I said that? The 2016 Preview Review: Part one

Photo credit: German Villasenor

WBC junior bantamweight titlist Roman Gonzalez. Photo credit: German Villasenor

 

It is that time of the year for me again, my sometimes painful ritual of evaluating predictions I made the previous year. It is an annual act which fluctuates wildly between self-abuse and narcissism. Visitors to sports websites are sure to notice how easy it is for a writer or a collection of opinions to make predictions for the upcoming year, certain in the knowledge that few will remember what they wrote 365 days from now. Here at the Undisputed Champion Network, we aim for higher standards and are held to answer for what is put in the public realm for our readers and the boxers we sometimes judge wrongly to consume. With those ambitions in mind, I venture back in time to review my predictions for 2016. Look around the ‘Net; I don’t think you will find another website or sports publication doing the same. A shame really, since journalists should be like the boxers we cover and learn from past mistakes while expounding the positives.

 

In this review/evaluation, I revisit predictions in every weight class for a champion whom will stay, a champion whom will go and a boxer whom will rise. I do not make changes or abridge the predictions from last year, thus removing any temptation to make myself look better through omission or the removal of erroneous content. That forces me to separate this feature into three parts in order to keep the word count below that of a George R. R. Martin “Game of Thrones” novel. At the end of each prediction, I apply a simple grade, from A to F, along with an opinion on how the prognostication turned out.

 

 

STRAWWEIGHT

 

Champion who will stay: Kosei Tanaka – I am banking on the belief that Tanaka will have learned from coming in overconfident against Vic Saludar, needing to find a body shot knockout to rescue a fight, in which he lost four of six rounds and was knocked down. However, Tanaka showed resilience getting off the canvas and has a beatable No. 1 challenger in Merlito Sabillo. South African Hekkie Budler is the best of the titlists, and most in-form champion, but he has the very dangerous Knockout CP Freshmart as his mandatory challenger.

 

Grade: D+ – Good for me is that Tanaka went undefeated in 2016, showing maturation, while registering two convincing stoppages over quality foes. Bad for me is that Tanaka moved up in weight and won the WBO junior flyweight title…on the last day of 2016! Since Tanaka is no longer a strawweight champion, I should not give myself a passing grade, as I did not see his move up in weight coming so quickly, but will be somewhat generous handing out highest possible failing grade.

 

Champion who will go: Jose Argumedo – Was a surprise winner, taking the title from Katsunari Takayama, stopping the champion on a cut and bad swelling in a close fight. Even if he does not have a rematch with Takayama, Argumedo is likely to return to Japan, facing a talented foe, given the financial benefits of defending the title overseas for the newly-minted champ. Does not have a mandatory contender yet, which plays in his favor but I would think Argumedo defends his title once in Mexico before venturing overseas twice in 2016, where I see him losing at least once.

 

Grade: F – Argumedo never returned to Japan to defend against Takayama (unable to get revenge, Takayama won the WBO title) for a rematch, scoring two wins in Mexico over weak opposition, and managed to sidestep qualityTop 10 challengers Carlos Buitrago and Byron Rojas, as well. Instead, Argumedo only bested a No. 1 challenger, who defeated “opponents” with zero wins in four of his last nine bouts. Yes, I am bitter about that, since I will need to give myself another failing grade for underestimating the IBF’s horrible ratings.

 

Will rise in 2016: Siyabonga Siyo – The 26-year-old first made noise defeating fellow South African prospect Siphamanda Baleni two years ago and followed that up with a good year of progression, registering two decision wins in 2015. Those victories, over Filipino foes, were a backward step in overall level of opposition but boasted Siyo’s exceptionally fast hands and feet. Looks much better than many South African prospects on defense, slipping punches well and measuring distance with panache. Should rack up another undefeated year if he does not wrangle a title shot against Hekkie Budler, which was marginally rumored in 2015. Even then, a win over Budler is not unimaginable.

 

Grade: F – I am off to a horrible start…but not as bad a Siyo. The Eastern Cape boxer lost twice in 2016 but, to his credit, stepped up in weight and level of opposition, unable to outsmart Hekkie Budler and Simphiwe Khonco, going down by unanimous decision to both. However, I did mention Siyo was likely to lose to Budler, if that match was made, so give myself a simple F instead of F-. That is little consolation and I believe this is the first time in all my reviews that I missed a passing grade on any of my three picks in a division.

 

JUNIOR FLYWEIGHT

 

Champion who will stay: Ryoichi Taguchi – Wanted to take Donnie Nietes but the finely-aged Filipino veteran is rumored to move up in weight or be matched against Roman Gonzalez, eliminating him in the face of those probabilities. Given that, I can see scenarios in which all four titleholders lose their belts but believe Taguchi has the lowest chance, given his relative youth and good recent form. Taguchi only fights twice a year, three of the last four years, so that minimizes the possibilities of losses. Also, Taguchi has a beatable No. 1 contender in Randy Petalcorin, though even that won’t be a certainty, given Petalcorin’s recent power surge. I make this pick with little confidence but there may be no correct choice in the junior flyweight division.

 

Grade: A- – Japanese champion repelled three challenges to his WBA title, two against good opposition, who were title-worthy but I did not give myself an A+, since the last defense was a draw against previously undefeated but untested Carlos Canizales. Taguchi was a more sturdy choice, then I had anticipated in my somewhat tepid prediction at the beginning of the year and is turning into a solid titleholder, who has risen, in my estimation.

 

Champion who will go: Yu Kimura – Won the title on a split decision against a very good and game Pedro Guevara but, at age 32, has not faced a high level of opposition overall. Is past his physical prime and has Jonathan Taconing as his mandatory challenger, who runs hot and cold, making him a decent bet to unseat Kimura on a good night. Could also be upset by one of the many up-and-coming Japanese hotshot prospects, who seem to be winning titles before their 10th pro outing! The other alphabet champs, Ryoichi Taguchi and Akira Yaegashi, have shown superior skill sets, making them better choices to retain their crowns.

 

Grade: A – Kimura lost his first fight out of the gate, in March of 2016, and the disappointment must have been great, as Kimura did not make another ring appearance, since that majority decision setback. The light-hitting technician will find it hard to win another title at age 33 but, given the closeness of his defeat, I would not rule it out. However, as I mentioned in the Preview , there are a slew of talented Japanese boxers rising up the ladder, so Kimura must act swiftly.

 

Will rise in 2016: Ken Shiro – Beats out Puerto Rican power puncher Angel Acosta, mostly on the basis of Japan’s recent trend of creating fast-rising stars (quality sparring at gyms), who succeed at the highest level. Comes from a fighting family, his father was a professional at middleweight, in which Shiro picked up the importance of a razor-sharp jab, which hides his best weapon, a thunderous right hand. In footage I saw, goes to the body consistently, showing maturity way beyond his six wins, impressive, given Shiro had a good but not overwhelming 58-16 amateur record, winning one national title. Knockout of fellow undefeated prospect Katsunori Nagamine convinced me Shiro is a threat to any titleholder and I would wager he unseats Yu Kimura this year.

 

Grade: B- – I expected more from the dynamic Shiro. On the bright side, he did register three victories, with coming two by stoppage, and managed to crack the Top 10 in three of the sanctioning bodies, given his strong output in 2016. A good year of progression for the powerful prospect but it looks like I jumped on this bandwagon a year too soon.

 

FLYWEIGHT

 

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. The Nicaraguan is the most complete boxer on the planet! I make this choice, despite Gonzalez probably facing the sternest opponents of any flyweight this year but, when you have such a fine champion, the opposition is almost an afterthought. Will likely steamroll power-punching but defensively-limited Giovani Segura in March and then make two more appearances in 2016. HBO has hinted at putting the brakes on a move up in weight for Gonzalez to face Naoya Inoue until 2017 and, unless that happens, there is a miniscule chance Gonzalez does not have his title next year. Gonzalez has the best combination of power and skills at this weight, since Hall-of-Famer Pascual Perez back in the 1950 and ’60s.

 

Grade: D+ – Gonzalez packed his bags and moved up to junior bantamweight three months earlier than I had anticipated but, as I expected, no one was able to trouble the burgeoning legend, as he won another world title in a fourth weight class. Since Gonzalez is no longer a flyweight champ, I must give myself another failing grade, setting a recognizable trend, as I am getting more failing grades for moves up in weight than actual losses inside the ring.

 

Champion who will go: Juan Francisco Estrada – Frankly, I was late to the party with Estrada, as everyone is very high on the Mexican, while I took longer to jump on the bandwagon. So it is strange that, now I am fully on board, I should pick Estrada to lose his title! The reason is simple: Estrada may get a rematch with Roman Gonzalez, which should result in another loss, in my opinion. Even if that fight does not materialize, there is a chance Estrada travels to Japan to defend his WBA and WBO titles against extremely dangerous Kazuto Ioka. So this is not a pick against Estrada, as much as a pick for the exceptional level of opposition Estrada is likely to face in 2017. This is a credit to Estrada…even if he loses the title.

 

Grade: A- – This time the scale worked in my favor (just as I had complained about it), as Estrada sportingly vacated his title, since he was no longer able to make the weight and did not want to hold his belts hostage. I, and many others, were disappointed that Estrada only made one appearance at his new weight in 2016 but, at age 26, has time to mature into his new division to ensure he cannot only win a belt but retain it against the best.

 

Will rise in 2016: Andrew Selby – Young Welshman beats out Japanese knockout artist Daigo Higa, given his superior amateur resume and more well-rounded ring style. Selby won two European amateur titles and finished in the medal standings at two World Amateur competitions as well. Won a bronze medal at the 2012 Olympics, falling short to eventual gold medalist Cuban Robeisy Carranza, by the score of 16 to 11. Has only won three fights as a pro (won 10 times in World Series of Boxing semi-pro competitions) but did not disappoint in any outing against a solid list of opponents that matches his promising future. At 27, Selby is physically mature and his promoters say Selby should be ready for a title shot after 10 ring appearances. Is the younger brother of IBF featherweight champ Lee Selby, so boxing runs through his veins and Andrew has seen firsthand what it takes to become a world champion.

 

Grade: B- – The numbers look good with Selby dispatching four opponents and taking out three via stoppage. However, a close look shows his level of opposition has stagnated at best and an argument can be made that they were worse than his foes in 2015. At a mature 28, and with his rock-solid pedigree, I expected more from Selby, so am giving myself a B- to reflect that disappointment.

 

JUNIOR BANTAMWEIGHT

 

Champion who will stay: Naoya Inoue – Japanese prodigy looked like his old self after a yearlong layoff, due to a bad hand injury, destroying Warlito Parrenas in two rounds to remind the world of his unrivaled potential. Just as exciting, rumors are that Top Rank Promotions wants to bring Inoue to America in late-2016 to feature on HBO. The strategy is to build demand for an eventual showdown with Roman Gonzalez in early 2017. This means Inoue will get a suitably vulnerable foe to make him look even more possessed of star power for the American audiences in his USA debut. Before that, should make one or two voluntary defenses, given he has already dispatched of his mandatory, drilling Parrenas. A fantastic boxer-destroyer, who, like Roman Gonzalez, is an easy choice, given I can’t find anyone in the division matching Inoue in any skill category!

 

Grade: A – Along with Roman “Chocolatito” Gonzalez, this is the pick I had the most confidence in, as long as the pair did not meet each other. Even then, I would probably have gone with Inoue by the most miniscule of margins. The burgeoning Hall-of-Famer did not make his HBO debut, as I hoped, but managed to impress even in an injury-plagued year, scoring two impressive stoppages in scintillating fashion. If there was such a thing as a boxing stock market, where I could invest my cash, Naoya Inoue would be where I parked and sought my fortune.

 

Champion who will go: Kohei Kono – Taking a chance here, since Kono entered the ring once in 2015 and averages only two fights a year over the last five years. Sports a cast-iron chin but, otherwise, has no outstanding skill, relying on his ability to cut off the ring and overwhelm foes with volume. Kono is vulnerable at 35 years old, despite delivering a career-best performance last October, repelling the challenge of Koki Kameda, outclassing a more celebrated foe, who entered the fight a considerable favorite. Mandatory challenger Luis Concepcion will probably be evaluated a slight favorite by bookies, on neutral turf, given Kono’s lack of footwork, which is part of my reasoning for making this selection.

 

Grade: A+ – Not only did my taking a chance on Kono pay off, it did so twice, as Kono lost his WBA title to Luis Concepcion (who I estimated the better of the duo) and then was stopped in an attempt to annex the WBO title by the afore-praised Naoya Inoue. The 36-year-old did make one defense of his title in 2016 but, in all likelihood, we have seen the last of a brave Kono at the elite level.

 

Will rise in 2016: Sho Ishida – Going with the lanky and more experienced Ishida instead of Takuma Inoue, who, like his older brother Naoya is being moved extremely fast, despite showing less power and intangibles. Would have gone with Naseem Hamed clone Khalid Yafai (not as flashy but of Yemeni heritage like Hamed) but picked him last year and do not wish to repeat choices. Back to Ishida, who, despite hailing from an unfashionable gym, is embraced by the Japanese public for his underdog image, coming from the kickboxing circuit. Does not have an extensive amateur pedigree or familial links to boxing either. Turned pro at 17 but has rounded into a 24-year-old physically mature boxer-puncher, who uses his freakish height (stands 5-foot-8) and timing to frustrate foes instead of relying on pure speed. His feet set Ishida apart, gliding from rope to rope, setting up weigh stations, from which to potshot foes who follow his tracks into traps.

 

Grade: B- – Somewhat of a mixed bag, as Ishida did well, claiming a majority decision over a very tough Ryuchi Funai but failed to build on that momentum, only entering the ring once more in 2016 against a shamefully weak foe. Is poised for a title shot now, so that may explain his holding pattern opposition until that opportunity is delivered by his promoter. Not a wasted year, given the learning curve of the Funai bout, but one which could have looked better, in my opinion.

 

BANTAMWEIGHT

 

Champion who will stay: Shinsuke Yamanaka – Classy Yamanaka gets the nod over rough-edged Pungluang Sor Singyu, who is likely to have an easier schedule. No one wants to fight Singyu in Thailand and his best Japanese challenger, Shohei Omori, was recently upset by new mandatory Marlon Tapales of the Philippines. Yamanaka has been the one constant at bantamweight over the last five years. A champion since 2011, he has made nine title defenses, improving every time out, starting with a dominant decision over Vic Darchinyan. Given current form, Yamanaka will not have a tough time with No. 1 contender Suriyan Sor Rungvisai (who he beat once already) and a showdown with countryman Tomoki Kameda has been muted by his two losses. Look for Yamanaka to deal with his mandatory and fight once more to keep busy before, perhaps, moving up in weight or facing Anselmo Moreno in a high-dollar rematch of their Sept. 2015 bout.

 

Grade: A+ – The venerable champion just keeps motoring on ratcheting up his WBC title defenses to 11 and, over the last two years, has earned his way into astute Top 10 pound-for-pound ratings. In 2016, dispatched of talented Anselmo Moreno via stoppage, showing he is still improving by besting his split decision victory over Moreno from 2015. Then took out streaking speedster, and former IBF/WBA unified champion Liborio Solis by a wide margin (despite being knocked down twice in the third round), in what many had tipped as a closer affair. Like a fine wine, Yamanaka is improving with age and showing some extra kick as well.

 

Champion who will go: Juan Carlos Payano – Lee Haskins is more obvious choice, given he is the least imposing titleholder and, at 32, exiting his athletic prime. However, the list of IBF challengers is as weak as water, so I would have to hope the professional Haskins slips up. Payano, on the other hand, has to deal with WBA “regular” champion Jamie McDonnell sometime this year or give up his title. Either way, it is a 50/50 proposition; one of the two happens in 2017. Payano escaped with a disputed win over Rau’shee Warren last year, so even a rematch of that bout could be a stumbling block. Payano has a knack of doing just enough to garner victories, so I am hesitant to choose him but, given the alternatives, the odds favor Payano’s streak of good fortune running out.

 

Grade: A – The rematch with Rau’shee Warren was the stumbling block that I foresaw but not by much as the pair had another ugly fight that left the audience and judges in despair. This time, the majority decision went against Payano but the paycheck must have been alright since Payano did not fight again for the remainder of 2016.

 

Will rise in 2016: Luis Nery – Not much excitement in the pipeline at 118 pounds, with Nery beating out Nordine Oubaali, who defeated Rau’shee Warren in the Olympics and was twice closely beaten in Olympics by home country boxers. The Tijuana southpaw has a good mix of speed and power and, last year, started blending both into a dangerous ring concoction, stopping six of his last seven foes. Only fought twice last year but, health permitting, should enter the ring four times in 2016 to start building a resume for title consideration in 2017. When Nery plants his feet, the hooks land with a thudding impact. Seems equally dangerous with right or left hook but needs to find his way on defense to make the most of his left-handed stance. Is promoted by Zanfer Promotions, who showed they know how to handle championship-caliber material, guiding Juan Manuel Marquez to titles and paydays. Equally dangerous Puerto Rican Emmanuel Rodriguez was also considered but I see more intangibles in Nery for now.

 

Grade: A- – I struggled somewhat with this grade, as Nery won six fights (stopping five foes) and defeated his trickiest opponent to date, taking out three-time title challenger Richie Mepranum with ease. Defeated former WBA interim champion David Sanchez in a domestic showdown, as well, so there was a lot to applaud. I prefer to give Bs to prospects who do not win a version of the world title but I think Nery has progressed enough to merit the lowest “A” possible.

 

JUNIOR FEATHERWEIGHT

 

Champion who will stay: Guillermo Rigondeaux – I put Rigondeaux in the class of Gennady Golovkin and Roman Gonzalez in evaluating boxers who are virtually unbeatable in their respective weight classes. The proof is that no one wants to fight Rigondeaux; instead, potential foes collect belts and paydays by facing each other before moving on to the inevitable loss Rigondeaux represents. I did not even look at the potential list of opponents for Rigondeaux because it does not really matter, though he is likely to face the sternest test of his career if he gets the winner of the Carl Frampton-Scott Quigg fight or moves up in weight to face Leo Santa Cruz. Rigondeaux will keep his undefeated record in 2016, while others build résumés to merit a challenge to his dominance.

 

Grade: A- – Once again, the Cuban great disappointed, as far as total ring appearances, only scoring one win over outclassed James Dickens, but displayed nothing but class inside the ropes. That was foreseeable, as, again, Rigondeaux was avoided by anyone of worth at this weight class, while HBO made the more fan-friendly Carl Frampton-Leo Santa Cruz match a priority that came to fruition. It left Rigondeaux in the cold for another year, who, again, showed his underappreciated power, breaking Dickens jaw in a two-round rout.

 

Champion who will go: Julio Ceja – Showed incredible heart, reversing the momentum against countryman Hugo Ruiz, wiping out a points deficit and third round knockdown with one big punch and a follow-up barrage. However, a rematch is scheduled and there is a good chance Ruiz reverses the result of the first fight and, even if Ceja gets past Ruiz, there is a possibility he fights Rigondeaux at the end of the year, if HBO wants something like a unification bout to make a Rigondeaux bout attractive to fans. I really enjoy watching Ceja but his style is made for exciting fights, not long title runs.

 

Grade: A+ – It only took two minutes and nine seconds for this prediction to take flight, as Ceja was stopped in a round by Hugo Ruiz in the return bout of what may still become a trilogy. Ceja is still 24 years old, so may get another shot, and he is an enjoyable TV fighter, which will aid him, but will need to get back in the spotlight soon, as he never returned to the ring in 2016. Ceja only lost to Top 10 boxers, giving further hope to his fans and, with 27 stoppages in 30 victories, always has a puncher’s chance.

 

Will rise in 2016: Jessie Magdaleno – Unlike bantamweight, there are lots of choices with Albert Pagara, Ryo Matusmoto and Genesis Servania, all seemingly on even terms with Magdaleno. I am hoping the frustrating Magdaleno finally gets his act together and becomes the contender most thought he was back in 2013. The talent is unquestionable, with Magdaleno sporting everything from speed to stinging power and the kind of intangibles that come with growing up in a boxing family. Is angling for a shot at current WBO champion Nonito Donaire but, before that happens, the Top Rank Promotions decision makers want concrete evidence that Magdaleno can make the weight, scheduling him for a 2016 debut in February. If Magdaleno makes the weight and regains some of the fire and early career momentum, a title belt seems an inevitable part of his future.

 

Grade: A – Won the WBO title with a month to spare but, even with that title in his pocket, to me, it still seems like Magdaleno has underachieved as a whole in his career. Yes, that is a harsh evaluation but that is how much I think of Magdaleno and his skill set. Won all three fights in 2016, including his best career win with a comfortable decision over Nonito Donaire and has yet to find an opponent for an initial title defense that has no date announced at this time. A young champion in his prime, which Magdaleno certainly is, at 25, who needs to be active and create a buzz in the near future, so as not to lose momentum!

 

 

In Part Two, we go from featherweight to junior middleweight.

 

 

You can contact the Good Professor at martinmulcahey@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter at @MartinMulcahey.

 

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