Slipping the junior welterweights a Mikey
Three of THE RING Magazine’s Top 10-rated junior welterweights take the stage on Showtime tonight (10:15 p.m. ET/7:15 p.m. PT), in what is certain to be a declarative evening for the division. The No. 1-rated boxer is Mikey Garcia, 37-0 (30), who puts his pound-for-pound reputation on the line against No. 7-ranked IBF titlist Sergey Lipinets, 13-0 (10), in a noteworthy boxer-versus-slugger matchup. The co-main event is a rematch featuring Rances Barthelemy, who needs to show why can be the most logical challenger to Garcia, despite being rated No. 9 in the division. The former two-division champ looks like the only boxer with a complete enough skill-set to threaten Garcia, while Barthelemy’s challenger, Belarus native Kiryl Relikh, will do his best to crash the party and ruin the plans of all concerned. Put it all together and it makes for an engrossing evening at the fights.
The main event between Mikey Garcia and Sergey Lipinets was to have taken place one month ago but Lipinets suffered a hand injury that forced the postponement. This will be Lipinets’ first title defense, as he won the title by beating back a tough challenge from Akihiro Kondo, last November, for the vacant belt. Garcia is attempting to win a world title in his fourth weight class and is a considerable favorite to do so. The only concern with the rescheduling of the fight was making sure the event remained in San Antonio, as co-promoter Richard Schaefer explained to our own Steve Kim, “The event has been selling like hot cakes. San Antonio has really responded to this event. We are on track to have a huge gate, a seven-figure gate, and so we definitely want to keep it there.”
The injury was to Lipinets’ dominant right hand, making it a big concern but pushing the limits drives Lipinets. Daring inside the ring, he throws punches and pressures foes from the opening bell. A former kickboxing champion from Kazakhstan, he only turned pro four years ago and has yet to take a backward step. Methodical in his approach, Lipinets usually delivers in the end, knocking 10 of 13 opponents out. The 28-year-old’s punching power seems legitimate at any level, especially to the body, which many young boxers disregard. Given his relative lack of experience, Lipinets punches appear as strategic as they are intuitive. It is the reason manager Alex Vaysfeld refused to put constraints on Lipinets, “He is nearing on to be a complete package, even though he has started his career being quite a raw product. Sergey is a natural gem.”
Lipinets’ trainer, former world champion Buddy McGirt echoed the praise and values the mental, as much as the physical, in his protege. “Sergey is an unbelievable athlete. His work output is incredible and he listens to everything I tell him, then executes in the ring.” However, McGirt points out that he does not have a finished product. “We need to work more on his jab, distance and head movement. We’ve worked on (Lipinets’) jab, his straight right hand and on setting up the body shots. Sergey has a helluva jab, so I have him using that more and we worked on his balance in sparring.” Lipinets wanted to ease any concerns about that right hand, forcefully stating, “The hand is completely healed. I’m using it at will, no problem, full power.”
Mikey Garcia does seem to be the finished product, a pound-for-pound entrant who has shown little-to-no flaws, since returning from a promotionaly-forced layoff of over two years. Despite being a considerable favorite to take the title from the less experienced champ, Garcia has remained focused. “We’re expecting a tough, competitive fight. Lipinets is a fighter who is always dangerous. He has power in both hands and he’s not afraid to let his hands go. He’s also willing to get hit, so that he can hit you back. That’s what makes him dangerous. I had the big victory over Adrien Broner in the summer and I’m looking for even bigger things in 2018.”
This may be the year Garcia becomes a pay-per-view-level star; unfortunately fights against the Terence Crawford and Manny Pacquiao could be muted by promotional challenges, since they are part of Top Rank, from whom Garcia had an acrimonious split. Given his manager Al Haymon’s waning fortunes, the options are even more muted than just a year ago, when a Jorge Linares bout looked achievable. However Garcia refused to sign a multi-bout deal with Golden Boy Promotions to secure that fight, even though Garcia says he is still amenable to that bout at 135 pounds. While frustrated outside the ring, it has been anything but for Garcia in it, as he has dominated three foes and was last seen humiliating Adrien Broner over 12 rounds, last July.
Given his mindset and comments, it is a certainty that Lipinets will put up more of a fight than Broner. “I want to show the world what I can do. My spirit cannot be matched by any fighter but I also have the speed and strength to win. I will show my devastating power. I really can’t wait until I show my skills and prove to myself first, and then everybody else, that I belong at the top of the food chain.” At the media day, Garcia said he plans to box aggressively as usual, “If I find there’s an opportunity to go for a knockout, I’m definitely going to take it. If it goes 12 rounds, then he’s a very tough fighter – and I expect Lipinets to be tough. I’m just going to do whatever it takes to win the fight. If the opportunity is there, I’m definitely going to go for the knockout because that’s what we’re here to do.”
Taking the stage first is Rances Barthelemy, who is attempting to win a world title in a third weight class. As importantly, he needs to look sharp (given his two previous lackluster performances versus Kiryl Relikh and Mickey Bey) to restore his reputation and facilitate a big money fight against Garcia. That reputation took a hit when Barthelemy did not deal with Kiryl Relikh, in their first bout, winning a debatable decision. Even Barthelemy admitted he was not at his best that evening, “The last fight was very close and deserving of a rematch. I want to show Relikh how much better I am than him. I can fight anyone between 135 and 147. Broner, Garcia, (WBO junior lightweight titlist) Lomachenko. It’s only big names what I’m after next.”
Fair or not, Cuban boxers have a reputation for lacking motivation but Barthelemy says that is not the case with him. “I want to unify with all the other champions. Winning this title (the vacant WBA junior welterweight strap) would be a dream come true for me. I’d be the first Cuban fighter in history to win a title in three different divisions.” The ideal camp Barthelemy enjoyed should ensure that. “My whole team has done a fantastic job so far in camp. Ismael Salas and Joel Casamayor are giving me great tips and keeping me focused on my goal. One new thing I’ve added this camp is Bob Santos for nutrition, strength and conditioning. This time around, I’m coming with a whole new game plan and I’m not going to have to force myself to adapt to Relikh’s strategy. I’m unlocking some of the skills I had in my younger days. They will be one of the key determining factors in how I perform.”
Kiryl Relikh says he has learned from the first fight and his somewhat tentative opening, while trying to figure out the tricky Cuban’s style. “I need to do much more during this fight. I have to be aggressive right from the start. I’m sure that I need a knockout to get the victory. He can try to run but he won’t be able to hide from me.” As with Barthelemy, Relikh knows the winner has a bright future. “First, I have to win this fight in March but then I have hopes of a great year defending my belt against the mandatory and eventually a unification fight. This will be the year I reach a new level in this sport.”
Schaefer sees this as one of the most complete cards, top to bottom, he has ever put together, “Boxing is going into 2018 with huge momentum and starting out with big events like this. You have two undefeated champions getting in the ring to fight each other. These kind of fights are going to continue to elevate the sport to great heights.” Schaefer also complimented the combatants, “This was an easy fight to make because you have two fighters who want to measure themselves against the best. Neither fighter had to be convinced. Both guys feel they can win and are going into the fight with an attitude of an undefeated fighter.” One will exit with a loss but it looks like the fans will be the winners, by evening’s end.