lopez once, breathing down his neck as a mandatory challenger this year. It is not unimaginable that Lopez retains the title, just highly improbable.
Will rise in 2017: Angel Acosta – Taking a chance with this Puerto Rican young gun, as he is rated pretty highly in the WBO and thus could challenge Kosei Tanaka, who is the champ I chose to stay in 2017. This lanky bomber always gives himself an opportunity with his power, stopping all 15 of his opponents to date, and, in his most recent outing, knocked out previously-unhalted toughman Luis Ceja in impressive fashion. A win that marks Acosta’s arrival on the fringes of the Top 10, which I think he will enter with ease, in the course of 2017, given his current rate of maturation. Another young power puncher is Filipino Christian Araneta but he did not break through against some underwhelming trial horses and needs more seasoning. Panamanian Azael Villar is a wild card, who shows some ring charisma, from footage I’ve viewed.
Champion who will stay: Thammanoon Niyomtrong – Not one of those “produced” Thai title challengers, who knock out 28 guys making their pro debuts, then gets a title shot he loses by a wide margin on the scorecards. Niyomtrong has twice bested a very good Carlos Buitrago and graduated from interim to full-fledged WBA champion on merit. May have the best record of accomplishment of any strawweight, since late 2014, this despite only having fought 14 times in total. At 26 years old, is in his physical prime and shows no signs of slowing down or suffering under the strains of making weight. Went the distance in five of his six toughest fights, so, unlike many Thai boxers, has more dimensions to his game, not overly relying on brawn and stamina. Byron Rojas could be a threat in the WBA’s Top 10 but, like Rojas, he has already tasted defeat at the hands of Niyomtrong.
Champion who will go: Katsunari Takayama – A crap-shoot really, as all three titlists have exploitable weaknesses, my choice came down to which champion has the toughest No.1 challenger or may have to travel to another country to defend his title. While Takayama is not likely to travel outside of Japan, he did have an uneventful 2016 (only entering the ring once), so is likely to make up for lost paydays by stepping in the ring his usual three times. In title defenses, Takayama has suffered knockdowns and cuts but is a a tough nut to crack, only being stopped once in his eight setbacks. At 33, is not the youngest anymore and, given the plethora of talented young Japanese boxers coming up the ranks may be unseated by someone unknown to me…and perhaps even him.
Will rise in 2017: Tsubasa Koura – In his most recent fight, Koura blasted out former title challenger Jeffrey Galero in two rounds (Galero went 12 rounds with WBC champion Wanheng Menayothin), displaying a thrilling combination of speed and accuracy that brought audible reactions from a usually stoic Asian audience. At 22, is fully mature physically, maybe accounting for three stoppages in a row, and looks like the type of fighter who will wear on opponents if they are not blitzed by his speed in the first couple rounds. Koura is part of the Reason Promotions stable of boxers, whom I have to admit my ignorance of and how fast they can get this kid a title shot. On talent and physical ability, it looks like Koura is ready, so let’s hope his promoter is as good as Koura seems.