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British Boxing 2019 in Review

Matt McGrain

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2018 was an astonishing year for British boxing and for all that 2019 didn’t quite measure up, there were some notable names and some astonishing moments, not to mention some astonishing fights.

Here we take a closer look, naming a British Boxer of the Year, a British Fight of the Year, the British Prospect of the Year, the British Breakthrough of the Year and finally the British Trainer of the Year.

This one is in the bag; I’ll see you this time next year for another yearly appraisal.

British Boxer of the Year: Josh Taylor

A lot has been said about the terrible emotional turmoil inflicted upon Josh Taylor in this past year, which should have been the best year of his life. Suffering a death in the family makes going to work in an office extremely difficult, so we can, some of us, imagine the terrible difficulty in putting your health on the line in one of the most emotionally wrought professions a person can chose. But set that aside. Strictly in sporting terms, Taylor has a head a year for the ages.

Set aside, too, just for a moment, his October meeting with Regis Prograis and look instead to his May clash with Ivan Baranchyk. Baranchyk was and remains absolutely real, a light-welterweight of prestigious strength and formidable durability. His 2018 walkdown of Anthony Yigit was painful to watch and saw Baranchyk ensconced in the top ten. This was the man Taylor had to overcome in the semi-final of the World Boxing Super Series.

He did so, and in doing so he fitted the last piece of the puzzle in his stylistic jigsaw, repeatedly slipping and ducking Baranchyk’s wild hooks, hooks he threw with both hands as he aggressively pursued a Josh Taylor that seemed happier on his toes than at any point in his career. It was a demonstration of stylistic flexibility unlike any seen on these shores for a number of years.

In the fourth, Taylor started to come down, to meet his more aggressive foe in the pocket. He was dominant here too, his more varied offense crowned with two-handed uppercuts and a sneaky trailing left from the southpaw stance.

Hit and hurt in the fifth he went to war in the sixth and twice dropped Baranchyk, who had never been down much less beaten in his 19-0 career. This was the round that determined his wide points victory.

Still, Prograis was something else again. Skilled, quick-witted and seemingly faster than Taylor he was a genuinely menacing opponent and at 24-0 was also more experienced. Expectations were that Prograis would box and move and that Taylor would have to assume the Baranchyk role in trying to hunt a more mobile fighter down and take it away from him. When Prograis elected to hold his ground, the result was a fight of the year contender and the result, a narrow decision victory for the Scotsman, made him the only reasonable choice for British fighter of the year.

It also saw him crack the TBRB pound-for-pound list at number ten.

So, Taylor had a hard year but a good one. It ended though, on a sour note. Scotland is not an easy place to be famous and Scottish blood runs hot come the weekend. In December, Taylor appeared in court having been involved in an altercation with a nightclub bouncer in the early hours of a Sunday morning during which he threw homophobic and racial insults. He pleaded guilty to the latter of these while charges relating to possession of cocaine were dropped.

If 2020 is to be as outstanding for Taylor as 2019 was, changes need to be made.

British Fight of the Year: Lewis Ritson UD12 Robbie Davies

Nowhere in the UK does big time sport quite like Newcastle. As a Scotsman, that’s not easy to admit and while I’d argue Glasgow a close second, Newcastle remains number one.

Lewis Ritson (20-1) is that city’s favorite fighting son and Robbie Davies (19-1) showed guts even agreeing to make the match there. What followed was as fine a demonstration of heart and intestinal fortitude as was seen in Britain this past year.

Brutal exchanges in the first foretold a knockout, but it was not to be. Despite Davies switch hitting impressively and scoring with either trailing hand, Ritson came roaring back in the final minute; they re-joined in the second and fought as though tethered. Ritson, ostensibly the puncher in the fight, couldn’t hit hard enough to get Davies off him. The referee was a mere spectator – clinches were as rare as retreat.

Both men were exhausted by the sixth but had gone to that strange place boxers visit when they know if they don’t hit, they’ll get hit. Every truly great fight of any length sees the combatants visit that netherworld, I think, and the man who copes with it better emerges triumphant.

And that man was Riston. This fight was, perhaps, a little too wide to be immortal, Ritson winning by valid scores of 117-112 and 116-112 twice (my score), but the twelfth round gives pause for thought.  Davies strength of character in coming back over and over again from Ritson bombs in this round was the highlight of both the fight and the British boxing year.

British Breakthrough of the Year: John Ryder

John Ryder (28-5) traveled out to Las Vegas in May and blasted out the unranked Australian puncher Bilal Akkawy in three. This put him in line for a shot at the world’s number one super-middleweight Callum Smith. This was awkward for Smith, who believed he was ready for box office. Ryder wasn’t that. He was, on paper, merely a solid contender, and with a 5’9 frame and 72” inch reach, probably a middleweight one. Smith, at 6’2, 78”, could perhaps be forgiven for taking the fight a little lightly.

If he did, it was in error.

Ryder slipped Smith’s very first jab beautifully. He then nicked a desperately close round on generalship. His plan, to wait, wait and wait, then punch his way in and aggressively smother Smith on the ropes with busy hands, resulted in a fight that was, although not electric, poised, absorbing and fascinating.

Again and again Smith seemed to find the range but again and again Ryder, using a deep stance but bracing his weight across alternate legs depending upon Smith’s position, continued to upset his rhythm and his work with rushing, mauling attacks. It was comical at first to see the little man bury himself on Smith and whale away but by the fourth it was clear that Smith was in a fight.

After eight they looked dead level and when Ryder crashed out of his corner in his tenth and eleventh the fight seemed in the balance. With a torrid twelfth too close to call any one of three results seemed possible.

With so many close rounds – and the first, second, fifth, eighth, tenth and twelfth were all desperately close – it is always possible that the official scorecards will seem unsatisfying and this was such an occasion. 116-112 twice and 117-111 seemed off. I had it a draw – many had Ryder the winner.

The reaction to this result was fascinating. Sympathy for Ryder was almost universal and it is interesting to me that the TBRB, Boxing Monthly and Boxing News all continue to rank Ryder among their top ten in the division. Even more unlikely, Eddy Reynoso, who coaches Canelo Alvarez, has mentioned Ryder as a possible future opponent. He made an impression in defeat that many fail to make in victory.

Ryder lost the only truly meaningful fight he boxed in 2019 but he’s the breakout star from the UK with some massive fights a possibility in his future, not least a possible rematch with Smith.

British Prospect for 2020: Daniel Azeez

Daniel Azeez (11-0) had a busy 2019, boxing thirty rounds across five different fights, all victories, four of them by knockout. But it is another number which makes Azeez my British prospect to watch for the coming twelve months and that number is “30”, his age.

Azeez took up boxing as an amateur late and after a respectable if unglamorous unpaid career, turned professional in 2017. A light-heavyweight, he’s not in a desperate hurry, but his apprenticeship should be truncated given his years.

As to that inglorious amateur career, Azeez is sure his style is more suited to the paid ranks.  This is a bell often rung by amateurs who met with limited success, but Azeez is a little more specific than most, picking perhaps the most “professional” fighter of all as the one his style most echoes, Marvin Hagler.

Azeez is built a little like the great middleweight, defined but with a certain litheness, and he favors the same attire for the ring: old-school ring-robe, knee-high socks, even the maroon colored trunks Marvin favored.

As to his style, there are some similarities. Azeez stepped up this past June against the stoic Charlie Duffield, who he did away with in six. What most impressed me about this performance was the steady manner in which Azeez broke his man down. He started off confidently, no small matter given that he was on the undercard of the Dillian Whyte-Oscar Rivas pay-per-view card, and by the fifth was exhibiting total dominance. That speaks of a layered offence rather than athletic superiority, though he enjoyed aspects of that too.

What made Hagler a genius was economy; he wasted almost nothing and that is perhaps the hardest skill to master in the ring because it combines so many elements of other skills and abilities. Azeez has the beginning of excellent timing in the ring and if he displays one third of what Hagler had in that department he has the makings of a very good fighter.

azeez

In the plus column: his uppercuts are already wonderful, he has two very different right hands, one short, one over the top and both of them are very good punches; his jab is hurtful; he has footwork and balance of a much more seasoned fighter and sudden attacks don’t seem to compromise it.

In the minus column: he doesn’t use his jab nearly enough, though his use of upper-body feints mitigate that somewhat from a defensive perspective; his chin, of course, is unknown; I’m interested to see how he does against top drawer hookers; he’s in a very tough division.

It all adds up to very interesting and with an English title under his belt courtesy of his clear points victory over the awkward 9-0-1 Lawrence Osueke earlier this month and the man himself hinting at a shot at the British title in 2020, it is likely to become more so in this coming year.

British Trainer of the Year: Robert McCracken

Yes, that Robert McCracken, the one that oversaw Anthony Joshua’s disastrous knockout loss to Andy Ruiz before, admittedly, overseeing a victory in the return – the Rob McCracken everyone thought Anthony Joshua should have fired. The truth is that no British trainer has moved me to any great extent in 2019 so I am taking the opportunity to pay tribute here to McCracken’s wider work.

As the performance director at the English Institute of Sport, McCracken has worked at some point with not one, not two, but all six of the current British fighters to hold an alphabet title. Alphabet titles are murdering boxing, but getting one isn’t easy. So, it is worth noting that while he may not have worked directly this year with the likes of Callum Smith or Kal Yafai, he had a hand in the development of each and every one of them as well as any number of decorated amateurs.

And with 2020 being another Olympic year, he may just get the nod again in twelve months’ time.

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The Winning Purse Bid for Teofimo’s Next Fight has the Boxing World Buzzing

Arne K. Lang

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The big buzz this week in boxing was the enormous fee ponied up by the video-sharing, social-networking service Triller to lasso Teofimo Lopez’s lightweight title defense against IBF mandatory challenger George Kambosos. Triller didn’t merely out-bid Eddie Hearn’s Matchroom and Bob Arum’s Top Rank, but out-bid them by a whopping margin. Triller’s purse bid was $6.02 million compared with $3.51 million for Matchroom and $2.32 million for Top Rank.

Triller’s initial venture into boxing was the Nov. 28, 2020 show at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, a three-hour boxing and music festival, the centerpiece of which was an 8-round exhibition between 55-year-old Mike Tyson and 51-year-old Roy Jones Jr. There were four legitimate supporting bouts — legitimate in the sense that the competitors were active professional boxers – plus a freak fight between YouTuber Jake Paul and former NBA point guard Nate Robinson.

When the event was announced, it was panned by hard-core boxing fans, but it was slickly promoted and received a considerable amount of ink from both mainstream sports and gossip magazines. At a list price of $49.99, the event purportedly attracted 1.8 million pay-per-view buys which translated into a gross profit of more than $80 million. The honchos at Triller gambled that folks were still infatuated with Mike Tyson, an astute apprehension, but hedged their bets by conjoining the exhibition with non-traditional boxing fare and they came out a big winner.

Tyson vs. Jones was a pop culture event and the shebang itself, noted Thomas Hauser, was best understood as an infomercial. Triller’s core demographic is urbanites aged 15 to 27, the so-called hip-hop generation, and the company is playing catch-up in a fierce two-horse race for market share with China-based TikTok, an Internet phenomenon.

The driving force behind Triller is 47-year-old Hollywood hustler Ryan Kavanaugh who made it big with Relativity Media, a firm that arranged financing for movie projects, but left a few bodies in its wake. The firm filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2015 and again in 2018.

Kavanaugh’s business dealings came under scrutiny again this month when Universal Music Group, the world’s largest record company, pulled its catalog from Triller because Triller wasn’t paying its artists. In its response, Triller noted that many of the top earners in MSG are shareholders in Triller. Triller’s most prominent shareholder is rapper Snoop Dogg whose waggish commentary for the Tyson-Jones exhibition was widely hailed as the highlight of the telecast.

When the Teofimo vs. Kombosos match was announced, it was immediately speculated that it would be hinged to another Mike Tyson exhibition, perhaps against his nemesis Evander Holyfield. Kavanaugh insists that won’t happen. As for the date and location, that too is up in the air with the best guess being that it will be anchored in Miami, likely in May. It can’t happen in Australia, where Kambosos resides, unless the authorities relax the rule that requires visitors to quarantine for 14 days upon arriving in the country.

The deal with Triller may mark the end of Teofimo’s partnership with Top Rank. If so, Bob Arum is nonplussed. By rule, Teofimo Lopez, as the defending champion, is entitled to 65 percent of the purse. He is contractually obligated to give Top Rank 20 percent, nearly $800,000. Lou DiBella, who promotes George Kambosos, also comes out a big winner.

Who is George Kambosos?

The headline in an English-language, on-line publication directed at the Greek community reads “Undefeated Greek boxing sensation….” That’s over the top. In the click-bait era, words like “sensation” have wide currency.

Kambosos, born and raised in Sydney, Australia, of Greek ancestry (his grandparents are from Sparta) is indeed undefeated: 19-0 (10 KOs). But until recently he was best known as Manny Pacquaio’s sparring partner. He worked in three of Pacquiao’s camps and, by his reckoning, sparred about 250 rounds with the Filipino legend.

Kambosos won his last two fights by split decision. On Dec. 14, 2019, he outpointed former IBF world lightweight champion Mickey Bey at Madison Square Garden. On Oct. 31 of last year, he outpointed former IBF featherweight champion Lee Selby at Wembley Arena. Neither bout was the featured attraction. Kambosos vs. Bey was underneath Terence Crawford vs. Egidijus Kavaliauskas. Kambosos vs. Selby was the chief supporting bout to the heavyweight contest between Oleksandr Usyk and Dereck Chisora.

Kambosos punctuated his win over Bey with a knockdown in the final round, but would have prevailed without it. There was no controversy when his hand was raised. Similarly, his triumph over Selby was generally well-received although few fans would have quibbled if the match had been scored a draw.

In a 2019 interview, Freddie Roach said of Kambosos that he was very quick with hand-speed on a par with PacMan. The biggest difference between the two, said Roach, was Pacquiao’s superior footwork.

Roach may have been diplomatic when he said that the Aussie had the potential to go all the way as Kambosos will be a big underdog when he steps into the ring against Teofimo Lopez who figures to close in the 12/1 range. And the pre-fight pub will be all about Teofimo, in common with the Tyson-Jones exhibition where all the pre-fight hype was about Iron Mike.

This reporter bumped into Mickey Bey yesterday afternoon. Bey noted that he was hampered going into his fight with George Kambosos as he did not have the benefit of a full training camp. He took the fight on three-and-a-half weeks notice and had been out of the ring for 14 months.

The personable Bey, who is transitioning to the role of a trainer, waxed euphoric about Devin Haney who he regards as a once-in-a-generation talent. “I really believe he has a chance to surpass Floyd,” he said, referencing Floyd Mayweather’s 50-0 mark. “Haney is better right now than Floyd was at the same age.”

That’s open to debate, but Devin Haney, currently 25-0, is halfway there and he’s only 22 years old. Whether he stays at 135 or moves up to 140, he will have to run through a gauntlet to get through the next few years unscathed. Both divisions are brimming with talent.

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Avila Perspective, Chap 125: Canelo and other 4-Division Title-holders

David A. Avila

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Mexico’s Saul “Canelo” Alvarez (54-1-2, 36 KOs) defends the WBA and WBC super middleweight titles against Avni Yildirim (21-2, 12 KOs) on Saturday Feb. 27, at the Hard Rock Stadium in Miami, Florida. DAZN will stream the fight card.

For the second consecutive week a four-division world champion performs.

“I always imagined the best for myself but never to this magnitude,” said Alvarez, 30. “I want to keep making history.”

Last week four-division titlist Adrien “The Problem” Broner returned to the boxing ring after a two-year absence and defeated Jovanie Santiago by unanimous decision. It was a battle designed for Broner to shake off the cobwebs developed since his prior fight against Manny Pacquiao.

Fans forget Broner captured world titles in four divisions. It’s quite an accomplishment for any fighter to win world titles in multiple divisions. For a fan to deride or devalue either Broner’s or Canelo Alvarez’s accomplishment of four-division world titles means only one thing said one true expert:

“They don’t know s*** about boxing,” said the late great Roger Mayweather. His words and overall boxing wisdom remain strong in my memory.

One of my goals whenever I hit Las Vegas in the past was to visit two-division world champ Roger Mayweather. If you ever had a chance to converse with any of the Mayweathers you know what I mean; they have deep-rooted knowledge about the history of the fight game.

Once at the Top Rank Gym, probably around 2007, I was chatting with Mayweather in the office with another boxing writer who was discrediting Oscar De La Hoya’s accomplishments as a multi-division world champion.

Mayweather straightened up from his chair and looked dead in the guy’s eyes and said to the writer “you ever fight in the ring?”

The writer shook his head.

Mayweather waved both his hands at him and said his now legendary line “you don’t know s*** about boxing.” He further explained that anytime you win a world title is a big thing. And if you win world titles in multiple divisions well that’s super human. He called them special fighters. They don’t come along very often.

Roger Mayweather passed away last March 17. It was a great loss to the boxing world. I’ll never forget his words on multiple-division winners. Mayweather captured world titles in the super featherweight and super lightweight divisions. If you consider the IBO title legitimate, Mayweather also won the welterweight title.

I can imagine Mayweather telling today’s fans and writers that they don’t know boxing if they think winning world titles in four divisions is nothing.

Roger Mayweather was one of the smartest boxing people I ever met and one heck of a fighter who sold out venues like the Inglewood Forum. As trainer for “Money” Mayweather he was very under-rated in my opinion. And gone too soon.

More Broner and Alvarez.

The first world title achieved by Broner was the WBO super featherweight title by knockout of Vicente Rodriguez in November 2011. Then he moved up a division and defeated Mexico’s super tough Antonio DeMarco for the WBO lightweight title by stoppage in November 2012. Broner jumped up again in weight to challenge Paul Malignaggi for the WBA welterweight title and squeaked out a split decision over the Brooklyn fighter in June 2013. After losing to Marcos Maidana in December 2013, he dropped down to super lightweight and defeated Khabib Allakhverdiev for the WBA world title by technical knockout in the 12th round October 2015. He eventually lost a version of the title by decision to Mikey Garcia on July 2017.

At 30 years old, Canelo has now entered his prime years. He grabbed his first world title in March 2011 beating Ricky Hatton for the WBC super welterweight title. He lost that title to Floyd Mayweather in 2013. Not until November 2015 did he move up to take the WBC middleweight title from Miguel Cotto. Alvarez then fought Gennady Golovkin twice, and Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. before moving up to win the WBA super middleweight title from Rocky Fielding in December 2018. Then Canelo moved up to light heavyweight in November 2019 and knocked out Sergey Kovalev.

Alvarez now has won four division world titles like Broner and is poised to defend the super middleweight titles against Yildirum on Saturday. Two months ago, Alvarez handed Callum Smith his first professional defeat while taking away his WBA title and adding the WBC. The Mexican redhead continues to make history.

“It’s really important for me to leave a legacy in this sport,” said Alvarez. “There are still many milestones I have to achieve.”

Four-Titles or More Club

Among those with four or more division world titles are:

Leo Gamez (1985-2005) minimum weight, light flyweight, flyweight, and super flyweight

Jorge Arce (1996-2014) light flyweight, super flyweight, bantamweight and super bantamweight.

Roman Gonzalez (2005-present) minimum weight, light flyweight, flyweight and super flyweight

Nonito Donaire (2003-present) flyweight, bantamweight, super bantamweight and featherweight

Miguel Cotto (2001-2015) super lightweight, welterweight, super welterweight and middleweight

Juan Manuel Marquez (1993-2014) featherweight, super featherweight, lightweight, and super lightweight.

Erik Morales (1993-2011) super bantamweight, featherweight, super featherweight and super lightweight

Pernell Whitaker (1984-2001) lightweight, super lightweight, welterweight and super welterweight

Roberto Duran (1968-2001) lightweight, welterweight, super welterweight and middleweight

Roy Jones Jr. (1988-present) middleweight, super middleweight, light heavyweight and heavyweight.

Five-Titles Club

Sugar Ray Leonard (1977-1997) welterweight, super welterweight, middleweight, super middleweight and light heavyweight

Tommy Hearns (1977-2006) welterweight, super welterweight, middleweight, super middleweight, light heavyweight

Floyd Mayweather Jr. (1996-present) super featherweight, lightweight, super lightweight, welterweight and super welterweight

Naoko Fujioka (2009-present) minimum weight, light flyweight, flyweight, super flyweight and bantamweight.

Six-Titles Club

Oscar De La Hoya (1992-2008) super featherweight, lightweight, super lightweight, welterweight, super welterweight and middleweight

Seven-Titles Club

Amanda Serrano (2009-present) super flyweight, bantamweight, super bantamweight, featherweight, super featherweight, lightweight and super lightweight

Eight-Titles Club

Manny Pacquiao (1995-present) flyweight, super bantamweight, featherweight, super featherweight, lightweight, super lightweight, welterweight, and super welterweight

Straw Stirrers

New WBC super featherweight titlist Oscar Valdez joined the unique list of fighters who are in position to dictate their respective weight divisions in a big way. I call them the straw stirrers or to mimic New York Yankee great Reggie Jackson’s famous quote “the straw that stirs the drink.”

Valdez’s knockout win over the heavily favored Miguel Berchelt last week to win the WBC world title was one of those moments that captivates the world on multiple levels:

First, Valdez was not supposed to win according to the experts. Second, his emphatic one-punch knockout win via the vaunted Mexican left hook was a moment that will be viewed more than a million times on YouTube.com. Third, the super featherweight division is crackling with talent and gate attractions like Jojo Diaz, Jamel Herring, Tevin Farmer, Carl Frampton, Leo Santa Cruz, Vasyl Lomachenko and Shakur Stevenson. And if Valdez seeks an even bigger payday he can move up one division where he will definitely find big money guys like Gervonta Davis, Ryan Garcia, Devin Haney, and the other straw stirrer Teofimo Lopez.

At the moment, Valdez holds the key to stirring the super featherweight drink.

Fights to Watch

Sat. 5 p.m. FOX Anthony Dirrell (33-2-1) vs Kyrone Davis (15-2).

Sat. 5 p.m. DAZN Saul Alvarez (54-1-2) vs Avni Yildirim (21-2).

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Ten Heavyweight Prospects: 2021 Catchup

Matt McGrain

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I started this series in 2018, selecting ten fascinating heavyweight prospects and committing to follow them until such time as they were eliminated or entered the Transnational Boxing Rankings and this time, we have a few.

The series was updated in the summer of 2019 and this entry was delayed due to the most severe of circumstances, the COVID-19 pandemic that prevented not just boxing but so many other aspects of life. It’s nice to be able to catch up with these men once again in what was a twenty months as incident-filled as the preceding twelve.

THE COLOSSUS: ARSLANBEK MAKHMUDOV

FROM: Russia HEIGHT: 6’5.5 WEIGHT IN SHAPE: 250lbs AGE: 31 RECORD: 11-0 with 11 KOs

The enormous Arslanbek Makhmudov has been out just three times since the summer of 2019, slow going in more ways than one. Yes, inactivity is a consequence of a global pandemic that has hampered more than the prospects of exciting boxing prospects, but the selection of Makhmudov’s opposition has remained stubbornly unambitious.

That looked momentarily set to change in September of 2019 when Julian Fernandez, then 14-1, stepped into Makhmudov’s ring. While Fernandez has certainly never beaten meaningful opposition, he had been in with meaningful opposition, stopped in two by Tom Schwartz the year before. Makhmudov, who was a clean clear winner in his usual impressive style, nevertheless for the first time came off worse in the meaningless comparisons so often thrust upon heavyweight prospects, in that he took three rounds to do what it had taken the much more experienced Schwartz just two rounds to do.

More than this, the response of collective fighting news was disinterest. The fight was neither widely reported upon nor remarked upon and nothing is more discouraging to a promotions team than that. Perhaps in an attempt to increase coverage of their prospect, promoter Camille Estephan took the well-trodden path of digging up the bones of a once notorious contender and lobbing them at his charge. Samuel Peter was the victim and Makhmudov (pictured) disposed of him in seconds. Though the fight succeeded in generating column inches, it also did nothing for Makhmudov’s learning curve.

Doubly disappointing then was his first pandemic-opponent, Dillon Carman. Having boxed even fewer rounds than Makhmudov in 2019, Carman was also coming off two quick stoppage losses. Of course, he was butchered in the first. Since, Makhmudov’s team have been calling for Joe Joyce, Anthony Joshua and Tyson Fury.  That is exciting and in the case of Joyce might even be serious, though Joyce’s people will have little problem sidestepping Makhmudov, who is a massive-punching problem nobody needs. Hopefully Estephan and his team will take note of the wide open space between a fighter like Carman and a fighter like Joyce and act upon it, fast.

SIX NINE: IVAN DYCHKO

FROM: Kazakhstan HEIGHT: 6’9 WEIGHT IN SHAPE: 245lbs AGE: 30 RECORD: 9-0 with 9 KOs

Ivan Dychko is in danger of becoming a cautionary tale.

Last time we discussed the towering Kazak he had failed in a seemingly serious campaign to replace the disgraced Jarrell Miller against Anthony Joshua based upon their amateur rivalry. Having missed the boat on that chance, grabbed so forcefully by Andy Ruiz, Dychko consoled himself by fighting someone named Nate Heaven.

Heaven, who retired in 2015 and has not won a meaningful fight since April of 2014, inexplicably unretired to absorb this beating, which he did, showing bravery all the while. Dychko looked organised and quick, heavy-handed and well-organised.

Since then: nothing.

Dychko has sparred with Wladimir Klitschko and Deontay Wilder, apparently without upset. He now seems to be hocking those wares to Tyson Fury. Meanwhile, he avoids the ring entirely. Dychko looks fabulous in training footage and is still spoken of highly by those who have worked with him, but that makes his inexplicable inactivity more, not less, frustrating. It should be remembered that Dychko spent eight months doing nothing before the pandemic hit and fought six rounds in twelve months before that. Dychko is a potentially splendid fighter going very much to waste.

THE QUIET ONE: DANIEL DUBOIS

FROM: Great Britain HEIGHT: 6’5 WEIGHT IN SHAPE: 239lbs AGE: 23 RECORD: 15-1 with 14 KOs

Great Britain continues to deliver on meaningful clashes between heavyweight prospects and the past eighteen months has delivered something of a blockbuster in the shape of Daniel Dubois versus Joe Joyce.

The reason the world is more likely to contain Dychko or Makhumudov than Joyce or Dubois could not be illustrated more keenly than it is by the fallout from this fight. Dubois has been routed by both social media and boxing reporters, very much along the lines of “did he quit?” and “was he exposed?”

But when two prospects meet, of course, some shortcomings and some failings are to be revealed.  By very definition, a prospect is not a finished article. It is true, also, that there was something depressing about Daniel’s apparent inability to defend a wounded eye that came to define his fight as he was jabbed into literal submission by a tougher, technically superior, much more experienced, older boxer. Worse was that he seemed so under-prepared for a potential change in the manner in which he might defend himself. His failings were not entirely his own.

Still, aged just twenty-three and with his heavy hands confirmed by fourteen knockouts, Dubois has plenty to rebuild with, most of all keeping in mind that his hands are just tools and his plans in the ring are mostly there to be disrupted. Watching him explain openly and honestly his decision to “take the knee” despite a clear understanding of the unfortunate cultural associations with our sport that has developed around any notion of surrender has been heartening and frankly impressed me.

Perhaps this a young man who actually will “learn from a defeat” rather than merely paying it lip service. It is that opportunity and where it might lead him that convinced me to leave him on this list, and we will drop in on him next February to see what has occurred.

THE BRUTE: SERGEY KUZMIN

FROM: Russia HEIGHT: 6’3.5 WEIGHT IN SHAPE: 245lbs AGE: 33 RECORD: 15-2 with 11 KOs

Last time we spoke of Sergey Kuzmin he was 15-0; this time he is 15-2. I’ll avoid platitudes such as “it’s a long road back for the thirty-three-year-old” on this occasion and just state Kuzmin will never be champion.

The scene for his downfall straddled the continents and boxing history as he was found wanting first in the immortal Madison Square Gardens, New York, and then Wembley, London. Tough to the last, Kuzmin was stopped by neither Michael Hunter, who he met in America, nor Martin Bakole, who he met in Great Britain. On each occasion though, he was thoroughly beaten.

His Waterloo came in the fifth against Hunter. Hunter, who had been making all the running, flashed Kuzmin in the fifth with an unexpected cannonball left. Generous onlookers may have found two rounds for the Russian but it was clear he did not belong in the ring with a fighter as good as Hunter. As if to prove it, he took a step down in his next contest against Bakole. Looking fleshy and tentative, Kuzmin dropped a clear and drab decision.

Boxing isn’t kind and it was possible to feel the world’s interest wane during the Bakole fight, or at least that part of the world that remained interested up until that point. Kuzmin tried to take control in the second round, got hit and seemed cowed. He has proved a disappointment; I predicted he would get as far as a legitimate heavyweight ranking. He did not get there, and it seems unlikely now he ever will. Either way, he passes from the realm of prospect to that of gatekeeper and will not figure on our prospect list this time next year.

THE AMERICAN: DARMANI ROCK

FROM: USA HEIGHT: 6’5 WEIGHT IN SHAPE: 240lbs AGE: 24 RECORD: 17-1 with 12 KOs

If I hoped for a ranking for Kuzmin, I was less convinced by Darmani Rock, whose promotional team seemed either to be very smart or very dumb in the glacial way they moved the youngster along.  Still just twenty-four they could even have continued to make him wait – instead, they took the plunge and the result was a disaster.

Michael Polite Coffie, a fascinating 6’5 southpaw, prides himself on his ability to learn and his military record both, although his time in service prevented him applying learning to boxing until he was rather late in life. Arguably though, he had already achieved more in his eleven professional fights than Rock had in his seventeen. It showed. Coffie, ripped where Rock was flabby, showed the supposedly more experienced man more looks in the first than Rock mustered in the three short rounds the fight lasted. In the third, Rock rattled out of the corner and fired with real aggression having been out-hit through the first two rounds. It was an exciting moment for our prospect-watch, one where we were to learn about a man we were interested in. Instead, Rock revealed a jaw that was anything but as Coffie cleaned him out before a minute of the round had elapsed.

Rock’s moment of truth came and went; Coffie is interesting. If he continues to fight and goes unbeaten, perhaps we will even sneak him in here this time next year. At 34 I think the former Marine will be a little too late to the game though.

MY FAVOURITE: FILIP HRGOVIC

FROM: Croatia HEIGHT: 6’6 WEIGHT IN SHAPE: 230lbs AGE: 26 RECORD: 12-0 with 10 KOs

“Technically proficient, quick of hand and thought, physically imposing and clearly in great shape,” I wrote of Filip Hrgovic in 2019, “[he] is confirmed as having everything he needs to be a champion in the heavyweight division except the important ones: chin and stamina. These still remain unconfirmed, although his adventures in the WSB suggest he owns a sturdy mandible at the very least.”

And that, pretty much, is where we still stand today. Hrgovic has been busy though, managing four outings, well above average for this list, it’s just that none of them really told us anything we don’t already know. He thrashed a molasses-like Mexican named Mario Heredia in August 2019, and turned in an impressive display. Using the left hand to open up opportunities for the right, Hrgovic scored with straights, bodyshots, narrowed it up to throw a short overhand on the inside, and most of all landed brutal uppercuts. Heredia was fearless but wilted under this attention. The brutally of those right hands escalated in the third and final round.

From here, Hrgovic went on to dispatch a wobbly Eric Molina in December, and also in three, before waiting out much of the pandemic and returning to the ring in September of 2020 against an ageing Greek with ten fights named Alexandre Kartozia, who offered even less resistance. In November he met the forty-year-old Rydell Booker and beat him up for an eye-watering five founds.

It’s not so much that his opposition is truly awful, more that you can’t shake the feeling that Arslanbek Makhmudov would have knocked them all over too – and in double quick time, too.  Either way, there is still an awful lot that is not known about Hrgovic that I would like to know before he fights for a title, which, to hear the fighter tell it, is imminent. Maybe Martin Bakole will tell us more. He has been chasing Hrgovic for a year now and seems convinced he can trouble him.

Either way, we won’t be hearing any more from Hrgovic in our prospect-watch; he breached the TBRB rankings in December of 2019.  He is a contender now, a prospect no more.

HAYMAKING: JOE JOYCE

FROM: Great Britain HEIGHT: 6’6 WEIGHT IN SHAPE: 255lbs AGE: 35 RECORD: 12-0 with 11 KOs

“From the supposed pick of the crop in Hrgovic to the man who beat him.”

Yes indeed; but Joe Joyce needn’t rest on the laurels in earned back in his World Boxing Series any more. He arguably owns the best win of any of the fighters on this list.

Nor was he the betting favourite when he met Daniel Dubois late last year in a match that for the boxing-loyal, fight-starved British public was something of an event. Joyce, a rarity in that he feels even bigger in the ring than his listed stats, spent ten rounds doing essentially the same thing, pushing out hard straight punches to allow metronomic scoring while occasionally getting hit with harder punches, as in the second, where Dubois seemed ready to clean him out. But Joyce is hard; the science to that remark, such as it is, is only in that it is an observable fact. While Dubois lashed him, Joyce calmly continued to deploy himself and by the eighth, although Dubois was in touch on the cards, there was a sense of inevitability about the Joyce victory, which came via TKO in the tenth round.

Joyce is probably a little better than I credited him for, though I always figured him the fighter on this list most in a hurry; that urgency will continue as David Haye’s prodigy has now turned thirty-five.  Britain is stuffed with heavyweights currently. Joyce is now third among them, an enviable spot, one that is now seeing him hunted by names.

He is also wonderfully positioned for a shot at a strap, and if he can keep it right, he might even be positioned for the many millions a fight with the emergent victor from any Tyson Fury-Anthony Joshua series.

Either way, Joyce will no longer be labelled a prospect the next time we come around. He will be replaced by a new man next year.

THE PUB BOUNCER: NATHAN GORMAN

FROM: Great Britain HEIGHT: 6’3 WEIGHT IN SHAPE: 250lbs AGE: 24 RECORD: 17-1 with 11 KOs

After the hurt that Joe Joyce put on him, it is forgotten that Daniel Dubois had previously won his own battle of the prospects, beating up Nathan Gorman in July of 2019.

“The Dubois fight is everything to Gorman,” I wrote in 2019. “There will be no unearned second coming should he lose, just a long and difficult slog back to where he is now followed by the real work…Gorman’s status next time we check in with him will be more dramatically affected by his next fight than every other man on this list.”

And so it was. Gorman was brave and he had certain but slight advantages that did nothing like enough to cover the distance in talent that lay between them. Cut in the second round, dropped in the third before being stopped in the fifth, he was clearly outmatched. Gorman will never be a legitimate contender to the world’s heavyweight champion.

That does not mean there isn’t money to be made and fights to be won. Gorman was back and winning late last year after a prolonged rest and goes again in March. Likeable and brave, Gorman remains on my watch list, for all that we won’t see him again on this list.

THE LITTLE GUY: OLEKSANDR USYK

FROM: Ukraine HEIGHT: 6’3 WEIGHT IN SHAPE: 220lbs AGE: 34 RECORD: 18-0 with 13 KOs

Oleksander Usyk is another fighter to be removed from our heavyweight prospect list, but for different reasons; Usyk made the TBRB top ten and as such is no longer eligible. Usyk is stalking belts, not status.

I’ve followed Usyk since before the beginning of his professional career and written about him for years. During all those years I’ve been clear about one thing: he will grab himself a heavyweight strap. In truth, everything truly meaningful is tied up with Tyson Fury and Anthony Joshua so while I continue to stand by my ancient prediction, it is likely to come now only in the most unsatisfactory of fashions, perhaps upgraded from some ridiculous interim alphabet belt to “full champion” when Joshua or Fury refuses to match him but rather rematches the other for tens of millions.

My other prediction – that Usyk is serious trouble for Joshua and all but chanceless against Fury – may be undone on all fronts by the passage of time. Usyk is thirty-four and like the rest of us, is getting no younger.

During the time between lists, Usyk has beaten up journeyman Chazz Witherspoon for a seventh- round stoppage and out-pointed gatekeeper Dereck Chisora in an interesting fight seen by many as his first true test at the poundage. In many ways, Usyk did it the old-fashioned way, for all that he served his “apprenticeship” as an all-time great cruiserweight. The next eighteen months will tell us whether or not he can achieve major status at heavyweight.

AT THE SCHOOL OF MANNY STEWARD: VLAD SIRENKO

FROM: Ukraine HEIGHT: 6’3.5 WEIGHT IN SHAPE: 243lbs AGE: 26 RECORD: 15-0 with 13 KOs

Vlad Sirenko’s most recent opponent was a 7-8-1 Ukranian named Kostiantyn Dovbyshchenko who has now lost five of the last six but who nevertheless rattled Sirenko in Kiev last December.

On the face of it, this seems a disaster, but of all the fighters on this list, Sirenko is the one most deserving of time. Aged just twenty-six and with little to speak of in terms of an amateur career, Sirenko’s 15-0 is real; as are the numbers, so is his experience.

Despite this, when Dovbyshchenko opened an irritating cut on his right brow in the fifth round, Sirenko did not panic. He stuck to a tidy-handed, neat boxing style that got him across the line over ten and gifted him something the likes of Makhmudov and Hrgovic have yet to receive: a genuine test of his temperament.

Still, the scores were not wide and although Dovbyshchenko was a little better than his paper record allows – neat, tidy and mobile, and never stopped – Sirenko’s limitations were underlined. He can hit, but his power isn’t darkening; he is organised, but he often waits his turn – he is busy but cannot counter or punch well enough to truly discourage his opponent. In short, well-schooled quality on technical punching is what won him this fight. That is honourable, but it is not what should be separating him from journeymen. If he is unable to overwhelm or at least control such limited opposition with physical advantages, heavyweight waters will likely be too deep.

Still, he speaks so well about boxing that I want to believe he can learn about boxing. Sirenko, who is not shy at sharing his opinions, predicted Joyce’s victory over Dubois with calm certainty having previously sparred with both. It is only one example, but every time I hear him speak in excellent English, I am impressed with what he has to say. Connections to Manny Steward disciple James Ali Bashir and therefore to the Oleksandr Usyk camp are other reasons to be hopeful.

As is Sirenko’s abandonment of his South African base and relocation to Germany, under the auspices of Maxim Michailew who has so far preferred him to box in his native Ukraine. He has also made Sirenko one of the busier prospects on this list and that, too, bodes well for the future.

Sirenko though remains the most interesting prospect here listed, which is another way of saying he has the most to prove.

THIS TIME NEXT YEAR

It was strange re-reading former entries in this series before writing this one. That I would be writing another a year later seemed a given and if 2020/21 has taught us anything it is that nothing should be taken for granted. None of us could imagine an event so overwhelming as to make an absence of boxing seem meaningless, but it happened.

It hurt the prospect more than any other kind of fighter; even the true journeyman will tend to have other sources of income. For an elite prospect who has devoted himself to boxing, the end of the fight game was a disaster. That said, the fight fan may prosper; it could be that a sudden and unplanned break might press some reluctant promoters, managers and boxers into action.

Hopefully we will be back in around a year to find out why.

Check out more boxing news on video at the Boxing Channel

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