2017: Champions whom will stay, whom will go and prospects to watch – Part two
Welcome back to my annual look into what I believe will be the unfolding narratives and storylines of boxing (the second of three installments), a hopefully accurate and thought-provoking preview of every weight class from strawweight to heavyweight. Peering into this future, aided by my crystal boxing glove, becomes a bit harder as the weights diminish and boxers maneuver or jump weight classes to earn larger paydays or take part in more accomplished political and promotional maneuvering. This, in turn, factors into decisions such as the WBC favoring a Mexican moneymaker like its former middleweight king, WBO junior middleweight champion Saul “Canelo” Alvarez or the WBA stripping an less profitable champion in favor of new blood. Let’s face it: In our beloved sport, Al Haymon’s Premier Boxing Champions or Top Rank Promotions’ deep pockets, friendly connections and experienced lawyers can be more powerful than their boxers’ hooks.
In the next two installments, I present an overview from junior middleweight to strawweight, unveiling predictions for a champion whom will retain his crown, a champion whom loses his title and a prospect to keep an eye on. Only titlists from the IBF, WBA, WBC and WBO were considered when selecting the champions whom 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,” “silver” or “regular” champs, the alphabet bandits elevate to make extra money, involved. The only 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 that I did not choose him in a previous year.
Champion who will stay: Jermall Charlo – I am going with the Charlo brother who I think is the superior boxer of the twins. He sports more power and vivacity, while having a weaker list of potential challengers presented to him by the sanctioning bodies. The IBF’s Jermall is not going to fight his brother Jermell, the WBC titlist, in a unification fight and his Top 2 challengers are once-beaten Tony Harrison and solid but still untested Jarrett Hurd. Both are capable, and even good challengers, but I see either boxer as a notch below Jermall’s level. Jermell may have to deal with No. 1 challenger Demetrius Andrade this year and, if he loses, it could turn into a Klitschko storyline, in which one brother is set up to avenge the other’s loss.
Champion who will go: Saul “Canelo” Alvarez – Politics, politics and more politics. I do not think Alvarez wants to continue cutting weight and am sure the WBO (the one title he holds now, other than his seemingly dormant THE RING magazine middleweight championship) will accommodate Alvarez if he wants to move up and fight their middleweight champion Billy Joe Saunders. There are also talks about matching Alvarez against Julio Cesar Chavez Jr.; either way, I do not see Alvarez as a junior middleweight for the entire year and he will forfeit this title without losing it in the ring. Especially since dangerous but un-lucrative Demetrius Andrade is his mandatory challenger at 154.
Will rise in 2017: Erickson Lubin – My toughest choice to date; Jarrett Hurd was my first thought but, upon further review, I believe Lubin has more physical talent as well as a bigger upside, given his amateur pedigree and dynamism. Hurd has surprised many, showing unprojected maturity and ring intellect, defeating a quality list of foes, while Lubin is still maturing at 21 years of age but registering some devastating stoppages. Sure, Lubin’s pure athleticism may be blinding me but there is a lot to be said for a 5-foot-11 southpaw with power in both hands, who pretty much grew up in a gym, taking in things via osmosis. Some who come to the sport later like Hurd never do. Patryk Szymanski and Magomed Kurbanov are two European considerations, with Szymanski sporting Lubin-type size and electric aura.
Champion who will stay: Keith Thurman – Confusion reigns at this weight, with Manny Pacquiao maybe dropping his WBO title to have one more fight against a foe of his choice. There is more uncertainty over IBF titlist Kell Brook’s ability to return to the 147-pound limit after moving up for a middleweight championship shot. So I am going to pick who I believe will win the upcoming unification showdown between Keith Thurman and WBC boss Danny Garcia, which, to my eyes, is a Thurman who is the naturally bigger man and sports a similar skill set to Garcia with superior power. After that fight, in March, Thurman can take a couple keep-busy fights for the rest of year. However, there is also an outside possibility he faces aging legend Pacquiao. It would make for a “Fighter of the Year”-type showdown but that is also a match Thurman can win…maybe.
Champion who will go: Kell Brook – I championed Kell Brook from the start and still feel vindicated even in the face of his loss to IBF/WBA/WBC middleweight champion Gennady Golovkin making this choice a painful one. The reasoning is simple: He is coming off a bad injury (broken eye socket) and Brook’s No. 1 challenger is badass Errol Spence Jr., who he may drop a title to avoid, since a bigger payday may present itself against rival countryman Amir Khan or even Manny Pacquiao. On top of that, I am not even sure if Brook can make the weight comfortably anymore. Too many questions surround Brook at this time, so I am playing the odds that he is either stripped, can’t make weight or gives up the title for a larger payday.
Will rise in 2017: Jeff Horn – I picked Errol Spence Jr. last year, so that obvious selection is gone and what remains does not include a standout choice like Spence. It came down to two-time Olympian Egidijus Kavaliauskas, Konstantin Ponomarev, who defeated undervalued Brad Solomon, and Australian spitfire Jeff Horn. It really was a tossup but went with a resilient Horn, who surmounted knockdowns against Randall Bailey and Ali Funeka to register stoppage victories. Yes, those lapses can be seen as a weakness but Horn has shown an ability to overcome (cuts as well) that may hold him in good stead when a title shot arrives. If Frankie Gomez’s personal problems were not a liability outside the ring, he would be a good choice and Jose Benavidez Jr. is a solid-but-unspectacular boxer with good instincts. I have been burned by too many Dominicans to consider unproven Carlos Adames and Canadian Custio Clayton could make waves but, at age 29, may have passed his physical peak already.
Champion who will stay: Terence Crawford – Unless the pound-for-pound-level champion abandons his THE RING magazine, WBA and WBC belts to move up in weight or challenge Manny Pacquiao, I don’t see anyone who can match Crawford at 140 pounds. He does not seem the type to become mentally unfocused to lose the belt carelessly and No. 1 challengers Antonio Orozco and Jason Pagara are not on the level of a Viktor Postol, who Crawford easily manhandled last year. I do not see Crawford moving up in weight for a mouth-watering showdown with the winner of the Keith Thurman-Danny Garcia fight yet, since that fight would have the promoters doing a slow-boil buildup to soak every cent out of fans. So, unless Crawford gets a one-time shot with Pacquiao at 147, he will remain champion and, even then, he would not need to relinquish his 140-pound belts in order to do so.
Champion who will go: Ricky Burns – I admire the toughness and staying power of a warhorse like Burns but the aging Scotsman had some rough spots against unknown Kiryl Relikh and may come to America in 2017 for a unification rematch with Terence Crawford. There were also rumors of Burns defending his WBA title against Adrien Broner as well. Either one would be a stylistic nightmare and a bridge too far. Even more threatening than Broner is No. 1-rated challenger Rances Barthelemy, so none of Burns’ three-money options would see him retain the title in my opinion. Unknown southpaw Julius Indongo, who scored an upset one-punch knockout of Eduard Troyanovsky in Russia, will probably lose his IBF title as well but could hold out a year against lesser lights to build his bank account in Namibia or score another upset, if he faces Burns as has been rumored in the British press.
Will rise in 2017: Regis Prograis – No one stands out from the pack; at least, last year, I had an exciting puncher in Sergey Lipinets, who displayed that one superior asset to push him above others. I am going with another exciting puncher and hope he delivers on the national stage, since Anthony Yigit, Hiroki Okada, Mario Barrios, Jack Catterall, and Joel Diaz are Jack-of-all-trades-types, who lack that bit of jazz to draw attention. I am not enamored by Prograis coming to boxing a bit late at age 17 but his reflexes are excellent to make up for any muscle memory he may lack, to this point, coming up the ranks. Has solid amateur pedigree and did not shrink in the face of bright lights when featured on “ShoBox,” scoring a first round knockout over usually durable toughman Aaron Herrera. A southpaw with an aggressive nature, who should get a lot attention and good push from promoter Lou DiBella, Prograis has improved with every viewing, so I am tipping on that continued maturation in 2017.
Champion who will stay: Robert Easter Jr.- Sometimes it helps when a young champion is surrounded by bigger names holding other titles, who want to fight each other for more money. It allows a maturing boxer like Easter to get a couple title defenses under his belt and become more of a threat down the road. I am sure the ambitious IBF titleholder Easter, who learned a lot in a blood-and-guts vacant title win over one-dimensional Richard Commey, wants to fight THE RING/WBA champion Jorge Linares or Mikey Garcia immediately but will recognize the folly of that, in hindsight. A rematch with Commey is winnable, more easily than the first time, if he learned as much as I hope in the first outing and makes sense as one title defense. It seems the more dangerous second-rated IBF challenger Felix Verdejo is aiming for a title shot against WBO titlist Terry Flanagan, so that is another bullet avoided for the man I see holding his title throughout 2017.
Champion who will go: Terry Flanagan – I chose Flanagan, since he is a solid-but-unspectacular champion, calling out dynamic star WBO junior lightweight titlist Vasyl Lomachenko, looking for a payday that has eluded him to date. As bad as the Lomachenko option is, a mandatory against “next big thing” Felix Verdejo, for less but still HBO-level money, seems unavoidable for late 2017. That would likely take place in America for the Manchester-based champ, who never traveled outside his country for a fight. If both of those options manage to elude Flanagan, he may move up in weight to challenge titleholder Ricky Burns in an all-U.K. Showdown, if some political hurdles can be ironed out. The logical choice is WBC titlist Dejan Zlaticanin; he fights comebacking HBO favorite, prodigal son Mikey Garcia next and then probably Jorge Linares in a unification fight, if the latter were to score an upset over Garcia. However, I would not put it past the spark-plug Montenegrin (whom I have always rated much higher than most) to register two unlikely victories, though most would find that highly improbable.
Will rise in 2017: Xolisani Ndongeni – Maybe the weakest division for rising talent. I am left with a somewhat unknown quantity, who has scored some good wins staying under the radar outside South Africa until his most recent fight, appearing solid, beating Juan Garcia Mendez in his off-TV American debut. In his best win, over 40-plus-year-old Mzonke Fana, Ndgongeni only managed a majority decision but obviously learned from the veteran war horse, improving with each outing. Will need that experience as he aims at a title shot against Terry Flanagan (long history of England versus South Africa matchups, so that seems a marketable fight) but would need to get by Daud Yordan first in a proffered fight early this year. Nicknamed “Nomeva/The Wasp,” sports an unorthodox, volume-punching style, attacking from odd angles, making use of quick, sometimes off-balance punches to immediately exploit openings his movement creates. Not always easy on the eye but Ndongeni can be effective as long as he does not give his opponent time to think, as he did with Fana, for whom he showed too much respect. The other candidates were Saul Rodriguez and Carlos Diaz Ramirez, who are both solid but have not shown that one menacing skill or marketable angle to make them a threat yet.
Champion who will stay: Francisco Vargas – The exciting Mexican came into his own in 2016 but the Olympian turned pro late and is already 32 years old, making him a dangerous choice. I am banking on Top Rank Promotions and Golden Boy Promotions (who handles Vargas) not coming to a deal for a unification bout with WBO boss Vasyl Lomachenko this year, which would leave WBC titlist Vargas facing beatable foes Takashi Miura and Miguel Roman. Vargas is scheduled to face upstart power puncher Miguel Berchelt in late January but should outbox his one-dimensional countryman for a good start to the year. A rematch with Miura seems logical; their first meeting saw both men rise from the canvas and Miura would likely come to America a second time for that. It is not a given but I think Vargas’ team can steer him clear of Lomachenko in 2017 and create anticipation for a more marketable fight in 2018.
Champion who will go: Jose Pedraza – In all honesty, I can see all four titleholders losing their crowns this year. There is a chance Vasyl Lomachenko vacates his WBO title because there are not enough big names to keep the talented phenom, who only wants to test himself against the best, at 130 pounds and only seems to be hanging around to get another shot at Orlando Salido. However, I will go with a Jose Pedraza; I have never been convinced of the IBF beltholder as a Top 5 boxer (he was excellent amateur and Olympian), who will take on talented but untested Gervonta Davis on Jan. 14. If Pedraza were to get by Davis, there is possibility of a title unification with Lomachenko and England’s capable Liam Walsh has already taken step-aside money to make the Pedraza-Davis fight, so he will not do that again in 2017.
Will rise in 2017: Alberto Machado – A questionable list of upstarts for the second straight division, with no real standout performer who draws eyes with skills or charisma. Liam Walsh, at age 30, does not fit my requirements as an up-and-comer and the same can be said of 2008 Australian Olympian Paul Fleming, who continues to stagnate. So, I am going with a rangy (5-foot-10 with 72-inch-reach) Puerto Rican power-puncher, who, at least, looks the part, though he has yet to be tested. Cotto Promotions snapped up Machado, a natural right-hander, who fights in a southpaw stance and started boxing, at age 10, inspired by watching his current promoter Miguel Cotto. Has stopped 14 of 16 foes and done well, drawing crowds as well as headlining his first promotion last year. Will probably be pushed into a meaningful fight this year, against a former champ or fellow prospect on ShoBox, which will tell us exactly where he stands as a future contender. Evgeny Chuprakov is intriguing but I was not able to get solid feedback on the Ekaterinburg-based Russian.
Champion who will stay: Oscar Valdez – Of the current champions, Valdez is the least likely to get a unification fight (given the risk-to-reward mathematics he brings to the table), since bigger names like Abner Mares and Leo Santa Cruz are more likely to be queued up for paydays against WBA titleholder Carl Frampton and WBC boss Gary Russell Jr. on HBO and Showtime, respectively. Valdez’s Top 2 WBO challengers are Miguel Marriaga and Carlos Diaz Ramirez; both would enter as considerable underdogs to the Mexican firebrand. Even if Valdez were to be matched with Russell or Frampton, there is a chance he beats either but would have more of a stylistic chance against a Russell, who would allow Valdez more space to operate.
Champion who will go: Lee Selby – Is this the year the perennially underrated Selby loses a fight? I am not convinced any featherweight beltholder will lose his title year unless there is a unification fight; that is how much better I think the titleholders are compared to their pool of challengers. There is a reason the IBF’s Selby is featured on the Carl Frampton undercard this January. If Selby defeats tricky Argentine Jonathan Victor Barros and Frampton emerges with a second win over Leo Santa Cruz, a showdown between the two seems a sure thing in England or Northern Ireland for the U.K. fans to enjoy. I see Frampton enjoying that fight more, as well, and putting an end to Selby’s admirable title run.
Will rise in 2017: Mark Magsayo – Light-hitting stylists Josh Warrington and Manuel Avila may be able to box their way to title shots but I doubt they have what it takes, in terms of guile or endurance, to get over the top against the current elite. Joseph Diaz Jr. has the versatility but not the power to mix with the elite, so I am going with Filipino threat Mark Magsayo. The pressure fighter convinced me by bouncing back from an early knockdown to stop tough, former title challenger Chris Avalos, probably relying on experience gained from an extensive amateur career that saw him earn eight national titles. Gets great sparring as part of ALA Promotions, and really puts his left hook to work on a consistent basis, but will actually need to rein in his volume, when facing better opposition. Magsayo edges out South African Azinga Fuzile (because I have not seen video of him), who, in only his fifth fight, defeated dangerous Macbute Sinyabi in an impressive, one-sided 12-round display.