2017’s prospects to watch

Undefeated welterweight prospect Egidijus Kavaliauskas

Undefeated welterweight prospect Egidijus Kavaliauskas

 

2016 is about to come to an end. It’s been another year in boxing, in which various prospects from all over have emerged as promising talents on a path to the next level.

 

Defining a prospect is a tricky thing to do. Some are too far along and have turned into contenders; some have become suspects and some contenders and even champions might just be prospects masquerading as something bigger, without having really beaten anyone.

 

For example, fighters like Oleksandr Gvozdyk and Sergey Derevyanchenko are on the come up and have, more or less, established themselves as contenders. Now, one can be a contender and a prospect but the two of them are older – 29 and 31 respectively – and thus aren’t considered for the prospect list.

 

Generally it’s better if a fighter has age on his side and hasn’t gotten a late start as a professional. The main factor in evaluation is potential and how far a fighter will go in the future, which is estimated by using all the available proof – performances in fights, level of opposition, word from the gym, and outside the ring, and amateur background.

 

Starting off, one fighter rose above the rest, fighting frequently and catapulting himself into title contender status.

 

 

Prospect of the Year: Luis Nery – 22-0 (16), 22, Mexico, bantamweight

 

The 22-year-old from Tijuana stormed onto the scene in 2016, winning five bouts, and established himself as a contender in the bantamweight division. Despite only having had nine amateur fights, he’s improved quickly and has steamrolled experienced opponents. Nery is a good counterpuncher who can box and punch but, at times, can also look to overwhelm rivals with aggression, so much so that he got knocked down for the first time in his most recent fight. It should be noted that he’s been fighting smaller opponents lately and has seemed to buy into his own power but it’s taken him this far and looks like it will continue until he nets a world title. Having only started boxing at the age of 15, and with so little amateur experience, there remains a ton of time for him to keep improving, moving forward.

 

Here are 15 of the most promising prospects (in no particular order) rising through the ranks, who warrant some attention going into 2017.

 

 

Josh Taylor – 7-0 (7), 25, Scotland, junior welterweight

 

Aptly nicknamed “The Tartan Tornado,” the 25-year-old Scotsman has been on the fast track since making his pro debut in July of 2015 with Cyclone Promotions. A 2012 Olympian, Taylor has been smashing through everyone in front of him, winning the Commonwealth title over the very experienced Dave Ryan in just his seventh fight. Well-schooled, with sharp punching prowess, he’s never had to go past the fifth round and has stopped some durable opponents in the process. 2017 will be a year when he will probably take another step up and, based on everything so far in his pro career, it’s warranted. The junior welterweight division right now is pretty bleak, outside of WBC/WBO champion Terence Crawford, and there is room for fighters to jump in the mix for the belts Crawford doesn’t possess.

 

Tugstsogt Nyambayar – 7-0 (7), 24, Mongolia, featherweight

 

An Olympic silver medalist from 2012, the Mongolian is ready for much better competition and could use a more frequent schedule of fights. He fought three times in 2016 and stopped two very durable journeymen, who usually go the distance. In terms of his foot movement and punching technique, he’s the most similar looking fighter to Gennady Golovkin there is at the moment. He’s got that same type of thudding power and suffocating pressure with his feet that make him a tough out for nearly anyone. He started off weighing in under 122 pounds in his first three fights, then a few pounds above and then, for his most recent fight, he was 128, so it’s not clear which division in which he’ll be making a run.

 

Dmitry Bivol – 8-0 (6), 26, Russia, light heavyweight

 

Bivol probably would’ve been Russia’s light heavyweight representative at the Olympics in Rio if he hadn’t gone pro in 2014 but, so far, the move has paid off. In his seventh fight, he won the WBA interim light heavyweight title – which doesn’t mean all that much – but he did get the valuable experience of going 12 hard rounds against a good fighter in Felix Valera. Like a lot of fighters with deep amateur backgrounds nowadays, Bivol has been moved quickly and was fighting eight-rounders by his third fight. He’s not a huge puncher but he’s very accurate and controlled and picks opponents apart with precise shots through and around the guard. He can also counter well and has a textbook Russian style with a fencing lead hand, along with back-and-forth bouncing on his feet but he’s adapted it well to the pro game. One of the most important aspects of his game is he’s a true professional, always training and staying sharp.

 

Julian Rodriguez – 15-0 (10), 22, USA, junior welterweight

 

The New Jersey native has been steadily building up his record since turning pro with Top Rank Promotions in 2013. As the competition has risen, the amount of stoppages has dropped, as Rodriguez has gone the distance four times in his last five fights. But for a young fighter who isn’t the finished product yet, it’s all good experience, including when he was dropped by Claudinei Lacerda in September. Rodriguez got back up and did what he had to do to win most of the remaining rounds. Lacerda had also dropped former IBF champion Eduard Troyanovsky. In his most recent bout, “Hammer Hands” completely dominated the tough and tricky Jerry Belmontes, looking much sharper. At such a young age still, there’s no need to rush.

 

Andrew Selby – 7-0 (5), 27, Wales, flyweight

 

At 27 and with a 9-1 World Series of Boxing record to go along with two World Championship medals and a deep amateur background, Selby is another fighter on the fast track. Making his pro debut in an eight-rounder in October of 2015, Lee’s younger brother fought 12 full rounds in his fifth fight and made easy work of his then 11-1 Filipino opponent Jake Bornea in his most recent outing. Selby is just too good for his competition right now. His team has acknowledged that the only way he’s going to get a title shot is by becoming the mandatory, so they’ve started down that road. Selby has all the ability to compete with the top flyweights and possesses a skill set no one else in the division has.

 

Daigo Higa – 11-0 (11), 21, Japan, flyweight

 

The Japanese youngster has only been a pro for two-and-a-half years but has already punched his way near the top of the WBC rankings. Higa is supposed to fight the winner of the upcoming vacant title fight in March between Juan Hernandez and Nawaphon Por Chokchai. A seek-and-destroy-type fighter, he emerged on the scene with a big win in Thailand over Kongfah CP Freshmart in July of 2015 and the train has kept on rolling. He will never be in a boring fight and is the type who will take one to give one, as can be seen in his most recent fight, a slugfest with Felipe Cagubcob Jr. Such are the lower weights, in which young fighters can move to title shots very quickly. Higa will either wait or stay busy in the meantime.

 

Diego De La Hoya – 16-0 (9) 22, Mexico, junior featherweight

 

The cousin of his promoter and Hall of Fame namesake Oscar, Diego has been a pleasant surprise, as his pro career has steadily developed. He’s not just a gimmick. He has real ability and promise that has stood out over the past year-and-a-half. The one thing he’s lacking is the big punch but he’s made up for it so far with a solid work rate, coupled with evolving boxing ability. With three fights under his belt in 2016, it can be expected that De La Hoya will continue to step up, heading into 2017.

 

Avni Yildirim – 14-0 (9), 25, Turkey, super middleweight

 

If there’s one word to describe Yildirim, it’s simply “tank.” A rugged pressure fighter, he fought six times in 2016 and made huge strides forward, moving down from light heavyweight midway through the year. He fought Glen Johnson in 2015 in just his sixth pro fight and then, directly afterward, went 12 rounds in his sixth bout. In his latest outing, he notched his biggest win to date with a demolition of Canadian prospect Schiller Hyppolite in three rounds, which moved him to the No. 3 position in the WBC’s rankings. At super middleweight, he’s very physically strong and 2017 will likely see him step into title contention.

 

Erickson Lubin – 17-0 (12), 21, USA, junior middleweight

 

Being highly-touted since turning pro on his 18th birthday, Lubin hasn’t missed a beat as a pro. The southpaw hasn’t had much trouble with anyone he’s fought yet, but will take a big step up against Jorge Cota in March. An offensive juggernaut from the southpaw stance, he’s a spiteful puncher with quick hands that can accumulate damage on an opponent quickly. He’s also been eight rounds four times and 10 rounds once, which is some good experience under his belt. Despite his young age, it’s not out of the question to think he’s that far away from title contention, providing he doesn’t slip up any time soon.

 

Jarrett Hurd – 19-0 (13), 26, USA, junior middleweight

 

The lanky Maryland native only fought twice in 2016, partly due to coming off a hand operation at the start of the year. But when he does enter the ring, it’s usually impressive, as he utilizes a unique style of inside fighting with his long arms. He throws a lot of off-speed punches and piles up the punishment, getting his opponents drunk and then mugging them. Hurd is probably ready to be let off any type of leash in the 154 pound division and would be a tough fight for many potential opponents.

 

Liam Williams – 16-0-1 (11), 24, Wales, junior middleweight

 

Williams missed most of 2015, due to injuries, but came back in 2016 with three fights, winning the British title in July. He’s a strong, imposing fighter with a good trainer in Gary Lockett, who keeps his head on straight. Opponents have to work very hard with the pressure he puts on. Despite the inactivity in 2015, Williams returned to form without any problems and looks to be continually progressing. Lockett has emphasized that Williams stay composed and not just go gung-ho and, so far, it’s paid off.

 

Jon Fernandez – 10-0 (8), 21, Spain, junior lightweight

 

The Spaniard is very tall for the weight but fights more in the manner of smaller fighters, enjoying mixing it up in closer quarters. Lately he’s also showed that he can use that length to box, counter and pick opponents apart. 2016 was the year he signed promotional terms with Lou DiBella – adding to the pact he already had with Sergio Martinez – and made his American debut. With the backing of a promoter in the United States, others have seen the promise in “Jonfer” and it’s likely he’ll be stateside more frequently. He’s recently been sparring IBF featherweight titleholder Carl Frampton. At just 21, he has a lot of time to keep progressing.

 

Jason Quigley – 12-0 (10), 25, Ireland, middleweight

 

2017 is poised to be a big year for the Irishman, who looks to keep climbing the ladder. In 2016, he took his first major steps up in competition, winning comfortably against James De La Rosa over 10 rounds in May on the Canelo Alvarez-Amir Khan bill. Due to injury, he didn’t fight again until Dec. 17, when he stopped Jorge Melendez in the first round. Quigley has promise but, going forward, it’s going to be important to get some more rounds under his belt. He made a major overhaul with his style when he went from amateur to pro but he has that boxing ability in his back pocket when he needs to use it. Against more durable opponents, whom he can’t just blow out, he’ll probably find himself using that more often.

 

David Benavidez – 16-0 (15), 20, USA, super middleweight

 

Benavidez turned pro at 16 in Mexico and, for the most part, has steamrolled everyone he’s fought. Despite being 20, he’s being moved quickly. He’s a physical force but, in his last two fights, has had to go longer in a fight than he’s ever gone, making it to the 10th round before stopping Denis Douglin in August. So far, any flaws he may have haven’t made much of a difference against the opposition he’s been fighting, which is strong for his age. He’s not that hard to hit, is a bit upright and could cut the ring off better but the way he’s able to physically impose himself on opponents can nullify all of that. He’s beaten some solid fighters nevertheless.

 

Egidijus Kavaliauskas – 15-0 (12), 28, Lithuania, welterweight

 

“The Mean Machine” had the toughest fight of his pro career in his latest outing against Cameron Kreal, who has a very deceiving record, now at 9-12-2 (1). The training camp wasn’t ideal in terms of time but nonetheless he did enough to get the job done over eight rounds. Those are the types of hurdles a fighter has to get over on the way up. Other than that, Kavaliauskas has flashed impressive power and accuracy in most of his fights. At 28, 2017 is a very important year and he’ll start it by coming off of an injury like he did in 2015, when he missed most of the year with a biceps issue. He’ll be 29 in June, so it’s time to get moving. The 2008 and 2012 Olympian has the ability to do just that.

 

 

You can follow Rian Scalia on Twitter @rian5ca.

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