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Three Hot Prospects Poised for a Breakout Year in 2019

Matt Andrzejewski

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2019 hot prospects

THREE PUNCH COMBO — Last year Devin Haney and Teofimo Lopez had breakout performances that opened the eyes of many in the sport. They went from being considered promising prospects to potential superstars.

So which prospects in 2019 could have the breakout type years that Haney and Lopez enjoyed in 2018? Here are three names to keep an eye on.

Shohjahon Ergashev

Ergashev (pictured) is a 27-year-old, 140-pound prospect who currently holds a record of 15-0 with 14 knockouts. Sometimes glossy records are not what they seem, but that does not appear to be the case for Ergashev.

Ergashev hails from Uzbekistan and is a former member of the Uzbekistan national team having reportedly racked up over 200 wins as an amateur. He was also a four time Uzbekistan National Champion and holds an amateur win against 2016 Olympic silver medalist Shakhram Giyasov.

After Ergashev won his first six professional fights, all by knockout and all in Russia, he signed with Salita Promotions with the plan of eventually coming to the United States. Ergashev made his US debut three fights later with a second round stoppage of journeyman Marquis Hawthorne on the Jacobs-Arias undercard in New York. But it was Ergashev’s next fight on January of 2018 that opened plenty of eyes.

Ergashev was matched against Sonny Frederickson on a ShoBox card at the Turning Stone Resort & Casino in Verona, NY. Fredrickson entered the ring with an undefeated record of 18-0 and was himself considered a solid prospect. Most ring prognosticators considered this to be a 50/50 fight. However, Ergashev dazzled that night, putting on a display showcasing both his exceptional boxing skills and punching power in stopping Fredrickson in the third round.

Ergashev would continue to be active in 2018 winning four more times with three of those wins coming by knockout. But many of these fights were not televised so he has been flying a bit under the radar.

An aggressive southpaw by nature with very fast hands, Ergashev possesses legitimate one-punch knockout power in both fists. His footwork is exceptional and he is a master of using his feet to set up angles to land pinpoint power shots on his opponents. His potential is off the charts and 2019 may be the year where Ergashev’s career heads to that next stratosphere.

Shavkatdzhon Rakhimov

Continuing with the theme of power punching aggressive southpaws from Eastern Europe, there is Shavkatdzhon Rakhimov who currently holds a record of 13-0 with 10 knockouts. Fighting out of Russia, Rakhimov fights in the 130-pound division and is coming off a strong 2018 that has him positioned to make a big move in 2019.

Rakhimov was a decorated amateur in his native Tajikistan and turned pro December of 2015.  He has fought strictly in Russia since turning pro and has not received the fanfare of many other top prospects. At age 24, he has been on somewhat of a fast track and has been getting better and better each time he has set foot in the ring.

After starting his career 11-0, Rakhimov took a leap up in class in his 12th pro fight when he faced Malcolm Klassen. A former IBF world super featherweight champion, Klassen came into the contest having won six of his last seven fights with the only loss coming by close decision to undefeated prospect Mikhail Alexeev. In what was supposed to be a test, Rakhimov dominated Klassen from the opening bell, putting the former champion down twice before stopping him in the eighth round.

Next time out, Rakhimov took an even bigger step up in class in facing former world title challenger Robinson Castellanos. Many considered this fight to be a toss-up. And it certainly appeared to be so on paper with Castellanos considered by many to still be a top 130-pound contender having come off a close technical decision loss to then undefeated 130 pound champion Jezreel Corrales. But Rakhimov absolutely destroyed Castellanos, putting him down four times before the bout was waived off in round two.

As stated, Rakhimov is an aggressive power punching southpaw. He likes to press forward working behind a stiff right jab and look to set up angles using some subtle advanced footwork to set up his power shots. Rakhimov is a committed body puncher and looks to bring his opposition’s hands down to set up openings upstairs. And the power is real in both hands. Defensively, he once had some issues but has considerably tightened things up of late. Showing a lot of improvement in 2018 with still more upside in his game, Rakhimov is a name to watch and one that may break into that next level in 2019.

Ruben Villa

While Ergashev and Rakhimov are aggressive power punchers, 15-0 featherweight prospect Ruben Villa is the opposite. A skilled technician, Villa, another southpaw, already is off to a strong start in 2019 and bigger things may soon be on the horizon.

As an amateur, Villa, 21, racked up over 150 wins as well as a pair of National Golden Gloves championships. Of note, as an amateur he scored two wins over 2016 U.S. Olympic silver medalist Shakur Stevenson.

Signed to a co-promotional deal with Banner Promotions and Thompson Boxing, Villa has been very active since turning pro in July of 2016. After finishing the second half of 2016 with three fights, Villa fought six times in 2017 and five more times in 2018.

Villa already has one fight in the books in 2019 with a dominant eight round decision win against Ruben Cervera. Cervera entered the contest with a 10-0 record with nine of those wins coming by knockout and many thought he posed a threat to Villa. But Villa handled the step up in class brilliantly, showcasing his superior boxing technique in what was his U.S. television debut (the bout was broadcast on Showtime’s ShoBox series).

Villa may not be a “sexy” pick to be a breakout star due to his slick southpaw style as well as lack of punching power but his skillset is impressive. I don’t make comparisons often but what I do see in Villa is a cross between Guillermo Rigondeaux and Paul Spadafora.

Like Rigondeaux, Villa is hard to hit clean. Also like Rigondeaux, Villa can be patient and wait for his opportunities. He is quick to pick up on his opponents weaknesses and patiently waits for moments to exploit those weaknesses while not putting himself in danger of being countered.

But like Spadafora and unlike Rigondeaux, Villa will have his moments where he becomes more aggressive. He will stand in front of his opponents baiting them to throw first. When they do, Villa is slick enough to generally avoid being hit clean in the pocket and then quickly unloads with precision combinations. It’s a risky tactic that not many in the sport have perfected but Villa has shown an ability to pull it off with his athleticism, hand speed and defensive prowess.

Villa is probably not going to score highlight reel knockouts but he can dazzle with his boxing ability. Only 21, there is still plenty of room to grow and as 2019 progresses I suspect we see a few more performances from Villa like the one that opened the year.

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Jan. 29, 1994: A Stunning Upset Animates the Debut of Boxing at the MGM Grand

Arne K. Lang

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Twenty-six years have elapsed since the first boxing card at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas. The inaugural show took place on Jan. 29, 1994, the eve of Super Bowl XXVII.

A little background: The MGM Grand opened on Dec. 17, 1993. With its 5,005 rooms, it was the largest hotel in the world. The MGM Grand Garden arena, effectively the municipal auditorium of the self-styled “City of Entertainment,” was christened on New Years Eve with a concert by Barbara Streisand. Twenty-nine days later, the bill of fare was an 11-fight boxing card promoted by Don King.

Looking back, seven of the participants – boxers Julio Cesar Chavez, Felix Trinidad, Hector Camacho, Thomas Hearns, and Christy Martin and referees Richard Steele and Joe Cortez – would go on to the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

Hearns, who was nearing the end of his career, having grown into a cruiserweight, was matched soft, as was Christy Martin who was making her Las Vegas debut and was then looked upon as a sideshow novelty act. Two other notables, heavyweight Razor Ruddock and welterweight Meldrick Taylor, were likewise deployed in stay-busy fights. The undercards of Don King’s major promotions typically took this tack – big names in little fights.

Topping the bill were three world title fights. WBC 154-pound title-holder Simon Brown opposed Troy Waters. Trinidad defended his IBF welterweight title against Camacho. And in the grand finale, the great Chavez, who held a junior welterweight title, was matched against Frankie Randall.

Simon Brown had a more difficult time than expected against Troy Waters, a teak-tough Australian, but prevailed on a majority decision. Trinidad, at age 21 the younger man by 10 years, chased Camacho all over the ring en route to winning a unanimous decision. And Chavez….

The MGM Grand Garden was scaled to hold 15,200, but there were a lot of empty seats; the announced attendance was 12,777. One would have expected a sellout as Las Vegas is chock-full of revelers on a Super Bowl weekend, but there was an extenuating circumstance.

Twelve days before the fight, at 4:30 am on Jan. 17, Southern California was struck by an earthquake. Centered in the San Fernando Valley, about 20 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles, the Northridge Earthquake damaged buildings as far as 85 miles away. It buckled portions of some heavily-traveled freeways, forcing their closure and repairs were hindered by a scattered series of aftershocks that lasted the better part of two weeks.

Visitors from Southern California are the backbone of the Las Vegas tourism industry. Most arrive by car. The earthquake had the effect of reducing hotel occupancy as many Southern Californians cancelled their reservations and that assuredly spilled over into the fight, hurting attendance. But those that were there witnessed a memorable main event.

Frankie Randall, nicknamed the Surgeon, hailed from Morristown, Tennessee. He had an excellent record (48-2-1, 39 KOs), but Julio Cesar Chavez, who owned the most eye-catching record in boxing (officially 89-0-1), was so highly regarded that he was listed as a 17/1 favorite in the MGM sports book.

Randall started strong, an indication that he would be a hard nut to crack. But the middle rounds belonged to Chavez with his patented body attack. In round seven, one of those body punches strayed too low and Richard Steele deducted a point.

In round 11, Steele deducted another point for the same infraction and, worse for Chavez, he was knocked down for the first time in his career. It was a straight right hand that did the damage, a clean punch, and although Chavez was up at the count of “three,” it was a 10-8 round for Randall.

During the early rounds, shouts of “May-hee-co, May-hee-co” reverberated through the arena. Late in the fight, when one could sense that an upset was brewing, shouts of “USA, USA” punctuated the din.

The 11th round proved decisive. When the scores were read, the Mexican judge favored Chavez 114-113, but he was overruled by the Puerto Rican judge (114-113) and the Las Vegas judge (116-111). If not for those two points deducted by referee Richard Steele – the same referee who had controversially stopped Chavez’s fight with Meldrick Taylor with one second remaining on the clock in the final round – Julio Cesar Chavez would have retained his title — and his undefeated record — on a split decision.

Chavez did not take losing very well. He bellyached that he was robbed, an opinion that found few sympathizers. A fast rematch was arranged which took place at the MGM Grand on Cinco de Mayo weekend. In this fight, an accidental clash of heads late in round eight left Chavez with a bad gash on his forehead and the fight was stopped. By rule, it went to the scorecards where Chavez emerged the winner by split decision, a very controversial denouement (and a story for another day). There would be a rubber match in Mexico City when both gladiators were in their 40’s, a dull 10-round affair scored in favor of Chavez.

By the way, on the day following the debut of boxing at the MGM Grand, the Dallas Cowboys defeated the Buffalo Bills 30-13 at Atlanta. As Super Bowls go, this one didn’t attract all that much buzz. The same teams had met in the Super Bowl the previous year and Dallas had won by “35.”

By all indications, the forthcoming Super Bowl will be a doozy. Enjoy the game.

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Introducing Top Prospect Raeese Aleem, the Pride of Muskegon

Arne K. Lang

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At age 29, Raeese Aleem has yet to appear in a 10-round fight, but that will almost assuredly happen this year. The undefeated (15-0, 9 KOs) super bantamweight from Muskegon, Michigan, takes another step in that direction on Friday, Feb. 14, when he opposes San Antonio’s Adam Lopez (16-3-2) at Philadelphia in a bout that will air on “ShoBox,” the long-running SHOWTIME series that’s been a springboard for 81 fighters who went on to win world titles.

Aleem earned a black belt in karate before taking up boxing and becoming a four-time Michigan Golden Gloves champion. As an amateur, he and his coach Terry Markowski did a considerable amount of traveling between meets to find good sparring. Grand Rapids, an amateur boxing hotbed, was just down the road, but Detroit and Chicago were a good three hours away and on occasion they went on an even longer excursion into Ohio.

Aleem turned pro in 2011 and had his first 10 fights on the Midwest circuit, venturing as far north as Green Bay and as far south as Cincinnati. At the time, he worked in the produce department of Meijer’s, a regional rival of Walmart. His bosses, he notes, were generous in letting him juggle his work schedule around his boxing assignments.

For a boxer with designs on winning a world title, the Midwest circuit is like a bicycle with training wheels. Aleem had to shake free of it to see how far he could go. Besides, getting fights was getting tougher and tougher. There’s a 28-month gap in his pro timeline that includes all of 2013. He had several fights fall out during this frustrating quiescence.

If you’re an aspiring film actor, you go to Hollywood. If you’re an aspiring boxing champion, you go to Las Vegas. Not a week goes by without a young fellow turning up here to test his mettle in one of the many local gyms with the hope of attracting the eye of one of the major promotional firms.

“When I came to Las Vegas,” says Aleem who has a daughter back in Michigan, “I had no family here, no friends.” He was directed to Barry’s boxing gym, run by ex-boxer Pat Barry and his wife Dawn, retired Las Vegas police officers, and started training under their son-in-law Augie Sanchez. But Sanchez, the last man to defeat Floyd Mayweather Jr (accomplished when they were amateurs), had other priorities. He is an assistant coach with Team USA which obligates him to spend a good deal of his time at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.

Things started looking up for Aleem when he joined the Prince Ranch stable under the management of Greg Hannley. At the Prince Ranch Gym, where the head trainer is Bones Adams, he has sparred with such notables as Nonito Donaire and former WBO 122-pound champion Jessie Magdaleno.

Aleem doesn’t miss the weather in Muskegon, a lakefront city where sub-freezing temperatures are the norm in the dead of winter and snow is forecast for all of next week. But he still has one foot in his hometown, as evident by his unbroken bond with Terry Markowski. In an era when some boxers appear to change trainers as often as they change their underwear, Aleem has remained loyal to Markowski who has been in his corner for all of his pro fights and will be there again on Feb. 14.

Markowski, who teaches boxing at the Muskegon Rec Center, is a protégé of Muskegon’s most esteemed boxer, the late Kenny Lane. The epitome of a crafty southpaw, Lane, a lightweight and junior welterweight, was a three-time world title challenger during a 100-fight career that began in 1953.

The relationship between Raeese Aleem and Terry Markowski dates back to 2003 when Aleem resided in the nearby village of Ravenna, where Aleem’s father, the patriarch of a large blended family, planted Raeese and his siblings to get them away from the temptations of Muskegon which has several blighted areas. “It was a culture shock for me when I started going to school in Ravenna,” says Aleem, looking back, as none of his schoolmates looked like him.

This will be Aleem’s fifth fight in Pennsylvania where he has made four of his last five starts. The connecting thread is Reading, Pennsylvania gym operator-turned-promoter Marshall Kauffman who has been credited with keeping boxing vibrant in the Keystone State.

This being Aleem’s national television debut, it’s important that he make a good showing. His Las Vegas trainer Bones Adams, a former world champion in Aleem’s weight division, expects nothing less. “I’m confident he will be a world champion someday,” says Adams.

Photo credit: Mario Serrano / Prince Ranch Boxing

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A Bouquet for Danny Garcia in This Week’s Edition of HITS and MISSES

Kelsey McCarson

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Two-division champion Danny Garcia had the spotlight all to himself over the weekend in a stay-busy fight against Ivan Redkach on Saturday night at Barclays Center in Brooklyn. It was the main event of a Showtime Championship Boxing tripleheader that had the odd privilege these days of not being counterprogrammed by a Top Rank show on ESPN or any other kind of boxing card on DAZN.

So Garcia, 31, from Philadelphia, had the chance to remind people how excellent a fighter he is in full force, which would help him greatly in his effort to secure an unlikely bout against WBA champ Manny Pacquiao or remain first in line to face WBC and IBF champ Errol Spence whenever the Texan recovers from the injuries he sustained in a car accident in October.

But did Garcia pull it off? Here’s the latest edition of HITS and MISSES.

HIT – Danny Garcia’s Pristine and Precise Technique 

The best parts about Garcia were on full display against Redkach. That was made easier by Redkach’s lack of anything that might have given Garcia any real problems, but nonetheless Garcia was able to show the lovely footwork and balanced countering ability that made him so formidable at junior welterweight. There’s just something special about seeing Garcia fight. The economy of his movement inside a boxing ring is something that is just plain different than just about any other world-class fighter in the world today. In a fight that most people probably would have preferred he just skipped, and one that didn’t turn out to be any different than everyone expected, at least Garcia’s beautiful boxing was on display.

MISS – Showtime Sparring Sessions

In addition to Garcia-Redkach, Showtime rounded out its tripleheader with undefeated junior featherweight Stephen Fulton taking on former Muay Thai fighter Arnold Khegai and former unified junior middleweight champion Jarrett Hurd taking on career welterweight Francisco Santana. While Fulton’s fight against Khegai seemed like a legitimate prizefight, there was something about the other two bouts that screamed sparring sessions. That was especially the case for Hurd’s bout. Not only was Hurd in there with a middling welterweight, but he also used the rounds of the fight to work on vastly different boxing techniques than what made him so popular in the first place. Showtime might not have the pull they once had with the people over at the PBC offices, but they for sure need to get more involved in vetting matchups if they hope to remain afloat within the competitive boxing landscape of today.

HIT – Stephon Fulton’s Title Chances at 122 Pounds

Fulton is a very solid boxer who digs to the body and has a fast, clean jab. Khegai was the perfect kind of opponent for the 25-year-old. He was very game and never stopped trying to win. Additionally, his background in Muay Thai offered some different looks to Fulton that should help him on his way toward world title contention. In the end, Fulton outworked Khegai to hand the tough 27-year-old the first loss of his career. Now let’s hope Fulton is off to bigger and better things such as challenging for a world title. He’s ready right now.

MISS – Andy Ruiz’s Continued Soap Opera

The best thing former unified champion Andy Ruiz could have done after blowing the rematch against Anthony Joshua in December is getting right back to work in the gym. What better way to show trainer Manny Robles that he was taking responsibility for his actions than to get right back to work with the same team he had just let down so badly? Instead, Ruiz fired Robles and is considering other trainers. That would make more sense if there had been some sort of tactical error in the fight. But Ruiz already admitted he simply didn’t train for arguably the biggest fight of his life, and that’s not anyone’s fault but his own.

HIT – Former Middleweight Titleholder Andy Lee’s Second Act

It appears former WBO middleweight champion Andy Lee found his second act in life as a trainer, which makes a ton of sense if you followed Lee’s career under the tutelage of the late Emanuel Steward. Lee, 39, left Ireland after his amateur days to live with Steward in Detroit and train at Kronk. The two had a very close personal relationship and that experience ultimately helped Lee win the world title in 2014 two years after Steward’s passing. Now, Lee is passing on what he knows in the same way Steward did with him to other fighters. He trains and manages Irish upstart Paddy Donovan, is guiding Jason Quigley back to contention and even helped orchestrate distant cousin Tyson Fury bringing on Javan “SugarHill” Steward for the heavyweight’s upcoming rematch against Deontay Wilder.

Photo credit: Amanda Westcott

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