I Said That? The 2015 Preview Review: Part three
Today, I wrap up the annual “Preview Review” featuring boxing’s often overlooked divisions from junior featherweight down to strawweight. As in Parts One and Two, I revisit predictions for a champion who will stay, a champion who will go and a boxer to watch out for. Also, at the end of this last group of evaluations, I tally up every grade to give an overview of my predictions for the year. I do not make any changes to the predictions from last year, thus removing any temptation to make myself look better through the exclusion of erroneous or irrelevant content. I stress that publications making predictions for 2016 are certain in the knowledge that few readers remember what they penned 365 days ago. Therefore, I urge readers to cut and paste predictions from all boxing websites to remind themselves that no boxing writer is in the league of a Nostradamus.
Champion who will stay: Guillermo Rigondeaux – I put Rigondeaux in the class of Wladimir Klitschko, Gennady Golovkin and Roman Gonzalez in evaluating boxers who are virtually unbeatable in their respective weight classes. The proof is no one wants to fight him; instead, potential foes want to collect belts and paydays by facing each other before moving on to the inevitable loss Rigondeaux seems to represent. I did not even look at the potential list of opponents for Rigondeaux because it does not really matter; Rigondeaux will keep his undefeated record in 2015 while others build résumés to merit a challenge to his dominance.
Grade: B – The Cuban master seems bored by the opposition presented him and has certainly bored or frustrated the majority of writers and fans on my Twitter feed. I am in the minority, finding Rigondeaux a fantastic boxer who stays in the pocket while outwitting anything that advances toward him, possessed of a ring calmness that would make Buddhist monks envious. Only fought once this year, a hastily scheduled decision win over Drian Francisco but, as usual, had no problem dealing with an opponent willing to get in the ring with him.
Champion who will go: Leo Santa Cruz – This decision comes down to whom I think wins a head-to-head clash between Santa Cruz and Carl Frampton (which I believe is Frampton, thanks to slightly superior speed and technique). Not much, mind you, and the location of the fight would give me pause if not held in a neutral location. I also picked Santa Cruz because he makes his fights harder by engaging in wars when he does not need to, plus he may have plateaued, in terms of improvement. Frampton has a tougher mandatory in Chris Avalos but should be able to dispatch the valiant Avalos, despite his sizable improvement over the last two years. Again, I don’t think any champion loses his belt but the variables point toward Santa Cruz.
Grade: C – Santa Cruz did not lose a fight at the weight but did move up a division in search of a big payday, defeating Abner Mares to finally deliver on his potential against an elite foe. Since Santa Cruz did forego his title for that opportunity, I gave myself a passing grade and remain disappointed that a showdown with Carl Frampton did not materialize at 122 pounds.
Will rise in 2015: Albert Pagara – Flashy Filipino beats out a Jessie Magdaleno, who has more upside but has stagnated in terms of level of opposition in 2014. The 20-year-old Pagara came of age in his last fight, overpowering rough-and-tumble Mexican Raul Hirales (who gave Carl Frampton a tough fight) over 12 rounds, dominating from the opening bell and forcing his foe into survival mode after a third round knockdown. A big right hand is his most potent weapon, stopping 15 of 22 foes, which include some truly frightening knockouts stored on YouTube. Even scarier is that Pagara sets up those knockout punches more than just blasting through an overmatched foe’s weak defenses. If Pagara’s boxing IQ reaches the physical dimensions, he has shown he could become a legitimate title threat in what may be the most competitive division in all of boxing.
Grade: B – Filipino racked up three more victories but seems no closer to a title shot than he was in the beginning of 2015, despite showing his wares overseas (in America and United Arab Emirates) and knocking opponents out. Is still only 21, so there is plenty of time, and the level of opposition remains good but beatable, which should see Pagara through a tough IBF eliminator or potential showdown with countryman Nonito Donaire in late 2016.
Champion who will stay: Shinsuke Yamanaka – The Japanese champion has been the one constant over the last five years, a champion since 2011. He has made seven title defenses and improved every time out, starting with a dominant decision over Vic Darchinyan. Given current form, will not have a tough time with No. 1 contender Zhanat Zhakiyanov of Kazakhstan and is not likely to face natural rival Tomoki Kameda this year, with most Japanese insiders saying the fight will take place in 2016. Even if Yamanaka were to face Kameda this year, he should be favored. As it is, look for Yamanaka to deal with his mandatory and fight one other time to keep busy before a seemingly inevitable showdown with Kameda.
Grade: A – At age 33, may be out of his athletic prime but the Japanese great is finally getting the respect he deserves, cracking THE RING magazine pound-for-pound rankings, thanks to a victory over highly-regarded stylist Anselmo Moreno. Knocked out previously undefeated Diego Ricardo Santillan in his other 2015 outing, lengthening Yamanaka’s title run to five years and nine title defenses.
Champion who will go: Juan Carlos Payano – Physically imposing Dominican won his belt, beating highly respected Anselmo Moreno but it was a cut-abbreviated affair, ending after eight unsatisfying rounds. That left more unanswered questions about a Payano few knew before this fight and, while there were glimpses of brilliance, we can’t be sure if that is sustainable over 12 championship rounds. No.1 contender Jamie McDonnell looks a beatable foe, tougher if bout lands in England, but a second meeting with Moreno would be difficult even for this two-time Olympian. A rematch victory would answer all questions and make Payano an attraction worthy of American TV dates, especially if matched against Tomoki Kameda, but those are events that take us past 2015. At any rate, I do not see any bantamweight losing his title this year but Payano would seem most likely to fall, given inexperience at the championship level.
Grade: D – Gave myself a D, since I stated, “I do not see any bantamweight losing his title,” which came to pass, though many believe Payano should have lost his title in a controversial defense against Rau’shee Warren. It was Payano’s only fight of 2015, and did nothing to erase thoughts from numerous pundits who see Payano as a tough but flawed champion.
Will rise in 2015: Ryo Matsumoto – As I stated in the opening, this division is weak for upcoming talent, which has proven itself against solid or even good opposition. Russian Nikolay Potapov and Mexican Luis Nery were considered, both attractive prospects in light of displays against weak opposition that showed off their talents instead of testing them. Japan’s Matsumoto was chosen because he has the best win so far and, in YouTube clips, displayed the widest array of weapons, combining his speed and power to destructive effect. Tears at the body of opponents like a beast, which former champion Denkaosan Kaovichit can attest to, as his ribs were not able to endure more than two rounds. The 19-year-old’s ceiling needs a basilica to house it and, since Matsumoto belongs to the Ohashi Gym, he will be able to improve, given the world champion-level sparring talent available there.
Grade: B – Was very active, winning five bouts, all by knockout, establishing a Top 10 ranking in two of the sanctioning bodies to position himself neatly for a 2016 title shot. Downgraded Matsumoto to a B, since I was disappointed that his level of opposition fell considerably but, as I stated in the preview, he will continue to grow as a boxer, given the wealth of world-class sparring partners available to him in the gym.
Champion who will stay: Zolani Tete – This was a flip-of-the-coin pick and ended up taking Tete because Mexican titlist Carlos Cuadras has a tricky No. 1 contender in Luis Concepcion. On top of that, Cuadras is likely to fight three or four times while South Africa’s champions are notorious for fighting twice a year, as Tete has in five of the last six years, only making one appearance in 2014. Kohei Kono is the other champion, who has an easy title defense against Norberto Jimenez lined up but, afterward, may face a sterner test in David Sanchez, that is hardly an unwinnable bout on home turf. Overall, this is a numbers game with Tete keeping his losing percentage low by not making many appearances.
Grade: D – I was shocked that Tete made more than one ring appearance, posting perhaps his best year as a pro, winning three fights and traveling to England scoring a spectacular knockout of undefeated challenger Paul Butler. However, Tete surrendered his IBF title instead of taking a ridiculously low purse of less than $20,000 for a defense against McJoe Arroyo. Could maybe make an argument for a passing grade but the end result remains that Tete does not have a title; for that, no passing grade is acceptable.
Champion who will go: Omar Narvaez – This choice pains me as I am a big Narvaez fan, who believes he has been underrated and ignored for a decade. However, I have to pick against Narvaez because he faces young Japanese juggernaut Naoya Inoue in Tokyo, which is not a wise thing for a 39-year-old champion, who has slowed down in the last two years. Even if Narvaez wins (not a big stretch of the imagination), he may choose to retire in 2015 after a farewell bout in Buenos Aires. Either way, I don’t see Narvaez as an active participant in boxing beyond the next six to 10 months.
Grade: A – Hated to make this pick, as I am a fan of the unappreciated Narvaez but it did come to pass that Narvaez was destroyed by Inoue in two brutally one-sided rounds. Narvaez made a return to ring for an easy 10-round win in Buenos Aires but that may serve as a going-away present to the 40-year-old’s many Argentine fans.
Will rise in 2015: Khalid Yafai – This Naseem Hamed clone (not as flashy but of Yemeni heritage with solid power) inches ahead of a McJoe Arroyo, who always fell at last hurdle in the amateurs, and Filipino Arthur Villanueva on style points. Yafai was a very good amateur, topping out at the Olympics, and showed professional grit fighting through a torn bicep that required surgery in his eighth fight. In last outing outclassed former world title challenger Everth Briceno, knocking him down three times over the 12-round distance. A constantly evolving gym rat, Yafai described his boxing technique as having “mad style, to be honest with you. I hold a tight guard because of the scoring. I like to attack the body with a left hook. I press forwards but I like to box on the back foot once I’ve got my lead, then counter-punch.”
Grade: B – Continued steady progress, scoring four wins, but only his last victory of 2015 over Jason Cunningham can be considered a defining win, capturing the British title. Should have went with McJoe Arroyo after all, since he captured the vacant IBF title (after aforementioned shrewd financial ploys) against plodding Arthur Villanueva. Still, Yafai remains a quality prospect who should come good in the future…perhaps against Arroyo?
Champion who will stay: Roman Gonzalez – Unless Godzilla is able to make the weight and fight on his home turf of Japan, no one will beat the near flawless “Chocolatito” Gonzalez, who may be the most complete boxer on the planet! I make this choice, despite Gonzalez probably facing the toughest opponents of any flyweight this year, which may include a fight against rebounding-but-still-dangerous Kazuto Ioka in Japan. I just can’t see anyone unseating Gonzalez, a fighter in his physical and mental prime, who sports the best combination of power and skills at this weight, since Hall-of-Famer Pascual Perez back in the 1950s and ’60s.
Grade: A – Did not take a genius to make this selection, as Gonzalez climbed to the top of any rational pound-for-pound list with the retirement of Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Gonzalez’s continued domination of any weight class in which he choses to fight. Scored three convincing stoppages, rounding out the year with a nine-round destruction of Brian Viloria to put a exclamation point on this coming-out party of a year.
Champion who will go: Amnat Ruenroeng – I don’t like making this choice as I am fan of Ruenroeng, and when asked to vote for the “2014 Boxer of the Year” award by THE RING editors, I chose this impressive Thai over Terence Crawford. However, he is scheduled to fight Chinese hero Zou Shiming in China, where there is a possibility of his being robbed on the scorecards if that fight goes the distance. If Ruenroeng survives that test (which I believe he will), there is a possibility of a rematch with Kazuto Ioka that could be a bridge too far for the 34-year-old former Olympian, who won his last two fights via split decision.
Grade: D – Thankfully the robbery against Zou Shiming did not come to fruition, though it would have made for a passing grade for me. Did not give myself an F’, since I did not want to make this choice in the first place but Gonzalez’s preeminence forced me into the situation of picking against a boxer I wanted to vote ‘Fighter of the Year’ for 2014. Will gladly take a failing grade for this most undervalued boxer to remain a true champion.
Will rise in 2015: Kevin Satchell – Beats out a South African Makazole Tete, whom I found little info on (in terms of video or even age), and rising Japanese wunderkind Takuma Inoue, who is untested in three outings. The Liverpool technician does not have power, despite an aggressive ring nature, using volume and a slicing jab to outwork or overwhelm foes with punches. Gets the most out of a skinny frame and, despite lacking stopping strength, Satchell concentrates on delivering body shots. Won the European title in his last fight, defeating a good mix of styles en route. May never win a world title because he lacks a defining weapon but it will not be for lack of effort and if he catches a champion who is less than 100% prepared, there is a possibility Satchell raises a belt in two years.
Grade: B – An underwhelming year for the Scouser, only registering one win (though an important one, winning the European title) before a freak knee injury, while running a marathon, sidelined the Liverpool product for the rest of the year. Says he will return to the ring in early 2016, which is good, since Satchell’s 2015 started brilliantly with a first round knockout of Walter Rojas, making the rest of his year even more frustrating.
Champion who will stay: Donnie Nietes – The Filipino is a fine veteran champion who has defended his title five times against solid challengers and, as an aging titleholder, Nietes will be matched carefully in all probability, only fighting twice in 2015. Paipharob Kokietgym is Nietes’ mandatory challenger and, if they face off in Thailand, that is a tough but winnable fight, given Kokietgym has only bested one notable foe. Nietes is a late bloomer, is 32 now and looked better than ever in 2014, showing an ability to adapt, knocking out Moises Fuentes in a rematch after struggling to a majority draw in their first bout. Nietes has fought two times a year since 2009, so my hope is he does not break that cycle in 2015 to aid this choice.
Grade: A – Perhaps the most consistent and underestimated champion in all boxing over the last five years? The Filipino master registered three title defenses; the best of which was a pasting of former champion Francisco Rodriguez, that most saw as a 50/50 fight before the opening bell. At 33, shows no signs of slowing down but 2016 could be a difficult year if Nietes decides to cash in on his years of excellence, traveling to Japan to unify or defend his WBO title.
Champion who will go: Alberto Rossel – This 39-year-old Peruvian veteran was gifted the WBA “regular” title after being elevated from “interim” champion when Kazuto Ioka moved up in weight. Not a strong credential to start with and Rossel will travel to Japan and face a strong Ryoichi Taguchi, who holds the “three S” advantage, sporting superior size, speed and strength. I doubt the titleholder returns home with the belt but, if he does, Rossel will probably return to Japan at the end of the year, looking for another payday that is likely to undo his run of luck.
Grade: A – Peruvian trailblazer ventured to Japan, where he lost is title to Ryoichi Taguchi but showed heart, surviving two knockdowns in the late rounds, surviving to hear the final bell. Scored two easy comeback victories in his home nation but, at age 40, Rossel is not likely to see another title shot in his limited future.
Will rise in 2015: Randy Petalcorin – Many of the Top 50 guys have already had world title shots and the division has older title contenders holding it hostage, thus making a breakthrough difficult for the young guns. I went with Randy Petalcorin over still-unproven Puerto Rican Angel Acosta, mostly on the basis of fighting more (23 bouts versus nine) and Petalcorin’s stoppage victory over former world title challenger Walter Tello. Petalcorin has suffered one loss, a TKO to naturally bigger southpaw Marlon Tapales, but showed mental strength, bouncing back with 17 wins, while stopping 71% of his foes. A solid young southpaw who is getting better as his body matures into that of a legitimate power-puncher.
Grade: B – Not sure how to approach Petalcorin grade. Only fought once, against an ordinary foe, Yi Ming Ma, but it was a WBA interim title-winning performance on the road in China. Since Petalcorin only fought once against a hard-to-evaluate foe, did not go for the maximum grade. 2016 looks like the year in which the Filipino boxer-puncher will get his real tests with a Ryoichi Taguchi fight almost sure to materialize.
Champion who will stay: Wanheng Menayothin – Remember, I am not picking the best boxer at the weight. That is a toss-up between Hekkie Budler and Francisco Rodriguez but who I believe has the best chance of retaining his title for the calendar year because of circumstances as much as boxing skills. I am not picking South African Budler because he faces a stern test in his next fight against Jesus Silvestre and might run into a tough domestic challenger after that. Menayothin, on the other hand, has a relatively easy mandatory defense in 10-3-2 Carlos Ortega and will probably defeat three unexceptional Thai countrymen on his home turf to round out the year without traveling abroad.
Grade: A – As expected, the Thai put up good performances, facing average and ridiculously easy opposition, registering four wins in 2015. Stopped three gift title challengers and never looked in trouble from his home stronghold but there is a chance that, at age 30, even an average opponent can cause an upset in the New Year.
Champion who will go: Francisco Rodriguez – Most will see this pick as a stretch, since Rodriguez is an exciting young champion reaching his physical prime, whose only loss was a torrid challenge to pound-for-pound entrant Roman Gonzalez. However, Rodriguez is likely to fight four times this year and because he holds two belts, may be stripped of one because of politics involving mandatory challengers. So even if Rodriguez does not suffer a loss (a likely scenario), he could lose the IBF or WBO belt outside the ring, making this a correct pick. I am playing the odds a bit here and given the lack of strong contenders, I doubt any strawweight champion loses his belt in 2015.
Grade: A – While I expected Rodriguez to lose his title, I did not expect the talented Mexican to be beaten twice in 2015. There was no shame in Rodriguez’s loss against Donnie Nietes but that was followed by a setback to dangerous Moises Fuentes, in which Rodriguez came in over the weight and dropped a split decision. The 22-year-old remains a legitimate title threat to most champions if Rodriguez can show the mental strength to rebound from this most disappointing 2015.
Will rise in 2015: Kosei Tanaka – Over the last four years, Japan has really pushed talented young boxers like Naoya Inoue, Kazuto Ioka and Tomoki Kameda (with varying degrees of success) into world title shots or put them in bouts in which they looked overmatched, judging purely by numbers. Tanaka is next in that lineage; in his fourth fight, Tanaka bested fellow unbeaten prospect Ryuji Hara (then 17-0) to earn a spot in the WBA and WBC’s Top 10 rankings. Is only 19 and sports solid amateur credentials, reaching the medal rounds in several international youth tournaments. YouTube footage reveals a stirring combination of speed and power, darting in behind a blindingly strong jab to deliver accurate and well-timed hooks. Tanaka may get a title shot in Dec. of 2015 and if he does, my pick for Menayothin to retain his title will not pan out.
Grade: A – Met my expectations, annexing the WBO title by smartly outpointing an average Julian Yedras and then showed mental sturdiness, rebounding from a fifth round knockdown to stop hard-hitting Filipino Vic Saludar in the sixth round. The knockdown aside, Tanaka displayed everything you wish to see from a prospect who matured into a contender (a title belt means little in these times), from many facets, including physical ability and unbridled ambition.
The overall grades for 2015 are as follows:
A = 28
B = 11
C = 2
D = 7
F = 3
Not a bad way to end 2015 and go into my 2016 prediction feature with confidence.