I said that? The 2016 Preview Review: Part two
In Part One of the annual “Preview Review,” I lamented journalists making predictions in 2016, certain in the knowledge that few readers will remember what was penned 365 days ago. To write for the Undisputed Champion Network is to be held to a higher standard and it is interesting to see how my thought process led to either correct conclusions or pitiful pratfalls, both of which I illuminated in Part One of this exercise. It can be shocking how a short time span, of one year, can change perceptions to large extents of a boxer’s worth in the ring or to a television network. To that end, I venture back in time to review my predictions for 2016, a yearly ritual of evaluating choices that fluctuates between self-abuse and narcissism. Again, I encourage readers to take a look around the ‘Net. I don’t think you will find another sports website or publication taking the time to analyze its editorials from the past year.
In Part Two, I revisit predictions from featherweight to junior middleweight, examining my deductions for a champion whom will stay, a champion whom will go and a boxer whom will rise. I do not make any changes to forecasts, removing the temptation to make myself look better through minor or subtle removal of erroneous or irrelevant content. That forces me to separate this feature into three parts in order to keep the word count below that of a hyper-caffeinated Victor Hugo 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.
Champion who will stay: Vasyl Lomachenko – A very good list of champions at 126 pounds. I can see a scenario in which every one keeps his title at the end of 2016, if they do not meet each other. I hesitate to pick the Ukrainian because Lomachenko is the type of fighter who constantly looks to challenge himself, so he will seek out the best competition and thus put his title reign in constant jeopardy. However, if Lomachenko does face any of the other champions, he is a good bet to defeat them, this despite his obvious lack of pro experience, winning the title in only his third fight. Mandatory challenger is a very good and maturing Mexican contender Oscar Valdez but I have a feeling his promotional team will route him toward a WBC title shot instead. Plus, sometimes, you just have to go with the boxer who has the most gifts instead of the one taking the path of least resistance.
Grade: D+ – Am once again a victim of the ease in which a popular boxer can jump weight classes to add titles. This time it is Lomachenko who moved up to junior lightweight and annexed the title from Roman Martinez in spectacular fashion. Made one defense of that title in 2016, as well, dispatching dangerous puncher Nicholas Walters in November. Since I speculated, but did not go with my instincts, about Lomachenko moving up, am not giving myself a complete fail and going with a soft D.
Champion who will go: Lee Selby – The least talented of the titleholders but Selby makes up for it with determination and an intelligent style that discombobulates foes’ offense and escape paths on defense. The Welshman is actively seeking unification fights and, because Selby is aligned with Al Haymon, has a good chance to get those opportunities against Gary Russell Jr. or Leo Santa Cruz. Has a defense with unpredictable Eric Hunter, who lost two of his three fights via disqualification, in the works in which he will be the favorite. Because Gradovich is the weakest of the bunch, he will be targeted by other blue-chip prospects and their promoters, even if a fight with another champion is not made.
Grade: D+ – Again, not giving myself a complete failing grade, as I stated in the Lomachenko preview, that I did not think any titlist would lose his crown unless there was a unification match. Plus, Selby did less than most, only making one ring appearance in 2016 against the weakest possible challenger in Eric Hunter. Credit to Selby for outboxing Hunter for a unanimous decision win but, of all the 126-pound champions, he had the least impressive 2016, so that is a bit of solace for me.
Will rise in 2016: Oscar Valdez – Good thing there is a lot of star power at the top of the 126-pound division right now because there is not a wealth of blue-chip talent in the pipeline. Mexican pressure-boxer Oscar Valdez is the best of the lot but if he gets a title shot this year, he may be too one-dimensional to rip the crown from any of the champions, aside from Lee Selby. At 25, is in his physical prime, and has a wealth of amateur experience (one of best Mexican amateur boxers ever) to call upon, given his two Olympic participations and tons of medal-winning performances in other competitions. Described himself perfectly, “I’m more of a boxer. I don’t really consider myself as a hard-hitting fighter but I can do all different styles. I can bang with a fighter – if the guy boxes, I can put pressure. If I’m fighting a pressure guy, I can also box. Whatever the fighter brings, I’ll switch it up.” Josh Warrington is an equally rounded boxer but lacks exactly what Valdez has in abundance – aggression and power. Kamil Laszczyk was other consideration for this spot.
Grade: A+ – Finally getting out of the blocks for Part Two of this review, with Valdez actually exceeding my expectations, winning the WBO world title and making one defense of his newly-acquired bling. Before taking the title, defeated respected Evgeny Gradovich to begin his year, which I did expect but did not see leading to a title opportunity. Valdez has really matured and come into his own and, with Lomachenko vacating the division, looks set for a lengthy rule…if he does not move up in weight himself.
Champion who will stay: Francisco Vargas – Where it was difficult to find a featherweight champion with obvious weaknesses, it was difficult to find a junior lightweight champion who did not have a weakness. The best boxer is Japan’s exceedingly talented Takashi Uchiyama but he is getting old at 36 and anything can happen at that age, despite his looking brilliant in recent fights. Uchiyama also has a mandatory defense up against Javier Fortuna by the end of the year that is winnable but should prove very difficult. I chose Vargas because he just defeated his mandatory challenger, Takashi Miura, and his list of possible opponents packs less punch than water on the rocks, plus Vargas is a well-rounded boxer in his prime.
Grade: B – A disappointing year overall despite retaining his title; Vargas only contested one bout and it was a majority decision draw with Orlando Salido. Given the nature of that fantastic back-and-forth war (winning multiple “Fight of The Year” awards), it does make up for the fact that Vargas did not enter the ring again in 2016. If every boxer put forth such a gutsy performance, no one would complain about the lack of ring appearances champions make. However, for the sake of my prediction, I did expect more.
Champion who will go: Roman Martinez – Beats out countryman Jose Pedraza, who did not look convincing, winning a controversial decision over Edner Cherry, for this unwanted honor on my list. The Puerto Rican warhorse will be matched with hungry young Mexican stalker Miguel Berchelt sometime this year, who sports the aggressive style an aging titleholder with worsening reflexes and punch resistance is susceptible too. The 32-year-old will fight twice this year at most, so, if Martinez can get by Berchelt, with one last heart-over-matter performance, he should be handed a safe foe in the other optional defense. I root for Martinez on most occasions but my brain overrules the heart in this spot.
Grade: A+ – Was effortlessly and brutally sent home without his belt by Vasyl Lomachenko but that would be the fate of most any junior lightweight, given Lomachenko’s talents. It was the only five rounds of the year Martinez contested and, given the severity of the beat-down and size of his paycheck for that defense, no one could complain, since Martinez always gives 100% in the ring.
Will rise in 2016: Gervonta Davis – All the talent seems to have moved up or down in weight, leaving limited choices here but at least the majority of new faces is competing on North American soil, giving us the opportunity to watch them break through. Baltimore’s Gervonta Davis is blessed with speed that is translating in fight-stopping power and everything is amplified to higher degree, given it is delivered from a southpaw stance. Made a name for himself in sparring circles, giving as good as he got against Adrien Broner and shared the ring with Floyd Mayweather Jr. in his camp on multiple occasions. Still only 21 years old, he has knocked out 13 of 14 foes, including former champion Cristobal Cruz, who is renowned for his toughness. Signed up with Al Haymon last year as well, so a path to the title is laid for two-fisted puncher to achieve his dreams, if Davis continues to work hard (commend him for going back to high school to get a regular diploma) and accept lessons, as has been his tendency, to date. Davis edges out Toka Kahn Clary and seems a full notch better and more rounded than Julio Berraza and Carlos Ramirez, who were also considered.
Grade: B – Given the way Davis dominated undefeated IBF champ Jose Pedraza, a star-making performance in many eyes, this January, I considered bumping this score to an A+. Such was the destruction Davis wrought and, combined with a bit of ring charisma that cannot be taught, some are already calling it a career-defining fight. However, it came 14 days into 2017, so I gave myself a B, since I did see his potential when most had Davis a considerable underdog in his first title shot. Also, Davis only had two victories over average competition before winning his title, so that is worth a one grade demerit on my sliding scale.
Champion who will stay: Rances Barthelemy – Despite recently moving up a weight class, to take advantage of a title opportunity, the Cuban expatriate looks right at home fighting at the 135-pound limit, given his freakish 5-foot-11 stature. Had his best year as a pro in 2015, defeating former champion Antonio DeMarco and always difficult Denis Shafikov, over the distance on both occasions. Not only an elite boxer, Barthelemy has been consistent in his performances, not throwing any duds or becoming complacent as other former Cuban amateur standouts have in the past. Is the obvious class of this weight, with only Jorge Linares able to match him for boxing brains but, if the two were to meet, Barthelemy would be the betting favorite, given Linares’ snake-bitten past in title fights.
Grade: A – I was an early adopter when it comes to Barthelemy, quickly seeing him as having the potential to be the second-best post-Cuban revolution professional, aside from Guillermo Rigondeaux. This has paid off to date, since Barthelemy has already won world titles in two weight classes and has the body type to add two more divisions. 2016 was a holding pattern year though, only defending his IBF title once, and, at age 30, needs to step on the gas to achieve what I believe are Hall of Fame-type skills into legitimated credentials.
Champion who will go: Anthony Crolla – Mancunian is rumored to be facing either the more talented Jorge Linares or harder punching southpaw Ismael Barroso. Has a chance to hold onto his title, if promotion lands in England, where a rabid hometown crowd could elevate him to victory but, despite recent winning streaks, always seems to find himself in close fights, going into the deciding final rounds. That is not a recipe for success at the highest level, not to mention, he has a tendency to cut as well. This choice was a flip of the coin for me as WBC champ Jorge Linares has to face my personal favorite, Dejan Zlaticanin, in a mandatory, which could be his downfall, given Linares’ tendency to find ways to lose fights he should win when put under constant duress.
Grade: A – Plucky Englishman went 1-1 in 2016, losing his title as I expected to Jorge Linares after beating Ismael Barroso decisively but, in defeat, earned respect being given an immediate rematch that takes place next month. In fact, if not for Linares sweeping the final three rounds on every scorecard, Crolla would have retained the title with a draw. A bit unexpected, as Linares usually fades in the championship rounds but it worked out in my favor, this time, which makes up for the unexpected losses I did not see coming in Linares’ bouts in years past.
Will rise in 2016: Felix Verdejo – Had a difficult time finding anyone of consequence other than this supremely gifted talent who has a chance to become the next great Puerto Rican fighter to take over the line of succession from Miguel Cotto and Felix Trinidad. In fact, Verdejo looks like a mix of that Hall of Fame duo, which puts a lot of pressure on this fresh-faced finisher who stopped 14 of 19 foes. Has solidly handled the lofty expectations and attention that comes with that pressure, flashing fast fists and sincere smiles in equal portions to adoring audiences. As his opposition grew in stature, so has Verdejo’s multifaceted performances, which have been key to his seemingly limitless progression. Has already appeared on HBO without any sense of awe or feeling that he looks out of place on that level or platform. Others considered were Xolisani Ndongeni, Masayoshi Nakatani , Alejandro Luna and Richard Commey.
Grade: B+ – The young Puerto Rican star is almost certain to fight for a world title in 2017 and, by most people’s estimation, should annex one of the four belts. Only a motorcycle accident showed the young phenom can be hurt, as he racked up three wins over good foes with varied styles in a good-but-not great year. Already has two fight dates set up for 2017 by the folks at Top Rank Promotions, so the push is on to make Verdejo the next Cotto at a minimum, with hopes of Felix Trinidad like adoration in time.
Champion who will stay: Terence Crawford – Has easy next fight with Hank Lundy and subsequent super-fight is likely to elude maturing star for another year, given dearth of name-value foes, since Crawford is promoted by Top Rank Promotions and not an Al Haymon client. It also helps that he is the most talented boxer in the division, with only Viktor Postol posing a threat, on paper, or maybe a fully motivated Adrien Broner on a good day. Mandatory challenger Jason Pagara lacks…well, everything to compete with Crawford, so it looks like another year of moving up the pound-for-pound chart for Crawford instead of finding that defining fight.
Grade: A – This was an easy and obvious pick on the level of Gennady Golovkin or Roman Gonzalez in the recent past; that is how dominant and seemingly invincible Crawford is, even given the quality opposition he seeks. A pretty active champion as well, defeating three opponents with only Viktor Postol managing to last the distance or being given a reasonable chance of an upset by the oddsmakers. At age 29, is in the midst of every conceivable prime of his career, so one would hope that the always-mentioned but ultimately muted Manny Pacquiao bout finally takes place in 2017!
Champion who will go: Adrien Broner – I do not think any of the beltholders will lose their straps but there is a chance Broner does a Broner and blows a fight mentally or comes in over the weight, given his propensity for overconfidence. I like his mandatory challenger, Jose Benavidez Jr., but he lacks the experience and physicality to push Broner to his limit, where mental deficits form cracks in Broner’s defense. Ashley Theophane is rumored to be Broner’s next foe and he can be tricky to find, given his awkward style, but lacks the offensive finesse to score enough points to win a decision in America. Nope, I am pretty confident all the champions keep their titles at junior welterweight in 2016.
Grade: C – I forgave myself a bit here, as I clearly stated I did not believe any of the belt-holders would lose their titles; this was the case and, given Broner had the easiest defense of any champion with Ashley Theophane, my evaluation was right on point. That lengthy jail sentence or weight issue never did materialize for me, since the judicial system did get hold of Broner but not long enough for him to lose his belt, so he was allowed to be his annoying self without any real consequences.
Will rise in 2016: Sergey Lipinets – Has yet to box 10 pro bouts and his last fight showed off some boxing intuition, besting fellow undefeated prospect Haskell Rhodes over 10 rounds. The list of kickboxers or mixed-martial artists who have excelled in boxing is neither long nor accomplished, with Vitali Klitschko, Nigel Benn and Marco Huck serving as notable exceptions to the rule. Lipinets is a candidate bidding to reverse that trend of mediocrity, with the Kazakh using his physicality well to score late stoppages. Ground himself in the basics, competing in a talent-rich Kazakhstan amateur boxing system, before making jump to pro boxing, where his punching power seems legitimate at any level. Goes to the body especially well, which many young boxers disregard and, given a relative lack of experience, Lipinets punches appear as strategic as intuitive. Lipinets beat out undisciplined head case Frankie Gomez, Jose Benavidez Jr., Mike Reed, Anthony Yigit, Hiroki Okada, Jack Catterall and Julius Indongo.
Grade: B+ – While a title shot did not come Lipinets’ way in 2016, he did have a breakout type of year with three knockouts, which were televised nationally in America. Even now, I still envision Lipinets as a limited-time titleholder, rather than having a lengthy reign, as he does not seem to have the diversity in skills to repel a multitude of styles. Still, the Kazakh is fun to watch and, as such, will remain in the spotlight for a while and, looking back, it will be 2016 that introduced him to the public.
Champion who will stay: Kell Brook – I championed Brook early on, before he made his impressive USA debut besting Shawn Porter, and rate him the best at this weight, now that Floyd Mayweather Jr. has retired and Manny Pacquiao has his swan song scheduled against Tim Bradley. Englishman has an easy mandatory in Kevin Bizier and would probably be favored if the oft-discussed fight with Amir Khan ever does come off. Looks to have fully overcome a injury (a 12-inch stab wound to his thigh) after being attacked by a knife-wielding assailant while on vacation in Spain and seems frozen out of big-money U.S. bouts against Keith Thurman or Manny Pacquiao, as the new kid on block.
Grade: B – I would venture a guess that no one in boxing – to include Brook himself – saw an opportunity to move up to middleweight for a challenge to Gennady Golovkin coming! It was a brave attempt as well, which, by all accounts, earned Brook more fans in America than all his previous victories, to include a televised IBF title win over Shawn Porter. Given all those positives, in a loss, it is also the case that Brook did not have to forfeit his IBF title in 2016, so a passing grade is justified, in my opinion.
Champion who will go: Tim Bradley – In my view, Bradley has never beaten Manny Pacquiao, so why pick the plucky Californian, who has showed more defensive lapses, of late, to clear that hurdle, in his third attempt?
Grade: A – Bradley took to the ring once in 2016; given it was a financially successful loss to Manny Pacquiao, there was no need for more, but exited it without his WBO world title belt after 12 conclusive rounds that settled once and for forever the superior of those two boxers. This choice was as easy as picking the winner between Pacquiao and Bradley, since it had been scheduled at the time of my 2016 article, which did not take me long!
Will rise in 2016: Errol Spence Jr. – Dallas-bred boxer has star quality written all over him, that started with internet-spawned sparring stories that he dropped Adrien Broner in a heated session and gave Floyd Mayweather Jr. a black eye. American Olympians walk a fine line in boxing, often viewed as pampered and put on an easy road to a title shot or, more recently, labeled as underachievers who could not produce on the big stage. Spence is a tricky southpaw, who is hard to pin down, due to impeccable movement and terminates foes quickly, thanks to lightning-quick starts and punches. Early stoppages are not the result of brute force, though he sports concussive power, as much as a combination of blinding speed and accurate punching. As importantly, Spence picks shots wisely or instinctively while maintaining near-flawless distance. Sadam Ali, Jose Zepeda, Antonio Orozco and outsider Australian Jeff Horn were other considerations but are not as complete or tested as Spence.
Grade: B – The young Texas gunslinger did everything but win a world title in 2016! Pretty much announced himself as the next American superstar with nationally televised knockouts that drew high praise and comparisons to Sugar Ray Leonard from various corners of the boxing world. While we should temper those evaluations just a bit, Spence does seem to have the right combination of skills, size, charisma and ambition to win titles in multiple divisions. 2016 will be remembered as his countdown to launch instead of takeoff, so I could not give myself an A.
Champion who will stay: Jermall Charlo – We know Jermall is not going to fight his brother, Jermell, who is rated No. 1 by the IBF for his title, with the latter likely to fight for the vacant WBC title instead. That leaves a pretty easy defense with streaking but imminently beatable Takayuki Hosokawa as Charlo’s likely mandatory defense in 2016. Despite being the IBF champion, Jermall Charlo is not the finished product yet but will have this year to grow into that role, given wealth of learning options to chose from in Al Haymon’s stable of boxers. Aspired to become a pastor early in life but, if Charlo develops into the fighter many think he can be, his opponents won’t have a prayer. Tough but beatable Frenchman Michel Soro would be one such test but he is likely to fight for the WBO title instead. Again, things seem to be falling into place for Jermall and, as such, he will retain his title in 2016.
Grade: A – Another good year for the maturing champion, delivering two victories against challenging opposition to extend his reign to four successful defenses. At 26, is in his athletic prime, so I would like to see Jermall enter the ring more than twice this year and perhaps establish a resume to entice fans to call for a move up in weight to finally give Gennady Golovkin a legitimate, multifaceted threat to his “Eastern Promises”-style reign of terror.
Champion who will go: Liam Smith – Liverpool fighter won vacant WBO title after Demetrius Andrade was stripped by the organization, due to inactivity and the inability to make deals over concerns regarding his promotional status. At 27, Smith is in his prime but, in all honesty, never looked like a future champion and seems lucky to have inherited the title without facing a Top 10 foe. Smith has stopped his last seven foes, a real power surge for boxer who only has 12 stoppages in 23 fights, so he may doing things differently in the gym. Still, mandatory challenger Michel Soro is a real test and there is an outside chance Smith may face Demetrius Andrade once “Boo Boo” gets his act together. My only other choice, given the WBC has no champion yet, is Erislandy Lara, the best boxer at the weight, so I am going with the odds on this occasion.
Grade: A – Much like his countryman, the weight-skipping Kell Brook, the likable Smith delivered a brave but ultimately futile title fight performance, losing his belt to Saul “Canelo” Alvarez in almost a preordained loss by the Boxing Gods. Unlike Brook, Smith exited the ring without a title strap of any kind, thus making my prediction come true even though Alvarez was one of the few boxers I did not name check in my preview.
Will rise in 2016: Jermell Charlo – His brother already own the IBF title and Jermell seems destined to join him, given his No. 1 ranking with the WBC. Is just as talented as his brother, sporting more wins against better overall competition, and victories over Vanes Martirosyan and Gabriel Rosado have steeled him for a tough title fight. Is not as thrilling or eye-catching, in terms of power and planting his feet, as his brother but Jermell is the more patient and, as such, not likely to run into a big punch. Should face twice-beaten John Jackson for WBC honors, against whom he will be favored by betting establishments, given their current perspective career paths. At 5-foot-11, has the perfect size but does not have the pure power his physique suggests, instead relying on his boxing ability and speed, in combinations with use of angles, to outmaneuver foes, keeping them guessing instead of attacking. Beats out an old-time favorite of mine in Brad Solomon, once-promising but now-stagnating Jack Culcay, intriguing Patrick Teixeira and fast-rising Philadelphian Julian Williams. Two other Americans who will be making good pushes in 2016 are Terrell Gausha and Jarrett Hurd.
Grade: A – The lesser dangerous of the Charlo twins, in most boxing insiders’ opinions, only had one fight in 2016 but it was a significant one knocking out John Jackson to become the new WBC titleholder. A unification fight with his brother Jermall is never going to happen, much like the always-dismissed yet still often-discussed Klitschko brother showdown, but the feeling is Jermell will have to be moved more cautiously, in order to allow him to mature and grow into his role as world champion. What has been said, many times in boxing history, is pertinent to Jermall; sometimes winning a title is easier than holding onto it.
In the third and final installment, I go from the historically rich divisions from middleweight to heavyweight and add up my final tally of grades.