By Derek Bonnett: As we encounter another new year, the landscape of the boxing scene continues to evolve. With old champions acting out the final stages of their careers and new ones emerging to fill the void, boxing maintains a state of homeostasis and keeps fight fans intrigued even amid the dubious officiating and cries of scandal. Boxing, as always, will endure; however, not every participant with an alphabet title will be so lucky. Inevitably, the mighty will eventually fall and, sometimes, the unlikely will thrive.
Last year, I finished 9-1 at SecondsOut in regard to my ten 2014 picks. All five of my champions held onto their belts without question, amassing thirteen total title defenses in the process. Adonis Stevenson defended his light heavyweight title twice against Andrej Fonfara and Dmitry Sukhotskiy. Sergey Kovalev held onto his title with three defenses including a career defining victory over Bernard Hopkins, which had fans split going in. Prior to that he stopped Cedric Agnew and Blake Caparello. Gennady Golovkin won three bouts by stoppage including quick work over Daniel Geale and Marco Antonio Rubio. Prior to that Osumanu Adama got him started on the year. Tomoki Kameda scored two significant wins in title bouts, stopping Pungluang Sor Singyu and outpointing Alejandro Hernandez. Lastly, Juan Francisco Estrada won three bouts and defended his flyweight titles twice with stoppages of Richie Mepranum and Giovani Segura. Most of these champions will likely retain their titles in 2015, but all of them are on the cusp of something bigger, so things just might get interesting.
I was highly effective in choosing who was going to lose their championship status in 2014 as well. I added one asterisk last year and it ended up burning me! I favored Mikey Garcia to move up in weight again and lose his perfect record as opposed to merely losing a title. Those darn Manny Pacquiao rumors at the end of 2013 really had me convinced Garcia was in the hunt for a Super Fight. Oh well, I was wrong about Garcia as he fought only once and won quite comfortably. Of course, just the other day, I heard the same rumor again. I am not concerned with it though for 2015. As prognosticated, Sakio Bika was not able to hang onto his super middleweight championship. His rematch with Anthony Dirrell proved more conclusive than their first contest and a new reign was born. I favored Carlos Molina to go down against Jermall Charlo earlier this year, but the bout never happened. I got a little nervous about this call, but thankfully Cornelius Bundrage was able to mount an upset to claim the title leaving Molina without his strap. People called me crazy about going against Provodnikov, but I only saw excitement in the Russian junior welterweight, not longevity. Once the Chris Algieri fight was signed, I had a great feeling about this choice. The irony of it all was that I felt Provodnikov deserved the decision. Ricky Burns, one of my recent favorites, had been dying a slow death and barely hung onto his belt in 2013. This was an easy call as he was to be matched with Terence Crawford, who dethroned Burns to start a new reign at lightweight.
With boxing it can be increasingly difficult to determine which champions will do what, but fight aficionados can determine those results for themselves. If not, here’s my take on 2015 and which champions will remain and those who will go.
Those Who Will Remain:
Takashi Miura had a great 2013. After an inactive 2014, in which he posted only one victory late in the year, I may be going out on a limb to say the Japanese WBC 130-pound champion will remain a title holder throughout 2015. I almost hope to talk myself out of this pick as Miura, 28-2-2 (21), has a pretty damn difficult ensemble of contenders he can potentially meet over the next eleven months. His number one contender is the highly dangerous Francisco Vargas, who just might play a huge role in the future of the division once the current regime is pushed out. If Vargas doesn’t do the pushing, then Javier Fortuna, Miguel Roman, or Adrian Estrella might just do it for him. However, my hunch is the thirty year old champion will push back harder in 2015 to keep his reign going. He will likely only meet one of these fighters and I expect him to be able to turn back the challenges of the less experienced or overly grizzled elite of the WBC rankings. My real hope is that Miura gets his eagerly sought after rematch with countryman Takashi Uchiyama, who had an equally stagnant 2014. Even though Uchiyama did enough damage to Miura’s eye in their 2011 clash to score an eighth round retirement, Miura has improved greatly as a titlist and could put his top rival in worse trouble than he had four years ago. Usually, a fighter with this line-up of potential opponents ends up in the "Will Go" category. I am confident enough to take the gamble on the southpaw’s power. Miura will hear the words "And Still" throughout 2015. Mee-Ur-Rah! Mee-Ur-Rah!
Nicholas Walters was almost Fighter of the Year in 2014. He just might do it in 2015, but, at the very least, the Axe Man remains WBA featherweight champion once the clock runs down. After scintillating performances against Vic Darchinyan and Nonito Donaire, it’s easy to say Walters should be favored over just about anyone. However, I am not talking about picking Walters over his respectable lot of contenders ranging from Jesus Andres Cuellar to Simpiwe Vetyeka to Marvin Sonsona; I think he does that with relative ease. Right now, Walters is only looking for the best and if you lined up Jhonny Gonzalez, Abner Mares, Orlando Salido, Vasyl Lomachenko, and Evgeny Gradovich month after month, the Jamaican wrecking ball dismisses them all in decisive fashion. Walters, 25-0 (21), has averaged roughly two fights a year since 2011 and, with his current sights set on big game, I expect that trend to continue (on HBO as well!). At twenty-nine, Walters is primed and ready to chop down the P4P ladder to get himself on level with the best in the sport. Walters remaining champ throughout 2015 is as certain as death and taxes.
Carl Frampton may be facing his toughest opponent to date next month when he puts his IBF super bantamweight title on the line against Chris Avalos. A win over Avalos opens the door for potential match-ups with a pair of younglings, who just may have their own day in the sun in time. Jessie Magdaleno looks like one of the sport’s top prospects and Rey Vargas isn’t too shabby himself. The two unbeatens aren’t likely the fighters on Frampton’s imagined dance card though. No, Frampton, 19-0 (13), also eyes bigger game after a repeat win over Kiko Martinez. For his countrymen, a clash with fellow titlist Scott Quigg would spark a great 2015. It’s not out of the realm, but Frampton’s name is truly up there with Leo Santa Cruz and Guillermo Rigondeaux in the 122-pound division. Whilst Santa Cruz has cruised through mediocre opposition and Rigondeaux settled for what he could get his hands on, Frampton is the titlist truly testing himself in recent time. At twenty-seven, now just might be Frampton’s time to strike. However, the BIG fights in his division are highly likely to elude him. My guess is that Frampton gets past Avalos on points and then dusts off the challenge of only one more challenger from his top ten and right now he’s a cut above the rest the IBF has to offer.
Naoya Inoue, 8-0 (7), is a monster. Thankfully, he’s a monster most boxing fans believe in after an exceptional 2014 run, which saw him win two world titles. I expect a third divisional title for Inoue, but it may not necessarily come in 2015. Without sounding too much like a pessimist, the WBO 115-pound rankings truly offer little in the shape of a threat to Inoue’s reign or unbeaten record. McJoe Arroyo and Arthur Villanueva would make for good wins over young contenders, but neither has shown the stuff to slay the Japanese prodigy. Truthfully, Takuma Inoue, his younger brother, rated fifteenth, probably possesses the only chance due to familiarity, but this bout would never happen. Paul Butler and Oleydong Sithsamerchai are probably the most desirable match-ups, but they are action films we already know the ending to. Now, a move to 118? Ah, and a challenge of Shinsuke Yamanaka? That’s something to dream about and, truth be told, Yamanaka is one of few men 118 pounds and under that I would favor over Inoue. Let it be known that this pick even lacks certainty. Regardless, at 115 Inoue remains champion throughout 2015 as unification bouts with Carlos Cuadras and Zolani Tete seem unlikely. Kohei Kono is ripe for the taking and, should we see it, Inoue, 21, unifies in a few rounds.
Roman Gonzalez, 41-0 (35), finally became en vogue in 2014 as well. At twenty-seven, Nicaragua’s second best fighter in history is at the height of his prime and seems poised to get some better fights. The much anticipated rematch with Juan Francisco Estrada could happen and it would be a hell of fight to unify three quarters of the flyweight crown. Most likely, the money won’t be right for these two to get it on again, which is a shame when millions of dollars are thrown at human punching bags monthly by HBO and Showtime. Allegedly, Gonzalez has a spring date with Edgar Sosa, which is not a shabby fight, but it’s not one that makes the imagination run wild either. It’s a great defense against a top flyweight, but one that we all know is a rung below Gonzalez. Brian Viloria rates favorably in the WBC rankings as well and the Hawaiian Punch has done well in challenger’s clothing in the past. While highly worthwhile, even a Viloria fight would not convince many that Gonzalez’ P4P stature was in jeopardy. What do you expect when you are among the most perfect fighting machines to ever lace up the gloves? Yes, 2015 looks promising for Gonzalez and I imagine his resume will only be enhanced. Just north three pounds, Naoya Inoue represents his most deadly challenge, but that’s a bout few expect to materialize right now if at all. It’s hard to imagine Gonzalez even money with someone, but he might even be an underdog in this one. That’s a fight for another time though and "Chocolatito’s" WBC strap would not be on the line anyway. Yeah, call me boring, but Gonzalez walks down the challenge of at least three contenders to remain the boss at flyweight. No one in his rankings can negotiate his calculated assault to the body and precision punching to the head.
Those Who Will Go:
Yoan Pablo Hernandez, 30, just might have gone in 2014, but he only fought once in slipping past Firat Arslan. Had he gone ahead with his proposed bout with leading contender Ola Afolabi, I think the Cuban had a great chance of being dethroned. Should they meet in 2015, I am willing to gamble the same given Hernandez’ inactivity and tendency to fight close. Ola’s not the only threat inside of his top ten though. Victor Ramirez can bang and while he isn’t my top pick, I can see his power catching the rusty champion if his reflexes are at all waning. More likely, Rahkim Chakhkiev and Thabiso Mchunu are the biggest threats if those fights can be made. Hernandez has a host of lesser challengers to feed his reign with, but my hunch is that he is on the slide. In 2015, if Hernandez comes to the show, he’s ready to go. Hernandez, 29-1 (14), will be beltless come 2016. Here’s to hoping it’s actually one of the his fellow belt holders in Marco Huck, Denis Lebedev, or Grigory Drozd.
Anthony Dirrell earned much praise in 2014 for claiming a world championship as a cancer survivor. It’s hard picking against him especially since he is so much more likable than his brother. However, I see depth in the upper echelon of the WBC rankings. George Groves leads the pack in spite of his two losses to Carl Froch. The British boxer has the tools to be someone at 168 and he’s not in over his head with Dirrell. The same could be said about number four rated James DeGale, who also had a big 2014. Mexico also has two big challenges in the top four with Gilberto Ramirez and Julio Cesar Chavez checking in a two and three. It’s easy to imagine Dirrell, 30, going one of these routes as the money would be best for him on an HBO or Showtime date. It’s so often that nice guys finish last and the subtle flash of this Dirrell, 27-0-1 (22), looks to be extinguishable by his best contenders. After 2015, Dirrell’s "0" will go and his belt will leave the USA.
Jermain Taylor, 33-4-1 (20), really doesn’t need any more trouble. The resurgent middleweight titlist, 36, almost seems like a wounded bird being picked off. If the law doesn’t get him just about any contender should be able to take advantage of his current mindset. His once scheduled bout with Sergio Mora had me ending his reign there. If the legal mist clears and Mora finds himself back in the title picture, we could be heading toward a dismal era of IBF champions. If deserving number one contender Hassan N’Dam N’Jikam gets his shot, Taylor’s reign seems most certainly to end. If Felix Sturm or Billy Joe Saunders somehow get a hold of him, it’s easy to imagine the fading jabber or the stamina-challenged Brit dethroning him as well. Even looking for the safe route, Taylor will struggle greatly to find asylum. Most likely Taylor, 36, loses the belt to incarceration, but if he can get back into the ring before he goes into prison blues, he’ll most likely enter the Big House as a former champion.
Mickey Bey is fortunate to hold the IBF lightweight title after his controversial decision over Miguel Vazquez. The key to his reign will be to avoid punchers. While his knockout numbers aren’t great, number one rated Denis Shafikov’s power seemed devastating in pummeling Rustam Nagaev two fights back. If it had to go down one way, I would pick Shafikov to be the one dethroning Bey. Should Bey go the rematch route, a second win over Vazquez would be no easy task in itself. However, Bey, 31, has some easier marks in his top ten to keep his reign rolling and I expect the shaky champion to take the safest route he can. His speed and athleticism can carry him far enough in his division before his chin and, perhaps, stamina fail him. Without Terrence Crawford around, Bey should be trying to impose himself as the top banana in the division. Yet, that is exactly the strategy which gets him defeated. I’m not impressed with Bey and expect him to be beltless by next winter.
Amnat Ruenroeng, 35, finished 2014 deserving dark horse honorable mention as a Fighter of the Year. He scored three solid wins against the odds in some cases, but most boxing fans still have no idea who he is. Well, besides the IBF flyweight champion, Ruenroeng is an unfortunate man. While he has Brian Viloria and John Riel Casimero as highly rated challengers, I am fairly certain Ruenroeng could win those fights because he’s that talented. However, if Ruenroeng does meet those boxers in 2015, my hunch is that it will be as a contender. Unlike most fighters on this list, Ruenroeng has a bout scheduled soon. On March 7, the Thai champion takes on Zou Shiming, the three time Chinese Olympic Medal winner. More importantly, Shiming, the "Too Big To Fail" flyweight is one of Bob Arum’s meal tickets and the key to further success in the Chinese boxing market in Macao. Ruenroeng has an amateur loss to Shiming, but so far it is clear that the Thai boxer has adapted to the professional ranks more so than his Chinese challenger. However, that will not matter. Their upcoming world title fight takes place at the Cotai Arena at Venetian Resort in Macao, China. Shiming certainly has the ability to trouble the champion, but, regardless, the judges will not allow Shiming to lose. That’s a terrible reality for the IBF champion. So, my prediction is that by early 2015, Ruenroeng will be an ex-champion after some home-cooking in Macao or because Shiming delivered on Top Rank’s investment. I can’t see his reign going past March, but welcome the prospect.
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