2018: Champions whom will stay, whom will go and prospects to watch – Part two
Welcome back to my annual look into 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 harder as the weights diminish and champions maneuver around defenses or jump weight classes to earn larger paydays, to say nothing of more accomplished political and promotional machinations during sanctioning body conventions. This, in turn, factors into decisions such as the WBC favoring a Mexican moneymaker like Saul “Canelo” Alvarez and any heavyweight with real title aspirations finding forgiveness for steroid bans. Or the ever-reliable WBA stripping a less profitable champion in favor of new blood that sells more tickets. Let’s face it: In our beloved sport, Al Haymon’s Premier Boxing Champions or Top Rank’s 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 watch. 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 two limitations I have for selecting the boxer to watch out for in 2018 is that he must not have had a world title opportunity yet and that I did not choose him in a previous year.
Champion who will stay: Jermell Charlo – It does not look like Jermell will follow twin brother Jermall into the middleweight fray. Jermell is also shedding power comparison with Jermall, who was thought the heavier puncher and more dynamic ring presence. The WBC titlist has scored three straight sensational title fight knockouts, bringing that narrative to an emphatic conclusion. Given the opportunity to bask in 154-pound limelight alone, Jermell is exceling. He will not have an easy time with mandatory challenger Maciej Sulecki but should avoid his charges for a decision win. A match-up with Erislandy Lara is an outside possibility, hampered by the fact that Lara is a stablemate of the Charlo twins in Houston. Charlo has only fought twice per rolling year, for the last three years, and I look for that to continue, since Al Haymon has lost the television presence to showcase Jermell.
Champion who will go: Erislandy Lara – I do not think any of the titleholders will lose their titles in 2018 but pick WBA beltholder Lara, since he may move up in weight, seeking bigger paydays. Also, at age 34, has more potential to slip up against a young challenger, who throws at a high volume. Has unknown Brian Castano and Kanat Islam as potential mandatories this year and, as in years past, will be shunned by the management of anyone with name recognition or a bright future. Unification fights with IBF titlist Jarrett Hurd (who keeps pulling out wins in fights in which he looks in trouble) and newly-crowned WBO titleholder Sadam Ali are possibilities, in which Lara would be slightly favored but do offer a decent chance of a setback. I root for Lara, since the Cuban community seems averse to backing their own like Puerto Ricans or Mexicans, for some reason, but find it a frustrating fascination.
Will rise in 2018: Patryk Szymanski – I thought Szymanski was poised for a breakout year in 2016, when he was given an ESPN headlining date, and was disappointed to see him regress in 2017, putting in one pedestrian performance against former title challenger Rafal Jackiewicz, last May. I hope my initial evaluation is correct and that the 24-year-old just had an off year of distractions or was another lost soul in the Al Haymon stable, looking for an opportunity to shine. He comes from a boxing family, as his father boxed, with over 250 amateur fights (many spent in a seven-year string with the Polish national team) and Szymanski has a depth of fundamentals on which to expand or fall back. Szymanski has witnessed the end product he wants to become, as well, sparring with former world middleweight champions Jermain Taylor and Miguel Cotto. With a sinewy 5-foot-11 frame, trainer Oscar Rivas has a lot to work with, “What I realized quickly was how quickly he learns. Szymanski is like a sponge – absorbs all boxing knowledge, never repeats the same error twice. You tell him once; he remembers.” I gave Kanat Islam some thought but, at age 33, falls outside my preferred parameters. Khusein Baysangurov and Magomed Kurbanov were two other European considerations but Szymanski sports Charlo-type characteristics and an electric aura.
Champion who will stay: Errol Spence Jr. – An easy pick, though there is a chance IBF beltholder Spence may face WBA/WBC counterpart Keith Thurman at the end of the 2018, which is no easy fight for anyone. Will meet Lamont Peterson in January, which is another tough assignment but the perfect type of learning experience that will get Spence ready to take on someone like Thurman. Like other recently mentioned boxers, has the misfortune of shrinking TV dates, given an association with manager Al Haymon, turning down a fight with Miguel Cotto because he did not want to sign a contract with Golden Boy Promotions to remain a free agent. Threats likes Thurman, Terence Crawford, Shawn Porter or even an aging Manny Pacquiao are possibilities for this year but will most likely be pushed back to 2019. The 27-year-old only fought once in 2017, his title win over Kell Brook, making me fear Spence may become a Andre Ward-like figure of inactivity in his prime. For the purposes of this feature, that is good, as fewer fights mean fewer opportunities to lose.
Champion who will go: Jeff Horn – The Aussie may not lose his title in the ring but politics could drive Horn out, if big money negotiations are fruitless, given Horn’s money-making possibilities in Australia. Horn may give up his WBO strap to avoid newly-installed mandatory challenger Terence Crawford, since a payday against countryman Anthony Mundine has recently been floated. If Horn does face Crawford, he would be a considerable underdog, no matter what continent on which the bout takes place. Lets not rule out the possibility of a Pacquiao rematch either and most observers thought “Pacman” won their initial encounter. Either way, by a loss in the ring or stripping by the WBO, Horn is not likely to be a champion by the end of 2018.
Will rise in 2018: Alexander Besputin – This is the most talent-laden division for young prospects I previewed, with lots of new, relevant and multifaceted talent that has not risen to a title shot. They may bypass undefeated Konstantin Ponomarev, a good prospect turned contender last year, in the next calendar year. Besputin barely beat out fellow Russian Radzhab Butaev, who is his equal in everything but a slight notch below on level of opposition. The 5-foot-8 Besputin does not have the size or length of Butaev but uses his physicality better to pressure opponents into mistakes or defensive actions. Besputin began boxing at age eight, taking part in over 300 amateur bouts with only 15 losses, then moved to Oxnard and signed with Top Rank, two years ago. A naturally right-handed fighter who boxes southpaw, he will excite fans when TV opportunities come to him this year. If Frankie Gomez’s personal problems were not a liability outside the ring, he would be a good choice and I have been burned by too many Dominicans to consider improving Carlos Adames just yet. Uzbek Kudratillo Abdukakhorov could make waves and Taras Shelestyuk deserves a shout out too. Maybe the most intriguing is Englishman Josh Kelly, 5-0 (4), who I saw on an undercard and wowed me with his athleticism and lightning bursts of offense.
Champion who will stay: None – Yes, there is no pick to be made here. This is the first time I have had this dilemma, since Terence Crawford gave up his four titles, leaving all but the IBF title vacant today. So why not pick the only remaining titlist, Sergey Lipinets, to stay? He faces red-hot Mikey Garcia in his next fight, making Lipinets a rather obvious choice to get beat in 2018. A brave but foolhardy defense for the newly-crowned champion, who should be commended for ambition in his first title defense. Lipinets won the title vacated by Crawford, beating back a spirited Akihiro Kondo in an entertaining fight, that showed Lipinets’ strengths but also exposed some limitations. I can see Lipinets pressuring and landing some significant blows in the first three rounds against Garcia but, as the fight progresses, Garcia will time and find holes in Lipinets’ defense to exploit and ultimately stop him in the championship rounds.
Champion who will go: Sergey Lipinets – For all the reasons I gave above.
Will rise in 2018: Josh Taylor – The Scottish product is sure to receive rapturous support, as all Scot contenders do, on his travels to a title shot I envision later this year. Taylor proved he can mix it up with the best taking out ultra-tricky and awkward Miguel Vazquez, the first to stop Vazquez, in his most recent fight, running his KO streak to three. The “Tartan Tornado” is an apt nickname, as Taylor can overwhelm with volume or pounce with power, when it is called for. An excellent amateur pedigree, 2012 Olympian and 2014 Commonwealth Games champ, and splendid size make him a threat on multiple levels. Taylor showed maturity fighting through a cut over his eye, from second round on, and a deft hook to the body stopped Vazquez in the ninth round. May have a harder time moving up the ratings, given association with Barry McGuigan (who showed promotional talent landing Carl Frampton big fights and title shots), which is why a European title is their next goal. This feature came a couple months too early for American Olympian Jose Carlos Ramirez, who would earn this spot if he defeats Amir Imam, in March, for the vacant WBC title. Europeans Anthony Yigit (probably Josh Taylor’s next opponent) and Jack Catterall were considered, with unproven Mexican Alex Saucedo showing potential from clips I viewed.
Champion who will stay: Robert Easter Jr. – There are only two choices, with the WBO title vacant and WBC beltholder Mikey Garcia’s possibly permanent defection to junior welterweight. I went with the younger and more vibrant Easter over battle-hardened veteran and WBA champion Jorge Linares, which is not to say Easter has not been in battles; his title-winning meeting with Richard Commey was a classic war of attrition and, in his last three fights, Easter proved the hype around him was deserved. Faces awkward puncher Javier Fortuna in late January and, if he gets by that dangerous challenge, is likely to fight twice by the end of the year. No one in the IBF’s Top 10 looks a serious threat and a showdown with Linares would be a 50/50 affair, in many minds. The talent level at lightweight has been below average, last year being the exception, so, if Easter can maintain weight, he will rack up an impressive number of title defenses.
Champion who will go: Jorge Linares – Escaped a meeting with Mikey Garcia, who moved up in weight after negotiations with Golden Boy Promotions to face Linares fell apart, but has needed to travel the world for bigger paydays. At 32, with some arduous fights behind him, Linares is susceptible to an upset or cut-induced stoppage. A favorite of mine, given his personable demeanor and smooth ring style, I hate picking against the Venezuelan sniper. Think there is a good chance he retains the title, as next opponent Mercito Gesta has not lived up to his initial promise and the rest of the WBA Top 10 is even weaker, with Evens Pierre and Daud Yordan next in line. I will be happy to register a failing grade next year in this spot, if it means seeing more of Linares’ artful boxing at a championship level.
Will rise in 2018: Ryan Martin – Cleveland prospect is coming off a hand injury, that handicapped Martin in his decision win over Francisco Rojo, but is poised for a title run in 2018, given the increase in level of opposition this year. At 5-foot-11 Martin is a huge lightweight and there are some concerns his team is addressing through a nutritionist. He uses his length and snapping punches to pick prey apart with precision. Is one of the few Americans associated with K2 Promotions and is said to be teaming up with trainer Abel Sanchez (of Terry Norris and Gennady Golovkin fame), in Big Bear, California, for future fights. The 24-year-old is still more of a mover than puncher but, with the aid of Sanchez’s offensive teaching, should develop that side, making him an all-around threat. Martin beat out American volume boxer Alejandro Luna, on athleticism and dynamism, but Luna could jump Martin if he defeats Richard Commey in his next fight. The other American, on Luna’s level, Saul Rodriguez, and Mexican Carlos Diaz Ramirez (both are solid but have not shown that one menacing skill or marketable angle) are close to being threats on the world stage. Previous picks Felix Verdejo and Xolisani Ndongeni seem stuck in a rut. Aussie George Kambosos and Japan’s Masayoshi Nakatani are exciting but lack the overall skill set to break through.
Champion who will stay: Alberto Machado – The latest to add his name to the roster of Puerto Rican champions and “El Explosivo” did it in a dramatic fashion to match his nickname. WBA beltholder Machado dedicated the inspirational come-from-behind knockout victory over rugged mauler Jezreel Corrales to an island nation still suffering from the aftereffects of Hurricane Maria. How Machado arose from a knockdown, in the fifth round, was a reflection of the Puerto Rican people’s spirit. It is doubtful Machado will face Corrales, who gave him fits and was ahead on the scorecards at time of stoppage, since Corrales failed to make weight in their first meeting. Jesus Cuellar looms as a beatable mandatory and a Puerto Rico-Mexico title unification against the WBC’s Miguel Berchelt is not likely to materialize (read below) for 2018. As long as Machado stays away from WBO beltholder Vasyl Lomachenko, he should continue to hold his WBA strap throughout 2018.
Champion who will go: Vasyl Lomachenko – Hear me out on this choice: IBF titlist Kenichi Ogawa is the obvious choice, given the controversial manner in which he won the vacant title against Tevin Farmer, but we have to look beyond abilities when choosing who retains his title. I have zero doubt Vasyl Lomachenko will continue his winning ways in 2018; I am just not sure at which weight that will happen. There is a good chance Lomachenko takes Mexican Miguel Berchelt’s WBC belt in his first fight of 2018, since Berchelt’s promoter Zanfer Promotions works well with Top Rank’s Bob Arum, but there is not another high-profile foe at this weight to keep Lomachenko interested. Thus, Lomachenko moves up in weight in his last fight of 2018, jettisoning his WBO title in the process.
Will rise in 2018: Mikhail Alexeev – Another tough choice and I went with the tricky Russian on the strength of an exciting victory over ageless former champion Malcolm Klassen, that acted as the tie-breaker over former American amateur standout Erick De Leon. The 22-year-old is a quick-fisted mover (think Omar Narvaez or slicker version of Juan “Baby Bull” Diaz), whose frenetic pace and moves confuse anyone but the elite. Skirted the rules, with low blows and some punches on the break, against Klassen, on home turf, which may cost him on neutral ground in the future. A smart boxer, Alexeev often times spurts for the end of the round or at mid-ring for maximum visibility, with a solid amateur background to exploit his boxing IQ. Does stay in pocket too long at times; chin was tested against Klassen and tough Filipino Romero Duno (who signed with Golden Boy Promotions a couple months ago) but is otherwise comfortable in every facet darting around the ring. Another talented division, with hard-charging Eduardo Hernandez racking up wins and stoppages in Mexico. Europeans Martin Joseph Ward and Evgeny Chuprakov are intriguing but, at ages 26 and 27, respectively, I favored youth. Puerto Rican Christopher Diaz, who just scored an emphatic stoppage win over Bryant Cruz on the Lomachenko-Guillermo Rigondeaux undercard, probably has best argument for top spot and may have a bigger upside than Alexeev.
Champion who will stay: Gary Russell Jr. – There are some valid reasons why WBC titlist Russell has not reached the heights many forecast, starting with a loss in his biggest fight against Vasyl Lomachenko, but those are also reasons he is likely to retain his title. Russell only fought once each in 2017, 2016 and 2015, making it easier to retain his title. Since he does not have a large fan base, despite his quality skill set, Russell is not likely to take part in a big money showdown or unification match. Even if a unification fight with WBA beltholder Leo Santa Cruz presents itself, Russell has the speed and style to win a close decision. On the downside, Russell has a potential tough mandatory in Joseph Diaz Jr. but Diaz is likely to be moved in the direction of WBO champ Oscar Valdez, with whom negotiations should be less complicated. I am worried that lack of activity will make it harder for the 29-year-old to make weight but Russell has been a model professional in that regard, rendering it a slim possibility.
Champion who will go: Lee Selby – I do not like making this choice, as IBF titlist Selby has been a good and undervalued servant of boxing. 2018 is likely to present tricky defenses, starting with Josh Warrington, who is a younger and faster mirror image of Selby. If Selby gets past that fight, two other quality U.K. boxers may await him, in Carl Frampton and Scott Quigg. That is a lot to ask of an aging 30-year-old but also a bit of a blessing, as Selby deserves good paydays after a horrid 2017, in which his mother died and a high-profile bout with Frampton failed to materialize. Likely will only fight twice in 2018 (first in May against Warrington), so he may want to squeeze in the previously muted fight with Frampton, who will be looking for a title shot if he cannot get a Leo Santa Cruz rematch. Since the four titlists are superb, there is a good chance all will repel quality challengers in 2018.
Will rise in 2018: Joseph Diaz Jr. – Slippery southpaw is poised to rise in 2018. The former Olympian is in his physical prime, at 25, and has dominated three quality foes in his most recent outings to pave the way for a title run. His offense is finely balanced between speed and just enough power to prevent foes from full-frontal attacks but Diaz’s boxing IQ and fast feet are what set him apart. All are sharpened by gym rat tendencies (his team has to force Diaz to take time away from training) that Diaz says are shaped stylistically to emulate his boxing idol Oscar De La Hoya. Outside of one-punch stopping power, Diaz possesses and knows how to deploy every skill necessary to reach the title. In recent interview, Diaz said he wanted WBC titlist Gary Russell Jr. next, which would be the most difficult fight for him stylistically, so that worries me. There were a wealth of choices and I was thinking of taking a chance on once-beaten South African Lerato Dlamini but lacked vital information. The same goes for his countryman Azinga Fuzile. Exotic Mongolian Tugstsogt Nyambayar, who has one of my favorite trainers, in Joe Goossen, in his corner, only lacked in the refinement department, when compared to Diaz. Mexican brawler Jorge Lara (who was supposed to fight Diaz, in his most recent fight, but pulled out due to injury) was a consideration too. The closest to unseating Diaz was Kid Galahad but his quality of opposition has been horrible. Namibian Sakaria Lukas deserves mention but has yet to leave home for a fight and has not faced many versatile foes.
In Part Three, we finish our epic journey into the land of smalls, where a monster like WBO junior bantamweight beltholder Naoya Inoue spreads destruction and the proper pronunciation of surnames seems an impossibility.