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Wladimir Klitschko’s Astounding Comeback

Arne K. Lang

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George Foreman fashioned the most noteworthy comeback in boxing – perhaps in all of sports – when he returned after a 10-year absence and went on to regain the world heavyweight title. But Wladimir Klitschko also forged a remarkable comeback. The difference is that he did it without ever saying goodbye. There was no interregnum in his timeline; no second act.

Now that his career has come fully into focus, it’s plain that Klitschko will follow in the footsteps of his older brother and enter the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. And it’s easy to forget that there was a time when many pundits thought he was something of a tomato can.

Former Las Vegas Review-Journal sports editor Joe Hawk said this about Klitschko following his loss to Lamon Brewster: “Wladimir Klitschko joins the likes of John Ruiz and David Tua as purported boxers who should never again have their names appear on a sports page. We should’ve known about Klitschko, though. The Ukrainian-to-English converter on our computer says his full name translates to ‘Big Slow Stiff With Glass Chin.’” Associated Press sports columnist Tim Dahlberg was less snarky, but basically echoed that sentiment: “Wladimir Klitschko better get used to working in his brother’s corner during fights,” said Dahlberg in 2005. “It might be the only future he has left in boxing.”

Although he was reportedly 134-6 as an amateur and won a gold medal at the 1996 Olympics, Wladimir Klitschko (henceforth WK) wasn’t highly thought-of when he turned pro. He had two strikes against him. He didn’t look like a future heavyweight champion. The last lineal heavyweight champion that shared his pigmentation was one-trick pony Ingemar Johansson who captured the title in 1959 which was back in the Stone Age in the eyes of some young sportswriters. And WK was European, hailing from a part of the world once lampooned as the land of horizontal heavyweights.

And then, while he was still something of a mystery fighter, WK’s reputation was stained by losses to three fighters dismissed as second-raters: Ross Puritty, Corrie Sanders, and Lamon Brewster. Each of those fights ended inside the distance. Against Puritty and Brewster, WK simply ran out of gas. He was leading both fights comfortably on the scorecards. Against Sanders, who knocked him out clean in the second round, he simply forgot to duck.

Let’s look a little more closely at those three fights.

Ross Puritty could fairly be classified as a journeyman, but his record (24-13-1 going in) was very deceiving. The former UTEP defensive lineman had gone the distance with future heavyweight title-holder Chris Byrd, had knocked out former heavyweight title challengers Joe Hipp and Jose Luis Gonzalez, and had boxed a draw with fearsome Tommy Morrison…all this despite a very limited amateur background.

WK fought Puritty on Dec. 5, 1998, in Kiev. The match was assembled in a hurry. Wladimir had fought three weeks earlier and this was his ninth start of the year. The bout was for a minor title so it was scheduled for 12 rounds rather than ten. When the big Ukrainian fell in the 10th round, it was from sheer exhaustion. His corner stopped the fight moments into the 11th.

The fight wasn’t big news in the U.S., warranting only a paragraph or two in most papers. What most took from the story was simply that another undefeated European heavyweight had been exposed by an American boxer. Ho hum; what else is new?

WK won 16 straight after this mishap. During this skein he won the WBO title, outpointing Chris Byrd, and successfully defended it six times. But the WBO, the newest of the four major sanctioning bodies, had little cachet. Lennox Lewis and Evander Holyfield ruled other roosts and were considered more legitimate.

In his title-winning match against Byrd, WK went to post the favorite, but only because he was the bigger man. The presumption was that if the fight went the full 12, Byrd, a slick southpaw, might steal the decision.

Hardly anyone out-boxed Chris Byrd, but WK put on the clinic, pitching a near-shutout. In fact, one of the judges did award Wladimir every round. He didn’t merely out-box Byrd, he punished him. When the fight was over, one of Byrd’s eyes was completely closed and the other was barely half-open. But the fight was held in Cologne, Germany, and didn’t receive the media attention it would have received if it had been held in the United States.

WK’s WBO title reign ended with a loud thud in Hanover, Germany, when he was annihilated by the aforementioned Sanders, a 37-year-old South African who boasted a 38-2 record but whose best sport was actually golf. With 33 seconds remaining in the opening stanza, Sanders, a southpaw, caught WK napping and put him on the canvas. Three more knockdowns would follow before the bout was stopped in the following round, but the other knockdowns were extensions of the first. And then, three fights later, Waldimir suffered another mortifying defeat, this coming at the hands of Lamon Brewster.

The Brewster fight was a repeat of WK’s match with Ross Puritty, only shorter. Wladimir won the first four rounds on all three scorecards. Brewster barely made it back to his corner at the end of the fourth. But then WK suffered a mysterious meltdown. He was knocked down twice in the fifth, the second coming just as the bell sounded to end the round. Ascertaining that he was in no condition to continue, even with a 60-second respite, referee Robert Byrd waived the fight off.

Wladimir was of the opinion that he had been drugged and, according to one post-fight story, his blood sugar level was discovered to be abnormally high. But when his attorney went to the press and demanded an investigation, important boxing writers, in the main, dismissed it as sour grapes. Where once they had questioned his chin, they now questioned his chin and his heart and his integrity.

Having been upset twice in a span of four fights, WK had a lot of making up to do to win back the affection of his fans and the respect of the media. Seventeen months after his loss to Brewster, with two more fights under his belt, he dispelled any questions about his heart, rallying to defeat Samuel Peter in a match in which he suffered three knockdowns. Wladimir was in distress in round five and again in round 10, but he won the last two rounds and prevailed by three points on all three scorecards.

Peter, a New Jersey-based Nigerian, trained by future Hall of Famer Lou Duva, was undefeated coming in with 22 knockouts among his 24 wins. With the fight being staged at Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall, he was chalked the favorite – the only time that WK was cast in an underdog role by the bookies until the final fight of his career.

The victory set up a rematch with Chris Byrd who now owned the IBF title. The second meeting was a carbon of the first through the first six rounds, but this time Byrd wouldn’t still be standing at the final bell. WK finished him off with a right hook in the seventh.

WK’s second world title reign lasted nine years and seven months. During his tenure he made 18 successful defenses and acquired the other two meaningful belts. He avenged his loss to Brewster (TKO 6), repeated his triumph over Samuel Peter (KO 10), comprehensively out-boxed former unified cruiserweight champion David Haye and, in a match between two former Olympic gold medalists, thoroughly outclassed previously undefeated Alexander Povetkin (that’s Povetkin eating a left hook in the photo).

WK would have pitched a shutout if not for having a point deducted after shoving Povetkin to the canvas. As it was, he won by 15 points on all three cards. The fight, however, was a stinker and there were precedents for it.

Wladimir was too dominant during his title reign. When he won lopsidedly, as was usually the case, it was said that he was too robotic. And the emphasis shifted away from him to his opponent who was seen as just another mediocrity plumbed from the wreckage of a weak division.

Yes, the heavyweight division was inferior relative to the days of Ali and Frazier and the young George Foreman. However, that was the Golden Era of Heavyweights and WK’s opposition stands up fairly well when juxtaposed against the heavyweight class of other eras. Overall, he opposed a more worthy cast of challengers than Joe Louis who was carefully steered away from good black fighters until he was deep into his 13-year title reign.

Klitschko vs. Povetkin was marred by excessive clinching. In hindsight it was precursor of the match that marked the end of WK’s title reign, his November of 2015 contest with Tyson Fury in Dusseldorf. That was an ugly fight, a poor effort by both contestants, although a few pixilated British scribes credited Fury with painting a masterpiece.

There was a rematch clause that to Wladimir’s dismay was never activated. If Tyson Fury had been fit to honor it, perhaps WK would have left the sport on a winning note. But from the standpoint of his legacy, perhaps it was better that his career ended as it did.

His farewell fight with young gun Anthony Joshua was a see-saw thriller contested under a clear sky before a great multitude at London’s venerated Wembley Stadium. And when it was over, folks that previously knocked him were forced to concede that he may have actually been pretty darn good. He was still pretty good, just not good enough to overcome Anthony Joshua but by then he was 41 years old!

If I were to ask you if WK ranked among the greatest heavyweights of all time, you should take that as a rhetorical question. Wladimir Klitschko was special.

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Will U.S. Olympic Boxers Fare Better in Tokyo Thanks to Yesterday’s Ruling?

Arne K. Lang

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The road to the medal round for U.S. boxers at the forthcoming Tokyo Olympics just got easier. But maybe not.

“Russia Banned From The Tokyo Olympics” screamed yesterday’s headline, but reading between the lines there’s more to the story. A more carefully worded headline would have read “Russian Olympic Athletes in Limbo.”

We have been down this road before. WADA, the World Anti-Doping Agency, recommended banning Russia from the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. The agency accused Russian authorities of a massive cover-up that erased hundreds of positive test samples.

WADA then did something of an about-face and decided to evaluate each case individually. Ultimately, 278 Russian athletes were approved to compete in Rio; 111 were denied. All 11 Russian boxers who survived the various qualifying events made the cut.

This new ban (which will be appealed) also emanates from WADA which alleges that the Russian authorities continued the massive cover-up using the “disappearance methodology.” But, if upheld, it’s a more severe penalty in that it bans Russia from major international sporting events for the next four years. That would include the World Cup, the biggest sporting event in the world by far. The next edition of the World Cup is slated for 2022 in Qatar.

“There’s still…the possibility of clean athletes to compete in the Games,” Svetlana Romashina, a five-time Olympic gold medalist in synchronized swimming, told Moscow correspondent Andrew Roth of The Guardian. “I believe the punishment of clean athletes to be unacceptable,” continued Romashina. “We have done nothing wrong.”

The reality, as it now stands, is that Russian boxers and other Russian athletes, if deemed clean, will be able to compete in Tokyo, just not under the Russian banner. As is common in some wrestling tournaments, their affiliation will be “unattached.” And Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is a big fan of amateur boxing and other combat sports, won’t be there. The ban prohibits Russian officials from attending major international sporting events if their team has been expelled.

—–

Historically, the U.S. Olympic Boxing Team has excelled in the Summer Games. But that’s yesterday’s news. In the last three Olympics, U.S. male boxers won only three medals, one silver and two bronze. By contrast, during the same period, Russian boxers walked off with 10 medals including three gold.

The prognosis for the 2020 U.S. team looked dim once again when the U.S. contingent earned only one medal (a silver by lightweight Keyshawn Davis) at the recent AIBA men’s World Championships in Ekaterinburg, Russia. The host team garnered four medals, including three gold. If one conjoined the Russian squad with former Soviet Union satellites Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, the count grows to seven gold medals (of a possible eight) and 15 medals overall.

Russia’s gold medalists at the World Championships were welterweight Andrey Zamkovoy (pictured), middleweight Gleb Bakshi, and heavyweight Muslim Gadzhimagomedov. Zamkovoy and the heavyweight (who will badly need a new name if he ever turns pro) are outstanding amateurs and may have been favored to win their divisions in Tokyo.

Zamkovoy, 32, represented Russia in the 2012 and 2016 Games and medaled in 2012 where he defeated Errol Spence Jr en route to the semi-finals. The heavyweight (a cruiserweight by pro standards) is an ever-improving, 22-year-old, six-foot-four southpaw who has already amassed an amateur record of 60-5.

The competition for the U.S. team at overseas tournaments has gotten a lot tougher in the last two decades as several Eastern European countries have become more like Cuba, investing state resources into their amateur boxing programs with an eye to building a powerhouse. Perhaps the WADA edict will aid the U.S. boxing team in shaking the doldrums in 2020, but that assumption seems premature.

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HITS and MISSES from a Weekend Spearheaded by a Biggie in Saudi Arabia

Kelsey McCarson

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The fate of Anthony Joshua’s future rested on how well he performed against Andy Ruiz on Saturday in Saudi Arabia. Billed as the “Clash on the Dunes”, Ruiz vs. Joshua 2 was the most hotly anticipated rematch of 2019 and one with huge ramifications at stake far beyond the careers of the two principal participants.

Could the fairly new over-the-top streaming service DAZN survive losing three of the four major heavyweight alphabet titles to a rival organization? And might the PBC have been on its way to creating its own branded heavyweight championship if Ruiz could somehow stave off Joshua one more time?

The stakes surrounding Ruiz-Joshua 2 on DAZN really couldn’t have been higher.

Plus, there was bountiful boxing action from other places around the world, including the fourth title defense for rising junior featherweight star Emanuel Navarette on ESPN+ and the continued showcase of newly-crowned WBC middleweight titleholder Jermall Charlo on Showtime.

Here are boxing’s biggest HITS and MISSES from the first weekend in December.

HIT: Anthony Joshua Floats Like a Butterfly in Career-Defining Reclamation Project

They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, so it’s a good thing Anthony Joshua was still just 30 years old heading into his rematch against Andy Ruiz on Saturday in Saudi Arabia. Because Joshua boxed brilliantly over the course of 12 rounds in a way most people believed him to be incapable.

There are two common paths someone can take after suffering as humiliating experience as Joshua did when he was knocked down four times and stopped in seven rounds by Ruiz in June in one of the biggest upsets in boxing history.

Joshua could either have doubled down on his past mistakes, which included training more like a spokesperson and Instagram model than a professional fighter. Or he could rethink his entire approach and take the long way back up the mountain, which entails employing the single-minded approach of focusing all his efforts on reclaiming his heavyweight titles each and every day until the moment he steps back into the ring.

Joshua chose the latter, and it was immediately apparent as soon as he disrobed for the fight. Here appeared a man living the life of a true prizefighter now, and he went on to prove it by dominating al 12 rounds of action against the suddenly inept Ruiz.

MISS: The Predictable Failure of Andy Ruiz

If you needed a reminder about why Top Rank cut ties with the talented but discipline-challenged Ruiz at the end of last year, you saw it in Saudi Arabia. This isn’t to pile on Ruiz over the 15 extra pounds he entered the second contest carrying. In a way, that was sort of expected the moment Ruiz scored the stunning upset the first time around.

People who struggle with something like staying focused on training usually don’t suddenly become better at it unless they’re forced into it.

Humbling failures and huge successes both have a unique ability to bring out the best and worst in people. But failure often provides the opportunity for someone to accept their faults, whereas success leaves room for someone to keep denying the truth about all the things they could probably do better.

Ruiz wasn’t very competitive in the rematch. Part of it was Joshua’s newfound approach of no longer foolishly giving up his eight-inch reach advantage, but the piece that Ruiz could control in future fights would be to train seriously enough to be able to consistently apply pressure for 12 full rounds. He could hardly do it for one round on Saturday, so hopefully, the lesson has now been learned for good.

Ruiz is talented, affable and a very special fighter. It’s time for him to start treating himself that way.

HIT: Critical Heavyweight Contender Matchups on Ruiz-Joshua 2 Undercard

Boxing’s glamour division was featured mightily by promoter Eddie Hearn on the undercard of Ruiz-Joshua 2, and it’s about time a promoter did that. There’s no more important division in boxing than the action that happens above 200 pounds. Moreover, the heavyweight division is as deep and as talented as it’s been in a good 20 years or so.

So why don’t we see more heavyweights in important matchups on big fight cards? That must be what Hearn was wondering when he was putting this card together. That or it was just blind luck on his part.

Whatever the case, Filip Hrgovic appears to have all the tools to be a real contender someday, and he proved it by stopping veteran title challenger Eric Molina in the single biggest win of the 27-year-old from Croatia’s career. Hrgovic needed just three rounds to stop Molina, the same amount of time it took Joshua in 2016 and six rounds faster than Deontay Wilder did it the year prior.

Moreover, both former titleholder Alexander Povetkin and the once-beaten American Michael Hunter showed why they should figure heavily into the future of the stacked division. The 40-year-old Povetkin and 31-year-old Hunter fought to a split draw in a fun, competitive fight that showed why both deserve the chance to fight their way into world title opportunities.

MISS: ESPN’s Low-budget Treatment of Emanuel Navarette vs. Francisco Horta

It wasn’t the most compelling action of the weekend, but how could ESPN expect people to care about WBO featherweight champion Emanuel Navarette’s fourth title defense against Francisco Horta in Mexico on Saturday night if they didn’t even bother to send any of their crew over there to cover the fight?

That’s what I was wondering on Saturday when I saw ESPN’s Bernardo Osuna and Tim Bradley calling the Top Rank on ESPN+ card from the studio. That kind of thing makes sense for lesser cards from the other side of the world sometimes, but it didn’t seem to fit this case. Puebla, the city in Mexico where the card took place, is on this side of the planet and has its own international airport. What gives?

Regardless, Navarette has enjoyed a fantastic 12 months. Over his last five fights, which began when he shockingly upset Isaac Dogboe in December 2018 for the title, Navarette has solidified himself as a must-watch star. That’s a hard thing to do for someone weighing only 122 pounds, and probably even harder to accomplish in today’s world where its common to see four or five full cards airing over different networks every single weekend.

That last bit about all the other options available is why ESPN shouldn’t cheap out on its fight coverage. Either a card is important enough to show us, or it isn’t. This one deserved better coverage.

HIT: Jermall Charlo’s Emphatic Middleweight Title Defense Against Dennis Hogan

If there’s any middleweight right now who deserves a big fight against a notable opponent, it’s Jermall Charlo.

Charlo, younger by one-minute to twin brother Jermell Charlo, is a two-weight world champion who just can’t seem to get another top middleweight in the ring. So, Charlo had to be content on Saturday to dominate and stop former 154-pound world title challenger Dennis Hogan in seven rounds in the main event of the Showtime card in Brooklyn.

Charlo is the reigning WBC middleweight champion thanks to the elevation of Canelo Alvarez to whatever that organization’s “Franchise” championship is supposed to designate. Regardless, the 29-year-old remains undefeated and ready for a bigger opportunity.

One fight that makes a ton of sense is a title unification against WBO titleholder Demetrius Andrade. There’s a PR narrative pushed by Andrade’s handlers that suggests their fighter has never been able to snag a big fight against a top name because he’s so dangerous and avoided.

Of course, that isn’t the entire story. After all, Andrade was set to face Jermell Charlo in December 2014 before dropping out less than a month away from the scheduled bout after finding out how much more money Charlo was making.

Now it seems Andrade would be a good fit for the other Charlo, and everyone should hope a fight like that gets made for both fighters. That’s especially true for Charlo, who hasn’t yet been afforded a chance to prove how good he can be since stopping current unified junior middleweight champion Julian Williams back in December 2016.

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Three Punch Combo: Breakout Fighters, Crawford-Kavaliauskas and More

Matt Andrzejewski

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Three Punch Combo: Breakout Fighters, Crawford-Kavaliauskas and More

THREE PUNCH COMBO — Back in January, I wrote about three potential breakout candidates for 2019. In no particular order, those fighters were Shohjahon Ergashev, Shavkatdzhon Rakhimov and Ruben Villa. Here is a quick look at what each accomplished in 2019 as well as a look ahead for each man.

Shohjahon Ergashev

Ergashev, who will soon turn 28, competes in the 140-pound division. The former Uzbekistan amateur star won both his fights in 2019 to move his record to 17-0 with 15 knockouts.

In February, Ergashev faced off against then unbeaten Mykal Fox in a nationally televised 10-round bout on Showtime. Fox, who stands over 6’3” tall and fights from the southpaw stance, posed some issues for Ergashev with his awkward style and massive height advantage. But Ergashev (pictured) found a way to scrape out a unanimous decision even if the performance was not up to par by his standards.

Some in the industry began to jump off the Ergashev hype train following this performance, but that effort looks better now than it did in February because Fox, in his next outing, pulled a major upset, scoring a 10-round unanimous decision against then unbeaten Fazliddin Gaibnazarov. Gaibnazarov, a 2016 Olympic Gold Medalist who defeated unified 140-pound champion Jose Ramirez as an amateur, was a well-hyped prospect in his own right.

In August, Ergashev bounced back from the less-than-stellar performance against Fox with an impressive knockout over Abdiel Ramirez.

Looking ahead to 2020, Ergashev has a date in early January against 11-0 Keith Hunter in a bout that will be televised on Showtime. The winner of that fight will become mandatory challenger for the 140-pound title currently held by Mario Barrios.

Shavkatdzhon Rakhimov

Tajikstan’s Rakhimov, 25, competes in the 130-pound division. In 2019 he fought twice, winning both by KO. That moved his record to 15-0 with 12 knockouts.

It was an eventful year. After a tune-up win in March, he traveled to South Africa to face 14-0 Azinga Fuzile in his backyard in an IBF eliminator fight to become Tevin Farmer’s mandatory challenger.

After being thoroughly out-boxed for seven rounds, Rakhimov rallied in round eight to score a dramatic knockout. But there was controversy. Video evidence shows Rakhimov’s trainer administering some sort of product under Rakhimov’s nostrils between rounds. Any use of a stimulant would, of course, be impermissible. Rakhimov’s team have countered with their own suggestions of improprieties by Fuzile’s promoter and the commission that governed the event.

As of this writing, there is no indication the above matter has been resolved. I would not be surprised to see the IBF order a rematch.

Ruben Villa

Villa, 22, competes in the featherweight division. He went 3-0 in 2019 winning all three of those fights by unanimous decision to move his record to 17-0 with 5 knockouts.

It was a progression year for Villa. He took a noticeable step up in class with the three opponents he faced having a combined record of 44-1.  But even with the jump up in class, Villa continued to dominate and he seems poised to make an even more sizable leap in 2020.

Looking ahead, expect to see Villa in with a top ranked contender at some point in the coming year. He has jumped to number “5” in the WBO rankings at featherweight and just below him at “6” is former world title challenger Miguel Marriaga. That would be just the type of opponent for Villa in 2020.

Down the road, keep in mind Villa has a pair of amateur wins over Shakur Stevenson. It seems inevitable that they will meet again one day in the pro ranks.

Don’t Sleep on Kavaliauskas

On Saturday, Terence Crawford (35-0, 26 KO’s) defends his WBO welterweight title against Egidijus Kavaliauskas (21-0-1, 17 KO’s) on ESPN. While most in boxing have already penciled in a win for Crawford, I would caution against jumping to that conclusion.

Admittedly, I have been high on Kavaliauskas for quite some time. This is someone with a deep amateur pedigree having represented his native Lithuania in both the 2008 and 2012 Summer Olympics. While his amateur background is what first made me look into him when he turned professional in 2013, it was the raw power that he showed in those early years as a pro that turned my head. The power coupled with the skill learned from his amateur days made me believe that he was destined for greatness.

True, some of his recent performances have not been all that stellar. But digging a little further, he was matched against some opponents that have a history of making their opposition look bad.

Take, for example, Kavaliauskas’ last fight against Ray Robinson. Many years ago, 2010 to be exact, Robinson, a defensive slickster, made Shawn Porter look ordinary. And two months after the Kavaliauskas fight, Robinson gave heralded prospect Josh Kelly all he could handle in a fight that ended in a majority draw.

I believe that Kavaliauskas learned a lot from the Robinson fight and will incorporate some subtle changes to his game in light of that experience. In particular, I believe he will cut the ring off much better against Crawford than he did against Robinson.

Something else to keep in mind. Kavaliauskas is a big strong welterweight with one punch power in both fists. He has fought his entire pro career at welterweight. Crawford is the naturally smaller man having started his career at lightweight.

This is perhaps the most dangerous fight for Crawford since he turned pro. Kavaliauskas should not be underestimated.

Under The Radar Fight

The Crawford-Kavaliauskas card is absolutely loaded with quality fights that may get overlooked. One in particular, a battle between unbeaten super middleweights Steve Nelson (15-0, 12 KO’s) and Cem Kilic (14-0, 9 KOs) should not be missed. ESPN+ will live stream this bout and several of the other undercard fights.

Nelson, 31, is a stablemate of Crawford’s and may be known more for his elaborate ring entrances than anything else. But aside from putting on a show entering the ring, he has proven to be a very capable fighter. He would best be described as an aggressive boxer-puncher who possesses an excellent stiff left jab and heavy handed power. Nelson is not the most athletic fighter but possesses excellent timing inside the ring.

Kilic, 25, had a solid amateur background but has been moved relatively slowly as a pro. Like Nelson, Kilic is an aggressive boxer puncher. His left jab may not have the ferocity of Nelson’s, but he has the quicker hands and is probably the sharper puncher of the two. Kilic likes to work his right behind the jab and that is a punch that Nelson has shown some susceptibilities to in the past.

This is a very difficult fight to handicap. Both are skilled fighters with similar styles with Nelson being the stronger of the two but Kilic the quicker. Neither man moves his head all that much and that should lead to a lot of eye-popping exchanges.

This is a fight that is going to be competitive with each finding plenty of opportunities to land on the other. Don’t miss it.

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