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.
I finished 7-3* for my 2016 picks at SecondsOut. Four of my five champions to remain held onto their titles in the ring. Danny Jacobs fought only once in stopping Sergio Mora to remain champion. Jacobs is slated to face Gennady Golovkin in March and will be an underdog likely to be beltless soon enough. Terry Flanagan defended his title thrice without any real threat to his throne. Hopefully, the bigger fights will come for Flanagan in 2017. Rances Barthelemy defended his title one time in 2016 with a decision over Mickey Bey. Barthelemy moved up in weight and thus vacated the title. Wanheng Menayothin fought four times in 2016, defending his title twice in that time. Menayothin has an interesting challenge this week against Melvin Jerusalem and is favored to continue to reign. Only Viktor Postol let me down, but I expected an awful lot from him since he faced Terence Crawford in his only bout of 2016. Postol was dominated and dropped a couple of times en route to a wide decision loss.
Only three of my five champions to go managed to lose their belts in the ring. Exciting cruiserweight Krzysztof Glowacki fought twice in 2016. He was able to drop Steve Cunningham four times for an impressive showing, but was thoroughly outboxed by Oleksandr Usyk to surrender his title. Glowacki’s style seemed too exciting for a long reign, but hopefully he can rebound well. Carlos Cuadras defended his title once in 2016, but handed the belt over to Roman Gonzalez after a Fight of the Year candidate. Cuadras acquitted himself quite well, marking up the Nicaraguan’s face, but simply did not win the rounds to keep it on the scorecards. Yu Kimura won his title in 2015 with an Upset of the Year contender, but lost the title soon after in his first scheduled defense against Ganigan Lopez. Lopez boxed effectively and never let Kimura into the fight. Both Badou Jack and Jose Argumedo proved me wrong and remained world champions throughout 2016. Jack held onto his title with a draw against Lucian Bute, but most felt he deserved the win. Even James DeGale failed to take Jack’s strap to start 2017 in another bout ruled a draw that many saw as a close win for Jack. Jack gave up his belt on his own terms and plans to campaign as a light heavyweight. Argumedo defended his minimumweight crown twice and was in complete control in doing so.
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 2017 and which champions will remain and those who will go.
Those Who Will Remain:
Anthony Joshua, 18-0-0 (18), will not only keep his IBF heavyweight title through 2017, I expect he will keep his KO-streak alive for at least one more defense. On April 29, Joshua takes on former heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko at Wembley Stadium. In the biggest test of Joshua’s career, both figuratively and literally, I expect the Watford, Hertfordshire resident to come on strong with a breakout performance. Klitschko has been inactive since the end of 2015 when he looked like a complete pedestrian in losing the crown to Tyson Fury. The two gentleman of the sport will hopefully put their best behaviors aside and fight one for the fans. Joshua should beat this version of Klitschko without much struggle. I expect an early night after about two or three rounds. Once this is done, I would expect Joshua to fight twice more. One of those opponents could be a fellow champion as Joseph Parker and Deontay Wilder may seek the financial rewards of a unification bout. However, they may seek it against each other. The other names in the division aren’t as threatening and I would expect Joshua to beat all of them handily with the exception of Luis Ortiz. Ortiz is not nearly as impressive as he looked against Bryant Jennings, but he is no walk in the park for any man at heavyweight. His size and power will be hard to topple, but I expect a dynamic fighter like Joshua could pull it off. If I had to bet, I would say Kubrat Pulev gets a shot at Joshua will be the universally recognized heavyweight champion at the end of 2017.
Oleksandr Usyk, 11-0-0 (10), had a breakout year in 2016. He captured the WBO cruiserweight belt with a wide decision over Glowacki as mentioned earlier, but he also defended the belt against the very dangerous Thabiso Mchunu in December to get his KO-streak started up again. Thankfully, Usyk caught the attention of HBO and will fight next on the Golovkin-Jacobs card. Without an opponent selected at this time, I am expecting a showcase level opponent for his HBO date at Madison Square Garden. Roman Gonzalez will also be in the card, so a lot of eyes will be watching to see just how good the Ukraine boxer really is. The most dangerous opponent in Usyk’s rankings is Mairis Briedis, who is already scheduled to meet Marco Huck in April. American Michael Hunter might be a fitting choice for Usyk’s second U.S. appearance. After his next outing, Usyk will probably be in for a more major bout against one of his champion peers. At thirty, Usyk does not have all the time in the world and the current crop of cruiserweight don’t know the meaning of the term "duck". The Briedis-Huck winner will be an instant natural. Even Murat Gassiev and Denis Lebedev could end up in the conversation for an Usyk bout. I expect the road to be a challenging one for Usyk in 2017, but he will still be the world’s best cruiserweight at the stroke of midnight come December 31st.
Oscar Valdez, 21-0-0 (19), is the future of Mexican boxing. The 2008 Olympian impressed as a rising prospect and truly elevated his game to a different level as a contender. He’s crushed his two best opponents to date in Chris Avalos and Evgeny Gradovich and picked up the vacant WBO feather weight title soon after. With one defense behind him in 2016, Valdez will be in the market for a name opponent next time out. Nonito Donaire is rumored to be that name, but nothing is official at this time. Donaire still has a strong pulse in the sport and was perhaps a little unlucky to not get the decision over Jesse Magdaleno last time out. Valdez will be another beast entirely and should handle Donaire a defeat similar to the one Nicholas Walters gave him a couple of years ago. Valdez’ list of WBO challengers is not a threatening one and he could safely retain his belt if he met the entire top fifteen over the next twelve months. After Donaire, should it happen, I don’t expect a lot of people to be knocking down doors to get to Valdez. Yet, I see a big fight for him and that could be with fellow Mexican Abner Mares or fellow Olympian Joseph Diaz on one of the major networks. I’m not ready to say Valdez is the best at 126 because he’s not, but I do think the likely path he will take in 2017 will be one he can handle. Valdez will be a world champion in position for a Super Fight come 2018.
Kazuto Ioka, 21-1-0 (13), finished a solid 2016, stopping challengers who still reside in his top fifteen. With four defenses in total, I expect Ioka to add two more in 2017. The hard-hitting body puncher from Japan will likely meet his number one contender Yodmongkol Vor Saengthep in a good match-up, but one Ioka should surely win inside the distance. Ioka was dropped by young Stamp Kiatniwat in his most recent defense, so there are enough chinks in his armor to make things interesting. Within his WBA rankings are some potential surprises in Artem Dalakian, Vincent Legrand, and Kevin Satchel, but none of these foes has faced the opposition that Ioka has already turned back. The fight most fans want to see is a showdown with Donnie Nietes, who, due to his history with the WBO, will probably steer himself toward Zou Shiming. One of Ioka’s past opponents, Juan Hernandez, has the chance to pick up the WBC belt in March. Hernandez and Ioka have both matured as fighters since their first meeting and that potential unification bout would be interesting if all the pieces fall into place for it to happen. A bout against countryman Takuya Kogawa is another interesting possibility. Expect more brutal body work from the Japanese legacy and expect him to probably have his final bout of the year in the closing days of 2017. When the calendar runs down to 2018, Ioka will still have his belt around his waist.
Kosei Tanaka, 8-0-0 (5), also finished 2016 with a bang. The twenty-one year old became a two-division champion with his stoppage of Moises Fuentes on the last day of the year. The WBO champion folded up one of his most dangerous threats in the rankings to win the title and he already beaten Ryuji Hara one of the other more formidable names on the list. 2017 is going to be a big year for Tanaka and we have good reason to believe that the names we will be seeing may not appear in the rankings. Tanaka has already expressed great interest to unify against his fellow countrymen Ryoichi Taguchi and Akira Yaegashi, who both hold belts. Taguchi was lucky to leave 2016 behind him with his champion status intact after receiving a draw in December. Yaegashi also had a questionable victory back in May of last year and has plenty of miles on his chassis. Tanaka fights to the level of his opposition and, like Fuentes, these two would bring of the best, which is an absolute beast, in Tanaka. Tanaka will not only keep his WBO belt in 2017, but I have almost certainty that he will be wearing the WBA strap as well.
Those Who Will Go:
Jorge Linares, 41-3-0 (27), has proven me wrong before. Most recently, he defeated Anthony Crolla in a fight I expected to turn sour for him after Crolla crowded him early on and wore his stamina down for a stoppage late. Instead, Linares put in one of his best performances in dominating Crolla. Well, they are going to do it again in March as Linares will return to Manchester Arena. I still think Crolla can do it, but he has to fight the right game plan and be much more active than he was last time. He left Linares body alone for far too long. If Linares repeats his win over Crolla, I expect his team to steer more toward unification with either Terry Flanagan or the Dejan Zlaticanin-Mikey Garcia winner. Linares is among the most gifted boxers in terms of skill, but he lacks some durability and a grinder like Zlaticanin would be a nightmare for him. There are some other danger men like Petr Petrov, who is rated number one for the WBA at lightweight. Win or lose, Linares, 31, is always entertaining. Call it a hunch, but I think Linares’ time with a title runs out in 2017.
Jason Sosa, 20-1-4 (15), is such a likable guy and it’s hard to root against him, but I think Sosa’s reached his ceiling in one of boxing’s most stacked divisions. There is some good talent in Sosa’s top fifteen and it’s conceivable that he could be upset by a name we might not expect. After all, Sosa was very fortunate to get a draw with Nicholas Walters and he was way behind when he rallied to stop Javier Fortuna for the title. Sosa has a lot going for him and I could see Bob Arum using Sosa to help build Vasyl Lomachenko’s resume. Sosa’s a good looking fighter and has the support of Puerto Rican fans, which helps at the box office, particularly if Lomachenko were to seek a fight at Madison Square Garden. Plus, Fortuna is rated fourth and it’s entirely possible he could secure a rematch in the next twelve months. Sosa has risen pretty high with heart, will, and a little bit of power. I see a smooth boxer having his way with him though. Gervonta Davis is hot right now and a battle between the New Jersey and Maryland boxers would be a natural clash of styles. I don’t know who it will be, but I would lay money on Sosa not keeping his belt long enough to see the New Year.
Francisco Vargas, 23-0-2 (17), easily has the most challenging top ten list of challengers for his WBC super featherweight title. Couple that with the fact that he’s had two life and death encounters in his last two outings and you have to wonder how long this thrill-a-minute champion can last. Vargas meets his number seven contender, Miguel Berchelt, this weekend. I expect Vargas to win this bout, but you never know with a guy like Vargas. With Takashi Miura and Orlando Salido still rated highly and the desire for rematches pretty high for fans, it’s likely either of those could take place. Miguel Roman also is stalking Vargas at number two in the rankings and if he gets passed Miura, he’ll earn his own title shot. Tevin Farmer, Javier Fortuna, Jhonny Gonzalez, and Andres Gutierrez all are ranked as well. Vargas has a lot to handle and that doesn’t even include possible unification bouts with Sosa, Lomachenko, and Davis right at his weight. Styles make fights and Vargas’ makes for great ones. However, his style does not make for a lengthy reign. Vargas says adios to his title in 2017.
Carl Frampton, 23-0-0 (14), fights the best fighters in the world. Once you do that long enough, you "0" tends to go. Boxing’s 2016 Fighter of the Year is on a big high right now and it’s been a great ride, but I think Frampton hits a speed bump in 2017. In fact, I am picking him to lose his rematch with Leo Santa Cruz this weekend. In his last two fights with Santa Cruz and Scott Quigg, Frampton faded down the stretch after some great work early on. In both cases, he let his opponent back into the fight and showed less than great stamina. At the very least Quigg and Santa Cruz made the scorecards interesting over the last six rounds. Having already gone twelve with Frampton, I think Santa Cruz has what it takes to improve on his game plan and get started earlier. He stung Frampton a couple of times and he has the stamina to throw all night. Frampton has some other interesting challenges at featherweight including Lee Selby, a fellow champion fighting on the same card. If Frampton gets passed Santa Cruz, Selby is likely to be next and the preparation for this big fights might do Frampton in as much as the opponents themselves. Abner Mares also holds a title now too and he is no easy walk through the park. I don’t like saying it, but Frampton’s belt get ripped away from him in 2017.
Ryoichi Taguchi, 25-2-2 (11), just might be boxing’s version of a dead man walking. Taguchi looked solid in winning his title against Albert Rossel in 2014, but he has struggled and looked mediocre in most of his championship defenses. There are some legitimate threats in Taguchi’s rankings and he looked lucky to keep his title last month in receiving a draw against unheralded Carlos Canizales. Taguchi is rumored to be fighting Robert Barrera next. He is rated number one and lost a split decision to Canizales as a prospect. Hekkie Budler and Jesse Espinas are two other highly-rated contenders, who could provide trouble for the lanky Japanese boxer. However, the real threat is in Kosei Tanaka, who has been talking unification and Taguchi’s people might be listening. The idea has been entertained and it might be one of those end of the year showdowns in the final hours of 2017. It’s okay, I can wait to be right. However, it doesn’t take a Tanaka to beat Taguchi. I am certain that Taguchi will be title-less by the end of the year. Take it to the bank.
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January 21, 2017