2018: Champions whom will stay, whom will go and prospects to watch – Part Three
Today is a wrap for my 2018 predictions, 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 precise foresight difficult. Again, I choose a champion whom will stay, a champion whom will go and a prospect to watch. 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 in 2018 is the man chosen must not have had a world title opportunity yet. 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 – During a frustrating 2017, the new champ only had one fight because of a hand injury, Magdaleno will make his second title defense in early March. At 26, is in his physical prime and when Magdaleno won the WBO title from Nonito Donaire, he emerged and matured at the same time. Vegas-bred champ has lived and taken in the sport by osmosis, since his preteens, making him a particularly dangerous boxer (like a Vasyl Lomachenko) who can adapt on the fly to almost any situation. After voluntary defense in March, will face the winner of the Cesar Juarez – Isaac Dogboe match-up, and that may signal the end of his year. Even if there is a third fight in 2018, I can’t see Magdaleno losing to anyone in the WBO’s Top 10, with the outside possibility of Diego De La Hoya.
Champion who will go: Ryosuke Iwasa – His two losses were to champions Shinsuke Yamanaka and Lee Haskins, so it will take an excellent performance to unseat an Iwasa, who has come into his own with four straight stoppages. Only fights twice a year, for last two years, but could face a tough second fight after an awkward mandatory with Irish-Australian TJ Doheny. The IBF beltholder may get an invitation to face Diego De La Hoya in America or have the option to face countryman Tomoki Kameda in a big money domestic fight. Iwasa would enter as the underdog in either bout. I may have to wait until the traditional late December title fights in Japan for this prediction to take hold.
Will rise in 2018: Gamal Yafai – One of the weaker divisions for up-and-coming prospects, so I took a chance on an unproven but dynamic boxer. I also chose Yafai because he has a very good opponent lined up, former title challenger Gavin McDonnell, which shows ambition and positive momentum toward a title shot. A very good amateur, Yafai won bronze at the 2010 Olympics and showed requisite grit in pros, toughing out a hand injury against Nasibu Ramadhani, in his first 10-round bout. Has the mix of power and speed to compete with anyone and seems to be adding seasoning, this year, to challenge for a title in December or early in 2019. Comes from boxing family, as his brother Khalid is the WBA junior bantamweight champion. Yafai beat out American Tramaine Williams, on strength of future foe and better amateur track record. Maybe my biases showed in not picking Thomas Patrick Ward, who only has two stoppages in 22 outings, but I also passed on South African banger Lodumo Lamati.
Champion who will stay: Luis Nery – I did not arrive at the Mexican by choice, as I find Nery’s recent PED history despicable, but, as a matter of elimination over my desire for Nery to lose his WBC title in 2018. If Naoya Inoue moves up a weight class, as WBO junior bantamweight champ, he is likely to go after the Zolani Tete, instead of Nery in a fantastic match-up. Normally, I would favor the red-hot Tete to retain his WBO title this year but Inoue may be a once-in-a-lifetime phenom, who I favor to beat anyone not named Vasyl Lomachenko. I did not choose Ryan Burnett because he has two alphabet titles, increasing the probability that he is stripped of one or loses both in the ring. That leaves me with the undesirable but very rational choice of Luis Nery.
Champion who will go: Ryan Burnett – I am picking the holder of two titles, IBF and WBA, as Burnett may have to drop one title because of mandatory defense demands. I also think Burnett is the weakest of the three titleholders but has the tools to defeat either on his day as well. There is an outside chance Burnett faces Zolani Tete, who fought his last five bouts in the United Kingdom, in a fight that would excite the boxing masses in the U.K. and South Africa. Burnett is likeable, in his prime, at 25, but is also unlucky to be surrounded by a wealth of more mature talent. It is a sign of respect that I did not go with Zolani Tete, as he has a slim but fathomable chance to defeat Naoya Inoue, if Inoue were to move up in weight.
Will rise in 2018: Emmanuel Rodriguez – Going with an Puerto Rican all-arounder, who was unlucky (auto accident) not to be an Olympic participant, at the very least. A rampant and threatening 25-year-old, in his physical prime, but Rodriguez is equally stable and community-conscious outside the ring, donating time and money to burn victim charities. Simply has the look and feel of a future champion, thanks to scintillating wins and an imposing 5-foot-6 frame. Compelling is, as his level of opposition has increased, that Rodriguez has stopped seven of his last eight opponents, showing raised concentration, risk-taking and ambition. Rodriguez may become the star Puerto Rican boxer everyone was predicting for Felix Verdejo. French Olympian Nordine Oubaali was a consideration but I gave preference to youth over the 31-year-old. Russian-Armenian amateur star Mikhail Aloyan showed ambition, turning pro with a 10-round win, and, in only his second fight, went the 12-round limit. Speedy Mzuvukile Magwaca was one of my last cuts before arriving at Rodriguez.
Champion who will stay: Khalid Yafai – A risky choice, as there is a good probability Yafai faces former pound-for-pound-on-the-rebound Roman “Chocolatito” Gonzalez. The WBA has Gonzalez as its No. 1 challenger, despite two losses in a row, and Yafai has stated he is open to fighting Gonzalez in England. The rest of the Top 10 should not pose a problem for the fleet-footed speedster, so Yafai is likely to get in a voluntary defense before any showdown with Gonzalez. I believe WBC beltholder Srisaket Sor Rungvisai is likely to lose against Juan Francisco Estrada, so read the next entry for my opinion on Inoue, that leaves me with the multifaceted Yafai, who I feel comfortable selecting.
Champion who will go: Naoya Inoue – No, of course I do not think Inoue will lose in 2018. I just can’t see Inoue lasting the entire year at this weight and he will relinquish the WBO title after one, or even two defenses, for a move up in the last quarter of 2018. There were rumors of a move to bantamweight, after his title defense last week, but, at 5-foot-5, and in his physical prime, Inoue could probably make the 115-pound limit for another calendar year. The problem is only title unification bouts interest Inoue and Juan Francisco Estrada is the only one who would get HBO to open up its wallet to stage the event. That is one fight, giving Inoue the freedom to move up afterward, in late-2018.
Will rise in 2018: Jonas Sultan – I love boxers like Sultan, who overcome early career setbacks, two losses in his first six fights (three total), learning from their mistakes instead of adopting the mindset of a journeyman opponent. I have no problems with an imperfect record and the 26-year-old Sultan scored wins in South Africa and Japan that confirm his maturation. Wins over former champions Sonny Boy Jaro and John Riel Casimero are further proof, with the latter a 12-round affair that relieves any doubts on Sultan’s stamina. Mostly a pressure fighter who cuts off the ring with darting moves but Sultan also has a snaking jab that uses his reach. It is a joy to make this selection and one of which I wish there were more to make. American Dewayne Beamon is a rare U.S. prospect at this weight but. at age 32. may have missed his window of opportunity.
Champion who will stay: Daigo Higa – After championing and backing Donnie Nietes for more recognition in this hemisphere, I feel awful going with the youthful Higa over the venerable 35-year-old Filipino. Sometimes you have to go with talent over intellect and if Higa were to face Nietes, in a unification bout, the odds may well be 50/50. Higa has a slightly less difficult list of potential challengers for the WBC title and that fantastic home country advantage as well. The 22-year-old is in his physical prime, stopping all 14 of his foes, and should fight three times in 2018. Faces former strawweight champion Moises Fuentes, in February, but is probably too powerful for the Mexican, who has been stopped twice before. The final verdict: Higa gets stronger every day, while Nietes inches closer toward retirement every hour.
Champion who will go: Sho Kimura – Watching a Kimura battle is fun for the spectator but it takes a lot out of the 29-year-old brawler, who has stopped eight of his last nine opponents. I root for Kimura; he overcame a pro debut in which he suffered a first-round KO defeat, and two draws before his 10th professional outing. Kimura still does things the hard way; he was losing on points in his title-winning effort against Zou Shiming before a nasty cut stopped the fight in Kimura’s favor. Looked more composed in his most recent outing, defeating countryman Toshiyuki Igarashi, but struggles with movers who will not engage Kimura head on. Has some challengers in the WBO’s Top 10 that fit that stylistic bill, like Francisco Rodriguez and Andrew Selby, making Kimura a logical choice. 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 2018: Andrew Selby – Former Olympian is maturing nicely and, at 29, falls just inside my preferable age range. Given his age, will look for a title shot this year, despite Selby only having 10 pro fights, of which five ended in KO victory. In last two outings, Selby scored good point verdicts over respectable Latin American foes but I would have liked them to be more emphatic, in terms of power. Has amateur pedigree to match wits with the elite but did suffer a fifth round stoppage loss in the semi-pro World Series of Boxing program. Is the best of a flawed lot, with a cocky flare that sets him apart. Others considered are physical freak and southpaw Vincent Legrand, as well as Ukrainian boxer/puncher Artem Dalakian. Late-to-turn-pro Paddy Barnes rounds up a stronger-than-usual European force, emerging in a division dominated by Asian and Central American boxers.
Champion who will stay: Ken Shiro – Japanese trickster keeps finding ways to win, winning the WBC title by majority decision and successfully defending it twice…once by majority decision. They were not gifts though, as Shiro is a pressure fighter who tends to get hit while delivering his voluminous payload. This despite a straight slicing jab but Shiro likes to engage foes, sometimes suffocating his own shots in bunches instead of pinpointing attacks. A rematch with mandatory challenger Ganigan Lopez, who he beat for the title, looks likely and very winnable, given Shiro’s continuing improvement and maturing at age 25. Shiro would be favored in a unification fight with Ryoichi Taguchi but, given Shiro fights twice a year, that may not take place until early-2019.
Champion who will go: Ryoichi Taguchi – Plucky 31-year-old is on a great run, 10 wins over very solid foes, but now, includingh his IBF strap, holds three titles, having just beaten Milian Melindo for the WBA strap and the vacant THE RING Magazine championship. This is why, given how the alphabet bandits strip champs, I am going with Taguchi. Lots of talent bubbling up in this weight class, especially in Japan, one seems to pop up every year, so holding on to both alphabet titles will be difficult. The Melindo fight was a grueling war (not indicative of the lopsided scores), as well, which may have shown some cracks in Taguchi’s usually solid footwork. At this weight, the legs can go overnight, so I am playing the odds and going with Taguchi’s six-year older legs than Shiro’s.
Will rise in 2018: Christian Araneta – A lot of Filipino talent is emerging at this weight and had to choose between three solid prospects. Young power-puncher Christian Araneta beat out Edward Heno and Vince Paras on the strength of…well, power. Araneta really rips to the body, with thudding shots, and can maneuver into place behind a quick jab or swift lateral movement. The 22-year-old has only fought once in 2017, rumor of hand injury but I could not get that confirmed, but if he fights four times this year, I believe Araneta will separate himself from the pack, with his exciting style. May have needed the rest, as Araneta gets hit too often but, thanks to great conditioning, has been able to recover from some tough situations. The southpaw is also unique because his left leg is shorter than his right, making it look like he gets even more torque on left hooks to the body. Mexican Abraham Rodriguez, who is very active but lacks flare, was a consideration.
Champion who will stay: Thammanoon Niyomtrong (also known as Knockout CP Freshmart) – Does not have one of those manufactured Thai records, knocking out 25 guys making their pro debuts or recording 50 wins of which 49 come against sub-500 foes. May have the best record of accomplishment of any strawweight, since late-2014, despite only fighting 16 times in total. Already beaten mandatory challenger Byron Rojas once and the rest of his challengers look ordinary, except hot-and-cold Simphiwe Khonco. At 27-years-old, is in his physical prime and shows no signs of slowing down or suffering under the strains of making weight.
Champion who will go: Ryuya Yamanaka – Produced a close and surprising title-winning effort against ordinary Tatsuya Fukuhara, in August, but has yet to best an elite foe. Light-punching speedster should be commended for seizing the moment but would the WBO beltholder be an underdog in any unification fight, although Yamanaka was adamant about participating in unification bouts at post-fight press conferences? Despite small stature, Yamanaka has a long reach, which would aid him against more powerful titlists, and used his jab well, both offensively and defensively, winning the title. The Top 10 challengers are not that challenging and Yamanaka has no fight date set yet, so I doubt he will enter the ring more than twice in 2018. Still, Yamanaka is the most likely to lose his title in a year in which I do not think any of the champions at this weight loses a belt, unless there is a unification clash.
Will rise in 2018: Mark Anthony Barriga – A pure boxer, in the vein of Ivan Calderon, with a substantial amateur resume, topping out with an appearance at the 2012 Olympics. Disorienting speed is enhanced by his southpaw stance, and Barriga’s management has stated it wants to push him, perhaps looking for a title shot in his 10th outing. Is currently 8-0 (1), with five fights in 2017, but does not look ready for such a jump. Barriga’s opposition has been too ordinary, with exception of former title challenger Wittawas Basapean (also known as Samartlek Kokietgym), to merit a title shot. His skill set, which looks complete but needs sharpening against at least two more quality opponents, is another matter, especially since Barriga is not likely to win via stoppage, only has one to date, and can rely on his jab instead of pushing accurate straight right-hand leads. Barriga beats out Reiya Konishi on amateur credentials and ring composure.
That is it for this year’s preview. I am putting the feature into hibernation until next year, when I will review and see how my predictions turned out.