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Three Hot Prospects Poised for a Breakout Year in 2019

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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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Anderson Cruises by Vapid Merhy and Ajagba edges Vianello in Texas

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Jared Anderson returned to the ring tonight on a Top Rank card in Corpus Christi, Texas. Touted as the next big thing in the heavyweight division, Anderson (17-0, 15 KOs) hardly broke a sweat while cruising past Ryad Merhy in a bout with very little action, much to the disgruntlement of the crowd which started booing as early as the second round. The fault was all Merhy as he was reluctant to let his hands go. Somehow, he won a round on the scorecard of judge David Sutherland who likely fell asleep for a round for which he could be forgiven.

Merhy, born in the Ivory Coast but a resident of Brussels, Belgium, was 32-2 (26 KOs) heading in after fighting most of his career as a cruiserweight. He gave up six inches in height to Anderson who was content to peck away when it became obvious to him that little would be coming back his way.

Anderson may face a more daunting adversary on Monday when he has a court date in Romulus, Michigan, to answer charges related to an incident in February where he drove his Dodge Challenger at a high rate speed, baiting the police into a merry chase. (Weirdly, Anderson entered the ring tonight wearing the sort of helmet that one associates with a race car driver.)

Co-Feature

In the co-feature, a battle between six-foot-six former Olympians, Italy’s Guido Vianello started and finished strong, but Efe Ajagba had the best of it in the middle rounds and prevailed on a split decision. Two of the judges favored Ajagba by 96-94 scores with the dissenter favoring the Italian from Rome by the same margin.

Vianello had the best round of the fight. He staggered Ajagba with a combination in round two. At the end of the round, a befuddled Ajagba returned to the wrong corner and it appeared that an upset was brewing. But the Nigerian, who trains in Las Vegas under Kay Koroma, got back into the fight with a more varied offensive attack and better head movement. In winning, he improved his ledger to 20-1 (14). Vianello, who sparred extensively with Daniel Dubois in London in preparation for this fight, declined to 12-2-1 in what was likely his final outing under the Top Rank banner.

Other Bouts of Note

In the opening bout on the main ESPN platform, 35-year-old super featherweight Robson Conceicao, a gold medalist for Brazil in the 2016 Rio Olympics, stepped down in class after fighting Emanuel Navarrete tooth-and-nail to a draw in his previous bout and scored a seventh-round stoppage of Jose Ivan Guardado who was a cooked goose after slumping to the canvas after taking a wicked shot to the liver. Guardado made it to his feet, but the end was imminent and the referee waived it off at the 2:27 mark.

Conceicao improved to 18-1 (9 KOs). It was the U.S. debut for Guardado (15-2-1), a boxer from Ensenada, Mexico who had done most of his fighting up the road in Tijuana.

Ruben Villa, the pride of Salinas, California, improved to 22-1 (7) and moved one step closer to a match with WBC featherweight champion Rey Vargas with a unanimous 10-round decision over Tijuana’s Cristian Cruz (22-7-1). The judges had it 97-93 and 98-92 twice.

Cruz, the son of former IBF world featherweight title-holder Cristobal Cruz, was better than his record. He entered the bout on a 21-1-1 run after losing five of his first seven pro fights.

Cleveland southpaw Abdullah Mason, who turned 20 earlier this month, continued his fast ascent up the lightweight ladder with a fourth-round stoppage of Ronal Ron.

Mason (13-0, 11 KOs) put Ron on the canvas in the opening round with a short left hook. He scored a second knockdown with a shot to the liver. A flurry of punches, a diverse array, forced the stoppage at the 1:02 mark of round four. A 25-year-old SoCal-based Venezuelan, the spunky but out-gunned Ron declined to 14-6.

Charly Suarez, a 35-year-old former Olympian from the Philippines, ranked #5 at junior lightweight by the IBF, advanced to 17-0 (9) with a unanimous 8-round decision over SoCal’s Louie Coria (5-7).

This was a tactical fight. In the final round, Coria, subbing for 19-0 Henry Lebron, caught the Filipino off-balance and knocked him into the ropes which held him up. It was scored a knockdown, but came too little, too late for Coria who lost by scores of 76-75 and 77-74 twice.

Suarez, whose signature win was a 12th-round stoppage of the previously undefeated Aussie Paul Fleming in Sydney, may be headed to a rematch with Robson Conceicao. They fought as amateurs in 2016 in Kazakhstan and Suarez lost a narrow 6-round decision.

Photo credit: Mikey Willams / Top Rank via Getty Images

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Ellie Scotney and Rhiannon Dixon Win World Title Fights in Manchester

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England’s Ellie Scotney started slowly against the long reach of France’s Segolene Lefebvre but used rough tactics and a full-steam ahead approach to unify the super bantamweight division by unanimous decision on Saturday.

“There’s a lot more I didn’t show,” said an excited Scotney (pictured on the left).

IBF titlist Scotney (9-0) added the WBO title by nullifying Lefebvre’s (18-1) reach and dominating the inside with a two-fisted attack in front of an excited crowd in Manchester, England.

For the first two rounds Lefebvre used her long reach and smooth fluid attack to keep Scotney at the end of her punches. Then the fight turned when the British fighter bulled her way inside with body shots and forced the French fighter into the ropes.

Aggressiveness by Scotney turned the fight in her favor. But Lefebvre remained active and countered with overhand rights throughout the match.

Body shots by Scotney continued to pummel the French champion’s abdomen but she remained steadfast in her counter-attacks. Combinations landed for Lefebvre and a counter overhand right scored to keep her in the contest in the fifth round.

Scotney increased the intensity of her attack in the sixth and seventh rounds. In perhaps her best round Scotney was almost perfect in scoring while not getting hit with anything from the French fighter.

Maybe the success of the previous round caused Scotney to pause. It allowed Lefebvre to rally behind some solid shots in a slow round and gave the French fighter an opening. Maybe.

The British fighter opened up more savagely after taking two Lefevbre rights to open the ninth. Scotney attacked with bruising more emphatic blows despite getting hit. Though both fired blows Scotney’s were more powerful.

Both champions opened-up the 10th and final round with punches flying. Once again Scotney’s blows had more power behind them though the French fighter scored too, and though her face looked less bruised than Scotney’s the pure force of Scotney’s attacks was more impressive.

All three judges saw Scotney the winner 97-93, 96-94 and a ridiculous 99-91. The London-based fighter now has the IBF and WBO super bantamweight titles.

Promoter Eddie Hearn said a possible showdown with WBC titlist Erika Cruz looms large possibly in the summer.

“Great performance. Great punch output,” said Hearn of Scotney’s performance.

Dixon Wins WBO Title

British southpaw Rhiannon Dixon (10-0) out-fought Argentina’s Karen Carabajal (22-2) over 10 rounds and won a very competitive unanimous decision to win the vacant WBO lightweight title. It was one of the titles vacated by Katie Taylor who is now the undisputed super lightweight world champion.

An aggressive Dixon dominated the first three rounds including a knockdown in the third round with a perfect left-hand counter that dropped Carabajal. The Argentine got up and rallied in the round.

Carabajal, whose only loss was against Katie Taylor, slowly began figuring out Dixon’s attacks and each round got more competitive. The Argentine fighter used counter rights to find a hole in Dixon’s defense to probably win the round in the sixth.

The final three rounds saw both fighters engage evenly with Carabajal scoring on counters and Dixon attacking the body successfully.

After 10 rounds all three judges saw it in Dixon’s favor 98-91, 97-92, 96-93 who now wields the WBO lightweight world title.

“It’s difficult to find words,” said Dixon after winning the title.

Hometown Fighter Wins

Manchester’s Zelfa Barrett (31-2, 17 KOs) battled back and forth with Jordan Gill (28-3-1, 9 KO-s) and finally ended the super featherweight fight with two knockdowns via lefts to the body in the 10th round of a scheduled 12-round match for a regional title.

The smooth moving Barrett found the busier Gill more complex than expected and for the first nine rounds was fighting a 50/50 fight against the fellow British fighter from the small town of Chatteris north of London.

In the 10th round after multiple shots on the body of Gill, a left hook to the ribs collapsed the Chatteris fighter to the floor. He willed himself up and soon after was floored again but this time by a left to the solar plexus. Again he continued but was belted around until the referee stopped the onslaught by Barrett at 2:44 of the 10th.

“A tough, tough fighter,” said Barrett about Gill. “I had to work hard.”

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O.J. Simpson the Boxer: A Heartwarming Tale for the Whole Family

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O.J. Simpson passed away on Wednesday, April 10, at age 76 in Las Vegas where he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. For millions of Americans, news of his passing unloosed a flood of memories.

The O.J. Simpson double murder trial lasted 37 weeks. CNN and two other fledgling cable networks provided gavel-to-gavel coverage. On Oct. 3, 1995, the day that the jury rendered its verdict, CBS, NBC, ABC, and ESPN suspended regular programming to cover the trial. Worldwide, more than 100 million people were reportedly glued to their TV or radio.

O.J.’s life can be neatly compartmentalized into two halves. The dividing line is June 12, 1994. On that date, Simpson’s estranged wife, the former Nicole Brown, and her friend Ronald Goldman were found stabbed to death in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Brentwood at the home that Nicole shared with their two children.

Before then, O.J. was famous. After then, he was infamous.

Simpson first came to the fore on the gridiron. In 1968, his final season at the University of Southern California, he was so dynamic that he won the Heisman Trophy in a landslide, out-distancing Purdue’s Leroy Keyes by 1,750 votes. This was the widest margin to that point between a Heisman winner and runner-up and a milestone that stood for 51 years until surpassed by LSU quarterback Joe Burrows in 2019.

In the NFL, among his many achievements, he became the first and only NFL running back to eclipse 2,000 rushing yards in a 14-game season, a record that will never be broken.

But one can’t appreciate the depth of O.J.s celebrityhood by citing statistics. He transcended his sport like few athletes before or since. Owing in large part to his commercials for the Hertz rental car chain, he became one of America’s most recognizable people.

O.J. Simpson was raised by a single mother in a government housing project in the gritty Potrero Hill neighborhood of San Francisco. Unlike many of his boyhood peers, he was never quick to raise his fists. Weirdly, he once said that running away from fights proved useful to him when he took up football. It helped his stamina.

Although he never boxed in real life, O.J. portrayed a boxer in a made-for-TV movie. Titled “Goldie and the Boxer,” it aired on NBC on Sunday, Dec. 29, 1979, two weeks after O.J. played in his last NFL game. Co-produced by Simpson’s own production company, it starred O.J. opposite precocious Melissa Michaelson who played the 10-year-old Goldie.

In promos, the movie was tagged as a heartwarming tale for kids and their parents. Associated Press writer John Egan described it as “a cross between the Shirley Temple classic ‘Little Miss Marker’ and a low-budget ‘Rocky.’”

Here’s a synopsis, compliments of New York Times TV critic John J. O’Connor:

“The year is 1946, and Joe Gallagher is returning to Louisiana as an army veteran. He is quickly ripped off by a succession of thugs and finds himself broke and battered in Pennsylvania where he is befriended by a young Goldie. Her father is a boxer and Joe joins the training camp as a sparring partner. When the father dies, Joe takes his place on the fight circuit and Goldie becomes his manager…”

The consensus of the pundits was that O.J. the actor was very much a work in progress, but that he had great potential. And the movie, despite its hokey plot, attracted so many viewers that NBC wanted to turn it into a series.

O.J. had too much on his plate to commit to doing a regular series. Among other things, he had signed on to become part of NBC’s main stable of reporters at the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, a gig that evaporated when the U.S. under President Jimmy Carter joined 64 other nations in boycotting the Games as a protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. However, the movie did spawn a sequel, “Goldie and the Boxer Go To Hollywood,” with Simpson and Michaelson reprising their roles.

I never met O.J. Simpson, but have a vivid memory of finding myself walking behind him into the outdoor boxing arena at Caesars Palace. If memory serves, this was the Hagler-Hearns fight of 1985, in which case the lady on his arm would have been Nicole as they were married earlier that year. She was quite a dish in that tight-fitting pantsuit and I remember thinking to myself, “of all the trophies this dude has won, here is the best trophy of them all.” (Forgive me.)

Simpson had cameo roles in several movies before leaving USC. When he finally turned his back on football, the world was his oyster. O.J., wrote Barry Lorge in the Washington Post, was “bright, affable, charming, articulate and credible, a public relation man’s dream-come true.”

No one would have foreseen the swerve his life would take.

When the jury, after only four hours of deliberation, returned a verdict of “not guilty,” there was cheering in some corners of America. The overwhelming consensus of the white population, however, was that the verdict was an abomination, a gross miscarriage of justice.

We’ll leave it at that.

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