2018: Champions whom will stay, whom will go and prospects to watch – Part one
It is that time of year again, my own little Christmas tale, in which I make predictions that may haunt me like the Ghost of Christmas Past. This is my annual look into the future of boxing, hopefully an edifying preview of every weight class from strawweight (105 pounds) to heavyweight (200-plus). 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 who will retain his crown, a champion who will lose his title and a prospect to watch. You may ask what my success rate over the last couple of years has been? Let’s just say it is in line with Manny Pacquiao’s win percentage but below Anthony Joshua’s kayo ratio.
The 17 weight classes are talent-packed, with only the strawweight and bantamweight 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. Please note however: 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 2018 is that the man chosen did not yet have a world title opportunity, nor could 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, as it could rival the combined superhero movie franchises in length. In Part One, I focus on heavyweight down to middleweight. Usually, I begin my predictions with the lightest weight class and work my way up to a heavyweight crescendo but because of a slew of lower weight title fights that take place in Japan on December 30 and 31, I will be counting down from heavyweight this time. So, let’s get started!
Champion who will stay: Anthony Joshua – This choice comes down to whom I believe wins head-to-head between the two best (sorry, Tyson Fury; I only base this on active boxers) heavyweights the division has to offer in IBF/WBA titlist Joshua and WBC beltholder Deontay Wilder. My vote is cast in favor of Joshua, who has the most emphatic victory on his resume, with that thrilling stoppage of Wladimir Klitschko. Wilder would have a puncher’s chance and is unlucky that attractive foes Alexander Povetkin and Luis Ortiz dropped out because of doping violations. There is a chance this fight does not happen in 2018 anyway; since Wilder is seeking purse parity that his current level of fan appeal does not merit, when compared to a Joshua who sells out stadiums. Joshua has shown he can overcome in-fight setbacks, fatigue and a heavy sixth round knockdown against Klitschko, which the other top heavies have yet to prove.
Champion who will go: Joseph Parker – Signs point toward WBO titlist Parker fighting Anthony Joshua in his next fight, in March or April, that I believe is a bridge too far for the ambitious Kiwi. Parker does not have that one potent quality to overcome the size and power of Joshua. If that fight does not materialize, Parker has an easy mandatory against Christian Hammer (who lost every round in his most recent fight to Alexander Povetkin), with tough but beatable Dominic Breazeale the second-rated WBO contender. There is an outside possibility Parker faces Deontay Wilder, if neither can negotiate a deal with Joshua, in which he would enter the fight as an underdog, if held in America. Parker has the potential to beat both fellow titleholders but lacks the dynamism of Joshua or Wilder and thus is a long shot to retain his title.
Will rise in 2018: Agit Kabayel – The German, of Turkish heritage, just registered his best win, defeating Dereck Chisora in a tightly-contested affair on neutral ground in Monte Carlo. The victory showed off Kabayel’s quickness and footwork, that allowed him to build an early lead, and also his limitations, as Kabayel lacked a Plan B when Chisora made a late-round rally. Sports decent power, 12 stoppages in 17 victories, and is at his best counter-punching but can throw hooks behind solid double jab. Is 25 years old, entering the ring with solid size at 6-foot-3, managing his weight well, staying around 230 pounds. Was a preferred sparring partner for Tyson Fury, coming to boxing from the kickboxing arena, where he was a European champion. His chin and determination were tested by Chisora and Kabayel came through in impressive fashion, showing he has the potential to mix it up with the big boys. Rated in the Top 10 by the WBC, and lurking just outside the Top 10 with the IBF and WBO. Given the glut of experienced heavies’ names, it will be difficult for a new face to get a title shot in 2018. Considered Jarrell Miller, Adam Kownacki and Otto Wallin too but went with Kabayel’s youth and athletic ability. since no new young heavyweight really stood out.
Champion who will stay: Oleksandr Usyk – For the past three years, I have maintained that cruiserweight is the most difficult division in boxing and it got exponentially tougher when every champion entered the “World Boxing Super Series” tournament! WBO beltholder Usyk is the most well-rounded but will receive a difficult challenge from WBC counterpart Mairis Briedis in next outing, made more arduous because the fight will be held in Briedis’ native Latvia. I pick Usyk, despite his having, arguably, the toughest road to retaining his title but sometimes you have to go with quality over intangibles, like home advantage or judging. Unless Usyk moves up to heavyweight, I do not see anyone outside of Yunier Dorticos, who can match Usyk for power, pulling off an upset.
Champion who will go: Mairis Briedis – By picking Briedis, I am doubling down on Usyk; I could enhance my odds by picking a winner in the 50/50 showdown between IBF titleholder Murat Gassiev and Yunier Dorticos, in the other semifinal of the World Boxing Super Series tournament, instead. I favor Dorticos in that fight, by the slimmest of margins, but find Usyk a better bet, given his tremendous accomplishments in the amateur and pro ranks. Briedis is a quality boxer, defeating long-serving Marco Huck and hard-punching Mike Perez, but lacks the ring IQ to push Usyk in the vital moments of a championship encounter. The real shame is that the WBSS cruiserweight tourney has not been shown on American television.
Will rise in 2018: Andrew Tabiti – I had a difficult time convincing myself to pick an American, given the history of the division and the dominance by Europeans for last two decades. Tabiti is well-rounded enough to compete, showing mental strength other Americans have lacked, dominating the last excellent American cruiserweight Steve Cunningham. Tabiti took his burgeoning career seriously in the amateurs, moving to Las Vegas for better sparring, where he earned a reputation for giving 100%. Relies on quickness more than speed; his punches and movement to and from opponents come in rapid bursts. Tries to incorporate things he picks up in classic boxing videos but says James Toney, Evander Holyfield, Roy Jones Jr. and Floyd Mayweather Jr. are his main boxing idols. It looks like the talent stream is drying up at cruiserweight, so I considered Alexey Papin, Arsen Goulamirian, Artur Mann, Fabio Turchi, Jai Opetaia and Belgium-based Ivory Coast boxer Ryad Merhy is a dark horse.
Champion who will stay: Artur Beterbiev – Playing the odds here, as IBF titlist Beterbiev has no mandatory challenger lined up and only Oleksandr Gvozdyk looks a threat within the Top 10. There is an outside chance Beterbiev faces countryman and WBO beltholder Sergey Kovalev (whom Beterbiev defeated twice in the amateurs), late next year, but even if that were to pass, Beterbiev seems the fresher of the duo, at this time. The Russian terror (of Chechen heritage) was almost on a Vasyl Lomachenko-like fast-track, knocking Tavoris Cloud out, in only his sixth fight, and has an amateur pedigree that led to two Olympic appearances, despite his style being more suited for the pros. Has stopped every opponent to date and showed patience and stamina knocking out Enrico Koelling in the 12th round of his most recent fight, removing any stamina concerns.
Champion who will go: Adonis Stevenson – For the last three years I have waited for Stevenson to stop avoiding the challenges of elite foes like Andre Ward, Sergey Kovalev or Artur Beterbiev. Stevenson is the light heavyweight version of Guillermo Jones, who inexplicably kept a title at cruiserweight year after year. This may be the year of reckoning, as WBC titleholder Stevenson must face a solid challenger in Eleider Alvarez, who has a measured style of attack suitable to undoing the awkward Stevenson. At 40, relies more and more on his power, which the Top 5 in the division can match, while exceeding Stevenson, in terms of skill set. This is the year Stevenson proves himself elite or loses the crown, giving naysayers the final laugh.
Will rise in 2018: Anthony Yarde – As with the cruiserweights, it seems the recent wave of up-and-coming talent has ended. I could not find an all-arounder in the ranks of prospects, making me pick from a list of flawed punchers instead. I settled on Yarde, a Nigel Benn-type, who has yet to have his chin and determination tested. Yarde has never gone past four rounds but only one of his 14 opponents has lasted to the final bell. In his most recent fight, took out tough Nikola Sjekloca (who has challenged for a world title and was not stopped by three world titleholders he faced) and Yarde cuts a charismatic figure in the ring and during interviews. Learning on the job, he only had 12 amateur bouts but has fantastic athletic abilities and reflexes at age 26. Said to be an enthusiastic gym rat, he needs to be guided carefully but if Yarde can progress in the gym, he has definite title potential. A dark horse worth consideration is Kazakh-bred Ali Akhmedov and also Egor Mekhontsev, who is not living up to his amateur hype yet.
Champion who will stay: Gilberto Ramirez – The cream of a good but unexciting list of 168-pounders, who remains my choice, despite a solid list of challengers topped by Callum Smith. Takes on unqualified Ghanaian Habib Ahmed in a keep-busy fight this February; Top Rank is having a difficult time getting WBO beltholder Ramirez a high-profile fight that could turn him into the star his skills seem to merit. Would be favorite over any super middleweight, probably even by English bookies in a George Groves clash on that side of the Atlantic, though surging Chris Eubank Jr. would find a lot of support, given his current run of results. That intriguing clash will most likely marinate past 2018, though I would like to see it sooner. I am concerned that Ramirez seems to have the size to move up in weight, if a money fight presents itself, but that seems an outside possibility for this year.
Champion who will go: Caleb Truax – It pains me to make this choice, as Truax was a boxing feel-good story that came just in time for Christmas. The Minnesotan shocked everyone, traveling to England and upsetting James DeGale, but it also made him the titleholder every hot contender guns for. A personable champion, Truax will not be outworked for the title, so it will have to be a talented boxer who takes the belt from him. However, there seems to be that kind of foe in his future. The obvious is a big-money rematch with DeGale (if DeGale does not move up in weight) and I am not sure how quickly the IBF will demand Truax face interim titlist Andre Dirrell, whose brother stopped Truax in one round. I don’t want to play the Grinch but the New Year will bring a new champion of the IBF.
Will rise in 2018: D’Mitrius Ballard – I am saddened by the lack of well-rounded prospects I have come across so far! Now, Ballard is well-rounded but has been matched too carefully, given his amateur pedigree (fought for Team USA overseas on multiple occasions) and potential. This makes me worry. Ballard has looked good against limited opposition, stopping 12 of 18 foes, and graduated from the tough Washington/Maryland area amateur circuit, winning National PAL and a Golden Glove titles. Began boxing at age 11 and finally got some exposure on ESPN, outpointing Adrian Luna and cruising to an easy decision, after scoring a second round knockdown. Has not shown an urge to excel, settling for division wins, when more seemed to be on offer if he pushed down on the gas pedal. That may hurt him, when faced with elite competition, but it may be a case of Ballard not being inspired by the competition. I will go with the latter and hope Ballard fulfills expectations in 2018. Twice beaten Renold Quinlan was a consideration and I would not rule him out fighting for a title in the future, given a brave performance against Chris Eubank Jr. Southpaw Andrey Sirotkin defeat old-timer Ricardo Mayorga but, at 32, was not a good choice. Roamer Angulo is a pure Colombian puncher and his opposite is Stefan Haertel, who is a Sven Ottke-like boxer from Germany.
Champion who will stay: Gennady Golovkin – Even at his lofty heights, Golovkin had to learn how to perform on biggest stage, allowing Saul “Canelo” Alvarez to pocket crucial early rounds in their pay-per-view showdown that ended in a draw. I saw that as the completion of Golovkin’s learning curve but it came late, as Golovkin is 35 years old and has been hit more than usual in his last two fights. 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. I see Golovkin beating Alvarez in a rematch and he will probably only face one other foe in 2018, given that potential big money appearance in May. As with Usyk, I am picking Golovkin’s skills over numerical probabilities, as Golovkin will face tougher foes than fellow titlist Billy Joe Saunders.
Champion who will go: Billy Joe Saunders – As the only other beltholder, he is the WBO champion, while Golovkin has the rest strapped around his waist; Saunders is the lone option. Unfortunately, for me, Saunders looked exceptional tearing slugger David Lemieux apart in humiliating fashion. Given his self-confidence and boxing qualities, it is not out of the realm of possibilities that Saunders would defeat Golovkin or Alvarez. That is highly unlikely though, while a quality match-up with Daniel Jacobs does seem in the cards. The other possibility is that Saunders takes on the new kid on the block Jermall Charlo in a mouthwatering clash of egos. Neither would be a guaranteed win, as both may take place in America, but would cement Saunders or his conquerer as the rightful challenger to Golovkin or Alvarez. Before we get too carried away, let’s remind ourselves how ordinary Saunders looked in his two outings before Lemieux…The Last Fight Syndrome is a real thing with fans and journalists.
Will rise in 2018: Esquiva Falcão – Given the current current depth and diversity at middleweight, it is not a good idea for a prospect to matriculate too fast. Falcão is a smooth southpaw, losing in the Olympic gold medal match to current contender Ryota Murata in a desperately close fight. Roughly translated, Falcão’s first name means “to slip or dodge” but the power (his professional record currently stands at 19-0 with 13 stoppages) he carries in either hand has gained notoriety in Las Vegas sparring sessions. Very calm inside the ring, Falcão stands tall with a muscularly athletic 5-foot-10 frame with 73-inch reach. Has a full bag of tricks from his amateur days, facing the best South American and Eastern European boxers; it is time for him to be challenged more. Has a tendency to start fights slowly, preferring to take back the initiative and force the action, once he has found a flaw to exploit. His brother Yamaguchi was a consideration as well and Jason Quigley lacks that “it” factor but will get good push from Golden Boy Promotions. Mexican Jaime Munguia is following the Saul Alvarez school of fighting as many times as possible and maybe the most intriguing name is France-based Cameroonian Christian Mbilli.
In Part Two, we venture from junior middleweight to featherweight, then finish with everything down to strawweight in the final installment.