I said that? The 2017 Preview Review: Part three
Today I wrap up the annual “Preview Review,” featuring some of boxing’s historic glory divisions fromP middleweight up to heavyweight that have a revitalized vigor and intrigue with Gennady Golovkin, Saul Alvarez, Anthony Joshua and Deontay Wilder on collision courses this year. As in Parts One and Two, I revisit predictions for a champion whom will stay, a champion whom will go and a boxer whom will rise. 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, as well as listing the results from previous years. 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 2018 are certain 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 or Warren Buffett.
Champion who will stay: Gennady Golovkin – The Kazakh hitman may be past his athletic prime but has one of the best boxing brains in the business to compensate for slowing reflexes. One of the few in recent times to develop an aura of invincibility, it drives the IBF/WBA/WBC champion Golovkin to victory well before the opening bell sounds and creates an air of excitement not seen at middleweight since Marvelous Marvin Hagler. His genius punch selection and accuracy, of which NASA computers would be envious, has seen him avoided by WBO junior middleweight titlist/THE RING magazine middleweight champion Saul “Canelo” Alvarez, who has been mocked for abandoning his WBC belt instead of facing Golovkin. No one matches up favorably with Golovkin at 160 pounds and it looks like he can make weight with ease, ensuring he keeps the belt another year, no matter who challenges him.
Grade: B+ – I believe Golovkin should have been awarded a win against Alvarez in their first meeting but will accept the draw verdict from the judges, reducing my grade from an A to B. Did elevate to B+, since Golovkin also defeated Daniel Jacobs, thus facing the most dangerous foes possible in 2017.
Champion who will go: Billy Joe Saunders – You do the math. I have no other choice since Golovkin owns the other three belts. There is a calculable chance Saunders loses the belt anyhow, since he is the second choice of Saul Alvarez, if a fight with Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. does not materialize at 164 pounds or whatever the Alvarez camp deems an acceptable catchweight for that big-money fight. Saunders is not a bad boxer at all, and could trouble Alvarez early, but looked awful in his most recent outing, a unanimous decision over Artur Akavov, after a lengthy injury layoff.
Grade: D – Saunders looked mesmerizing against David Lemieux in his most recent outing, which people remember most, of course, but rather ordinary in his title defense against Willie Monroe Jr., only three months earlier. Not a complete failing grade, since I did state Saunders would retain his title in 2017 and, as I noted, there was no other choice, given Golovkin’s stranglehold on the other three title belts.
Will rise in 2017: Maciej Sulecki – There is a lot of talent being held back by its management, waiting for Golovkin to move up in weight or for a sanctioning group to give Alvarez a title belt to defend for big money. I am going against my preferences, picking Poland’s Sulecki over former amateur standouts Ryota Murata, Sergiy Derevyanchenko and American Terrell Gausha. First appeared on my radar, beating once-promising Grzegorz Proksa, and confirmed his potential, stopping undefeated Hugo Centeno Jr. in his most recent outing. The maturity he displayed in those fights sets him apart from the others so far and I like that he showed focus, stopping his best opposition, despite having only average power. Jason Quigley and Yamaguchi Falcao are two others further down the evolutionary ladder to keep an eye on.
Grade: B – Not a bad year of matriculation for Sulecki, knocking out two average foes before besting tough former interim junior middleweight champion Jack Culcay by a wide margin, in his last fight of 2017. Seems primed and ready for a title shot but I doubt Sulecki will get one, given the current logjam at the top. Sulecki is most likely to fight for some vacant title, in 2019, if Golovkin moves up in weight.
Champion who will stay: James DeGale – While the choice is not simple, this decision comes down to who I think wins in a fight between IBF titlist James DeGale and WBC beltholder Badou Jack, since they face each other on Jan. 14. I believe that will be DeGale, as he should consistently beat Jack to the punch. (Jack has been scrapping by with split and majority decision wins and a draw in his last three outings.) To be fair, DeGale has been no great shakes in his last couple fights but seems to have mastered the art of rising to whatever level necessary to earn a win. The safer pick is WBO champion Gilberto Ramirez, who has more upside than DeGale or Jack but appears frozen out of a big fight this year. Top Rank Promotions does not have keep-busy options for Ramirez, with Jesse Hart being the mandatory contender and George Groves having some name recognition looming as possibilities this year.
Grade: F – Englishman lived on the edge all year, escaping with a title unification draw against Badou Jack but then lost his title unexpectedly to unheralded Caleb Truax. There is no excuse for the Truax setback in December. DeGale just did not seem ready mentally and may have still been suffering after-effects of his grueling war with Jack. 2018 will tell us if DeGale is a spent force but he did not make the grade in 2017, for sure.
Champion who will go: Badou Jack – Not much to add here. While I appreciate Jack bouncing back from a devastating kayo loss to Derek Edwards in 2014, he has not risen to the height many others projected for the amiable Swede.
Grade: B – I underestimated Jack, since he did earn a draw with DeGale, in a fight I believed he would lose but was still correct, since Jack gave up his WBC title midyear to compete at light heavyweight. Made an impressive debut knocking out Nathan Cleverly, giving us a hint that he could have continued reigning at 168 pounds. Accordingly reduced my grade by a notch to a solid B, as I did not see the weight increase coming.
Will rise in 2017: David Benavidez – No one stands out as a sure thing, with the five fighters I chose narrowed down to displaying flaws or not facing opposition that reveals failings. However, none have weaknesses that can’t be fixed or overcome, leaving me with 20-year-old Benavidez, who has the highest probability of improving. Considered somewhat of a boxing prodigy, Benavidez sparred in his mid-teens with former and current middleweight champions like Kelly Pavlik and Gennady Golovkin, respectively. Benavidez has been throwing punches, in a positive sense, since age six, under the tutelage of his father Jose Benavidez Sr. and younger brother Jose is highly-ranked by the WBA at junior welterweight. Will get TV time and be pushed by Top Rank this year but a title shot is still a couple years off. The other choices were Tyron Zeuge, who lacks the “it” factor, intriguing but unknown Indian Vijender Singh, untested Zac Dunn, one-dimensional Avni Yildirim and solid-but-unspectacular Jesse Hart.
Grade: A – The Arizonan was handed a fortuitous and relatively easy route to a world title, challenging Ronald Gavril for the vacant WBC belt. I will take it, considering the kid is still only 21. It was a split decision victory but I thought Benavidez never lost composure or initiative. In his previous two fights, in 2017, Benavidez scored stoppage wins over respectable foes, whom enabled his successful challenge for the title.
Champion who will stay: Adonis Stevenson – Al Haymon-affiliated boxer has managed to avoid the challenge of IBF/WBA/WBO champion Andre Ward and Sergey Kovalev for the past two years. I do not see that changing, enabling the power-punching dynamo to hold his title another year, since he fights twice a year maximum. Stevenson is the light heavyweight version of Guillermo Jones, who inexplicably kept a title at cruiserweight year after year. He does have a tough mandatory in Eleider Alvarez but that is a winnable fight for the more battle-tested Stevenson since Alvarez has, at times, shown lack of power or ability to cut off the ring. Yes, it is a risk picking a 39-year-old champ but this choice is based on my low expectations of Stevenson, not his actual ring merit.
Grade: A – Sometimes boxing manages to even take the joy out of being right and what I wrote came to pass, as Stevenson pranced through 2017, scoring one title defense over the flawed Andrzej Fonfara. Stevenson and his management validated my low expectations, thus handing me the highest possible grade.
Champion who will go: Andre Ward – I believe Sergey Kovalev beat Andre Ward by a small margin in their controversial fight but I am basing this on Ward not being able to hold on to all three titles (IBF, WBA and WBO) because of political machinations instead of ring performance. There is a chance of a rematch with Kovalev this year, which is a dangerous proposition, and rapidly-rising Russian knockout artist Artur Beterbiev is a potential threat, as well as IBF mandatory, although he boxes on Showtime. Ward has the arsenal to defeat anyone in the division inside the ring; I am not sure the same can be said for Ward’s promoter Roc Nation Sports, given the Machiavellian nature of the sanctioning bodies.
Grade: B – I certainly did not see a scenario in which Ward gave up his titles via retirement and will drop the grade one notch because of that. While I was never enamored with Ward as a ring personality, he was an extraordinary boxer with loads of talent who will go down in boxing history as an undefeated champion who ultimately should have achieved more.
Will rise in 2017: Oleksandr Gvozdyk – A talent-rich and tricky division for new talent and not one suited for title shots, given there are two champions on top whom are hardly noted for an abundance of ring appearances! Not going to cheat and pick Eleider Alvarez or Artur Beterbiev, who I chose in past preview pieces, and instead go with Oleksandr Gvozdyk, who I expect to make an impact without getting a title shot. Should get some American TV appearances, to heighten his name recognition, and has a fan-friendly style, stopping 10 of 12 foes. In 2016, Gvozdyk showed everything necessary to be champion, registering a “Knockout of the Year”-type win against Nadjib Mohammedi, but also frailties against limited Tommy Karpency. He looks like type of boxer who rises to the level of his competition, beating out solid Erik Skoglund on dynamism and intriguing Dmitry Bivol on level of opposition.
Grade: C – Two knockout victories over solid foes have put Gvozdyk in line for a WBC interim title fight, making it a respectable year and worthy of a passing grade. My hope was the Oxnard-based Russian would have faced a former champion, or at least a title challenger, but, given his amateur resume, Gvozdyk may not need such a steppingstone to win a world title. I should have gone with second choice Dmitry Bivol, who annexed the vacant WBA title after the retirement of Andre Ward.
Champion who will stay: Oleksandr Usyk – My 2015 choice for “boxer whom will rise” looks like a settled and dominant force at cruiserweight with his convincing victory over Krzysztof Glowacki and eventually dominant win over tricky southpaw Thabiso Mchunu in Usyk’s American debut. For the past couple of years, I have maintained that cruiserweight is the most difficult division in boxing, so it will not be easy to maintain his WBO title, given HBO will want to keep featuring the Ukrainian upstart against quality opponents. Unless Usyk moves up to heavyweight by the end of the year, I do not see anyone outside of Yunier Dorticos, who can match Usyk for power, or maybe Marco Huck’s experienced guile unseating Usyk.
Grade: A – Not a hard pick but one that came through with flying colors when Usyk destroyed tough former champion Marco Huck in his last outing. Successfully won a hard challenge, in facing Maris Briedis in Latvia, to unify the WBC and WBO titles, but Usyk did ready himself for that atmosphere by going to Germany and defeating Huck.
Champion who will go: Tony Bellew – Not only is Bellew the weakest of the four main champions but the brave and undersized Liverpudlian has signed to fight former heavyweight titlist David Haye in a hotly-anticipated all-English showdown. That is a large hurdle, especially as it will be at heavyweight, and getting back down to cruiserweight could be difficult, so Bellew being stripped of his title is a probability. I admit Bellew has impressively defied my expectations at cruiserweight but I cannot look past his kayo defeat to Adonis Stevenson and getting outboxed by Nathan Cleverly, both at 175 pounds. Bellew is on a hot streak but, at age 34, I do not see it continuing, given potential bouts against fast rising Mairis Briedis and Marco Huck looming as the two top ranked mandatories.
Grade: A – Never returned to defend his cruiserweight belt but I was surprised that Bellew was able to defeat David Haye in exciting and surprising fashion. A rematch with Haye is next for Bellew, pretty much ensuring the cruiserweight days are behind Bellew, at age 35.
Will rise in 2017: Mairis Briedis – I always seem to be one year ahead of schedule in this division, going with Usyk in 2015 and Yunier Dorticos last year. Dorticos did well in 2016 and should ascend to a crown this year. So the question is: Who will the fast riser in the most competitive division in boxing be this year? My pick, from a slew of possibilities, is Latvian Mairis Briedis, who bounces back and forth from heavyweight but seems settled below 200 pounds and looking rock-solid there. At age 31, he will be pushed hard this year and has the right combination of abilities and experience to take on Tony Bellew in Liverpool (where Briedis last fought, to showcase himself) if needed. Briedis is not as scintillating as recent picks Usyk and Dorticos but is solid in every department, enabling him to compete with any Top 10 foe. Americans Michael Hunter and Andrew Tabiti have potential in European-dominated division, while Poland’s Michal Cieslak and Belgium-based Ivory Coast boxer Ryad Merhy are dark horses worth keeping an eye on.
Grade: A – I got the timing right this year, as Briedis rose up and defeated Marco Huck for the WBC title. Went on to defended it against former heavyweight contender Mike Perez. The first stage for Briedis of the World Boxing Super Series will unify all the cruiserweight belts and as the first Latvian (and now former) world champion, Briedis had his hands full with WBO beltholder Oleksandr Usyk but a win wasn’t out of the realm of possibilities.
Champion who will stay: Joseph Parker – I am still not entirely convinced by the WBO champion but he showed a solid skill and mindset, defeating tricky but under-motivated Andy Ruiz Jr. Seems to add to his arsenal with every outing and has adaptability to employ divergent strategies to unlock opponents. Since IBF titlist Anthony Joshua and former IBF/WBA/WBO/THE RING magazine champion Wladimir Klitschko will face soon each other, those dangerous fighters are off the list of foes and a clash with WBC beltholder Deontay Wilder only has an outside shot of happening in 2017. Even if a Wilder bout were to happen, there is reasonable possibility that Parker emerges victorious. Dangerous No. 1 challenger David Haye is schedule to fight WBC cruiserweight titlist Tony Bellew, while second-rated Hughie Fury would be a considerable underdog. A rematch with Ruiz is a possibility too but Parker has more potential of improving on his performance than Ruiz does.
Grade: A – As expected, Parker made two title defenses against beatable challengers, though Hughie Fury gave a better-than-expected performance for me. These bouts kept the Kiwi fresh but are hardly the stuff to prepare him for a challenge of IBF/WBA titlist Anthony Joshua in March.
Champion who will go: Anthony Joshua – A tough call, as I think Joshua has a 60/40 chance of beating back the considerable challenge of Wladimir Klitschko, given his lengthy layoff. I am simply playing the odds here and will be rooting on Joshua for the health of boxing and the heavyweight division, yet banking on a once-dominant former champion like Klitschko having one final bullet in his chamber to score a minor upset and retire on top. If Joshua gets by Klitschko, because he is an active champion, there is the prospect of a shock loss or cut-induced stoppage causing a fluke change of titles. If I thought Joshua and Deontay Wilder had a chance of fighting this year, I would have picked Wilder in this position.
Grade: F – I played the odds and got burned. Given the “Fight of the Year”-type performance, and electricity with which the clash infused boxing, I am not at all sorry to hang a failing grade on myself. Maybe I could have upped the grade to a D, since I did say it was a 60/40 chance Joshua retains his title but if Joshua becomes an all-time great, as some suggest, this pick would be historically bad, in retrospect.
Will rise in 2017: Oscar Rivas – Unlike the last couple years, with Anthony Joshua and Joseph Parker, there is not an obvious or threatening new candidate who looks likely to make a title push in 2017. I like my heavyweight hopefuls to have extensive or successful amateur careers at a high level. Rivas checks that box but I have to say I am worried about his limited 6-foot stature and average reach. Defeated current Top 10-rated Kubrat Pulev in the 2008 Olympics and, to date, has racked up 20 wins with 15 stoppages, fighting mostly in Canada under guidance of experienced Yvon Michel’s promotional group. A worrisome failed eye test scratched a showdown with fellow undefeated Gerald Washington but his people assure it is a temporary setback and Rivas should be back for a full slate of step-up bouts in 2017. Others considered were Jarrell Miller, Hughie Fury, Agit Kabayel and Adrian Granat.
Grade: D – I wavered between a C and D but settled on a D, since Rivas only fought twice in 2017. Had a very promising beginning, when Rivas knocked out former title challenger Carl Davis Drumond in a round but only followed that up with an unexceptional points victory over 8-3 journeyman Gabriel Enguema. I expect more from someone who just turned 30 and should have gone with Agit Kabayel, whose impressive win over Dereck Chisora puts him on the fringes of Top 10 consideration.
The combined grades for my 2017 are:
A = 24
B = 7
C = 5
D = 7
F = 8
The overall grades for my 2016 were:
A = 27
B = 10
C = 5
D = 7
F = 2
The overall grades for 2015 were:
A = 28
B = 11
C = 2
D = 7
F = 3