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 8-2 with my final pick proving incorrect on the last day of 2017. All of my champions to remain kept their titles with victory or surrendered them to move up or retired as champion. Anthony Joshua remained heavyweight champion with a career defining, off the floor KO over former champion Wladimir Klitschko. A rematch seemed natural, but the elder statesman opted to retire and leave Joshua to manage the division. Joshua added another defense with a stoppage of late substitute Carlos Takam. Oleksandr Usyk also defended twice to remain champion at cruiserweight. Usyk overcame a slow start to decision Mike Hunter and then capped off his year with a TKO over Marco Huck, a cruiserweight all-time great upon retirement. He begins 2018 with a clash against Mairis Briedis in a tantalizing match-up. Oscar Valdez kept his title at featherweight, but showed signs of vulnerability in both of his outings. Valdez went to war with Miguel Marriaga and won a decision wider than the action warranted. Next, Valdez found himself on the canvas before going to the cards successful against Genesis Servania. Kazuto Ioka retained his title in his lone showing for 2017 with a wide points win over Noknoi CP Freshmart and then retired on December 31. Kosei Tanaka added two title defenses at junior flyweight out-pointing Angel Acosta and then stopping Palangpol CP Freshmart before vacating the title and announcing his rise to flyweight.
My prognostications in regard to who would lose his title were less accurate. Jorge Linares remained the man to beat at lightweight in keeping his belt around his waist in a rematch victory over Anthony Crolla and a slightly tougher challenge by Luke Campbell. Linares took a split decision over Campbell, but the nod his way was a rather generous call. Jason Sosa, as expected, was served up to Vasyl Lomachenko and summarily dismissed. However, Sosa gave up the belt to challenge Lomachenko, but since he lost anyway the pick stands. Francisco Vargas was too exciting for his own good and his style wasn’t meant to last at top. Vargas was stopped early on in 2017 by Miguel Berchelt in his first bout of the year to lose his crown. On the same night, Carl Frampton lost his rematch to Leo Santa Cruz and became title-less for the rest of the year. Ryoichi Taguchi, originally headed for a showdown with Tanaka, ended up retaining his title twice. First, he stopped Robert Barrera and then he unified against Milan Melindo, winning a decision to close out 2017.
With boxing it can be increasingly difficult to determine which road champions will take, but fight aficionados can predict the end result with years of insight and a whole lot of guesswork regarding match-making. If not, here’s my take on 2018 and which champions will retain and those who will lose their belts.
Those Who Will Retain:
Jermell Charlo had one hell of a 2017. It could be hard to top his KO performances over Charles Hatley and Erikson Lubin, but when you’re hot, you’re hot. As the only remaining Charlo in the division, Jermell did a lot to clear away some risks from his top ten. A move to 160 to follow his brother Jermall is an unlikely scenario. Three passed victims in Vanes Martirosyan, Hatley, and Lubin currently reside in Charlo’s top ten. Rematches with either man are unlikely and unthreatening. The biggest challenge for Charlo is his mandatory Maciej Sulecki and holds credible wins over Hugo Centeno Jr. and Jack Culcay. With five recent outings in the USA, Sulecki could provide a solid Polish crowd in a number of venues for a marketable fight. However, Charlo seems to be on another level at the moment and hitting his prime. Sulecki may provide a long night, but one that I would expect Charlo to finish with his reign intact. Julian Williams is also highly rated after being stopped by Jermall, but showed plenty of weaknesses in a tight contest with Ishe Smith in 2017. Cedric Vitu has a lot of bouts, but has not beaten an opponent of high enough caliber to suggest he’d be more than a routine defense for the American. Charlo remains king at 154 throughout 2018.
Miguel Berchelt had a breakout year in 2017; he has one primary concern for 2018 and that’s a showdown with Vasyl Lomachenko. It’s a bout that could happen, should happen, but I’d wager it won’t. With Lomachenko as a factor Berchelt’s rankings are replete with fellow Mexicans who are either far more worn or green than he is. Miguel Roman is his mandatory and deserves a shot, but stylistically, he does not stack up well with Berchelt who can box and avoid a brawl as he did in winning the title from Vargas, who is rated second and has little hope of winning a rematch. Eduardo Hernandez rated third is a fresh face, but has not seen action against anyone like Berchelt, but marks his most dangerous challenge should it happen. Jhonny Gonzalez is ranked fourth and still has power in both hands. Give him a puncher’s chance, but even that is a stretch at super featherweight. Fifth ranked Cristian Mijares will be Berchelt’s first defense of 2018 on February 10. Mijares is a solid pro and will provide the champion with rounds, but will likely lose a lopsided decision in similar fashion to his bout with Leo Santa Cruz. Berchelt detractors will point to his chin due to his one round KO loss several years back, but he was clearly caught cold and has grown as a champion since. The road should be entertaining and a successful path for Berchelt in 2018.
Rey Vargas won three times in 2017 and two of those opponents, Gavin McDonnell and Ronny Rios, remain firmly inside of the top ten. Rematches are both unnecessary and unlikely at this juncture. There are some meaningful bouts to be made within his top three ranked contenders. Julio Ceja has a big punch and a soft chin and always makes for entertaining scraps. It’s a likely challenge for the fellow Mexican. Ceja did look quite vulnerable last time out against Breilor Teran in a contest he might have taken too lightly. With Ceja’s style, that’s a bad attitude. Vargas’ style should make easier work of Ceja than say Hugo Ruiz’, who is ranked third. Ruiz is another Mexican with good chances to fight Vargas in 2018. However, he matches right up with Ceja in terms of vulnerability. Ruiz has been inactive for over a year since he retired in his corner against old-warhorse Hozumi Hasegawa. Between the rust and his own shortcomings, Ruiz would be easy work for Vargas. The biggest threat to Vargas’ crown is number two ranked Diego De La Hoya, who has shown world class ability and certainly has a strong promotional backing. De la Hoya proved a lot of people wrong by beating Randy Caballero comfortably in 2017. My hunch though is that Vargas will be too much this time around and will hand the young contender his first defeat, but De La Hoya will rise again to have his day, just not against Vargas in 2018. Come the toll of midnight on December 31st, Vargas will have retained his status as champion.
Zolani Tete will have a big 2018. Already, Tete is slated to meet Omar Andres Narvaez in a high profile bout on February 10. However, Tete is expected to walk away from that one victorious and, perhaps, somewhat easily. Narvaez is the number one contender, so Tete can be selective of his opposition for the remaining ten months without much cause for concern. Some attractive names reside in his top ten, like Paul Butler, but Tete already dispatched the British boxer as a super flyweight. Juan Carlos Payano is a high-quality name, but not a major financial reward and not an urgent matter as the third contender in line. A newcomer to the division already has Tete’s attention mind you and he is a real "Monster". That’s right, Naoya Inoue is set to test bantamweight waters and he expressed interest in Tete’s belt. With the good graces of their common world championship organization, Inoue will emerge as number one contender upon arrival. Tete’s performance against Narvaez will be under heavy scrutiny as Inoue dispatched the Argentine defensive wizard in two. It’s a great fight if it happens and should it, I will be backing Tete to remind us that monsters don’t exist. Tete’s championship status remains throughout 2018.
Srisaket Sor Rungvisai has a major obstacle for title retention on his dance card for February 24. Juan Francisco Estrada proved himself at 108 and 112 long ago, but his recent win over Carlos Cuadras proved he is also a dangerous proposal at 115. Rungvisai is riding high after back to back victories over Roman Gonzalez. The Thai fighter knows a tough assignment when he sees one. After all, he debuted against Akira Yaegashi, depending on which reports you subscribe to, back in 2009. Should the Thai puncher prevail he will have managed his mandatory challenger early on in the year. His present number two is Carlos Cuadras, who previously defeated him on a technical decision in 2014. Rungvisai waited on a rematch for years as a mandatory challenger, but Cuadras wanted nothing to do with him. Cuadras is still formidable, but tough battles with Gonzalez, David Carmona, and Estrada have him looking a tad less fresh. A rematch with Cuadras would come with the Mexican slightly waning and the Thai champion very much at the height of his career, which also includes an overlooked title winning stoppage of Yota Sato in 2013. Gonzalez rates third, but would never seek a trilogy after his damaging defeats. The biggest danger in the division, Naoya Inoue, is leaving for bantamweight by his own word. The rest of the field presents only marginal threats, but could produce fun bouts with Koki Eto or Rau’Shee Warren. Come the next twelve months, we will see Rungvisai establish himself as one of the best Pound for Pound and in Thailand’s history. He will not lose his belt forcefully in 2018.
Those Who Will Be Dethroned:
Deontay Wilder is likable as a personality and exciting as a champion, but with almost forty bouts behind him, his career lacks depth. His power is real, but Bermane Stiverne, the first time around, represents the toughest he been matched to date. His 2017 rematch with Stiverne was a farce, but it was a replacement opponent and Wilder wasted no time. Prior to that he struggled early before crushing Gerald Washington. A number of Wilder’s challengers such as Eric Molina and Johann Duhaupas have been able to complicate the champion before succumbing to his power. Bouts with Alexander Povetkin and Luis Ortiz fell through due to failed drug tests, so we missed out on the biggest challenges of Wilder’s career. Yet, Ortiz will be next for Wilder and we will finally see him in with a legitimate peer in his division. The heavyweight division is craving a big fight and Ortiz or Anthony Joshua matched with Wilder will provide it. Ortiz is several inches shorter than Wilder, but much thicker around the torso. It will be interesting to see Ortiz’ power against Wilder’s chin and thin legs. Ortiz has been far from consistent, but my pick is for the Cuban to spring the upset and take Wilder’s title. If not, a win of this magnitude will propel Wilder toward Joshua before year’s end and that will be the end of Wilder’s reign. Wilder loses his belt in the ring in 2018.
Adonis Stevenson has hit forty years old and his ring appearances have dwindled in recent years scoring two quick stoppages over Thomas Williams Jr. and Andrej Fonfara, whose results have been a mixed bag over their recent outings. Gone are years like 2013, which saw Stevenson stop Darnell Boone, Chad Dawson, Tavoris Cloud, and Tony Bellew in successive bouts. Since then, Stevenson has looked vulnerable or flat in various bouts. Others have simply been mismatches scheduled to avoid his mandatory challenger Eleider Alvarez, who has accepted step-aside fees already. The bout looks scheduled and then falls through and would likely end Stevenson’s reign should it happen. However, Stevenson isn’t much safer facing his next rated challengers Oleksandr Gvozdyk and Badou Jack. Stevenson might prolong his reign by facing Jean Pascal, which would have been big years ago, or Lucian Bute to attract an audience for an all-Canada clash, but he would be subject to further ridicule as he is already labeled the biggest "duck artist" in boxing. It’s a shame because Stevenson can both box and punch and at his best he would have been even money with Sergey Kovalev and still maybe. I am not sure which route Stevenson will take, but there are plenty of co-champions and contenders out there with his number who are more active and hungrier to prove themselves. Look for Stevenson to lose his title sometime in 2018 or even retire. Retiring without meeting his overdue mandatory would be just like a loss and I’d take it.
Jeff Horn has a target on his back the size of Australia. His upset victory over Manny Pacquiao has been labeled the 2017 Robbery of the Year and rightfully so. Simply put, Horn doesn’t deserve to be called a champion. He’s a fine fighter, but his first defense against less heralded Gary Corcoran gave a sobering impression of just how low Horn’s ceiling for potential truly is. With that said, Horn was going to be the B-side to one of two fights: a Pacquiao rematch or a Terence Crawford welterweight coming out party. Neither fight is set, but Crawford has vacated his unified 140-pound titles and is now ranked number one by the WBO. Pacquiao is rated second. The lower portion of the top ten has couple danger-men in Konstantin Ponomarev and Ray Robinson, who will likely never get a shot. Horn will cash out in 2018 and he would be foolish not to. After all, a match with third rated Bradley Skeete could deliver a much smaller paycheck and a title loss for Horn, so we know which option Bob Arum will make for him. Come the start of 2019, Horn will be without his title mostly probably due to Crawford, who will be matched with Pacquiao soon after.
Luis Nery is too damn exciting to last long as a world champion in the formidable bantamweight division or is he? Nery is one of my favorite active fighters and he just knocked the hell out of an even greater favorite of mine in dethroning Shinsuke Yamanaka. Nery scored three stoppages in 2017 which included Yamanaka in four rounds and Arthur Villanueva in six. Nery has been down twice in his career, which includes his most recent outing. He was also hurt once or twice against Yamanaka. A rematch with Yamanaka is likely, but it’s not the fight I see things going South for him. The fact of the matter is that Nery’s greatest contender is the former champion. After that, a former titlist Juan Carlos Payano stands at sixth and rising Nordine Oubaali at seventh. Both represent a big challenge for Nery. His co-champions in Zolani Tete and Ryan Burnett also offer high potential for defeat. Then there is the unexpected. Nery is a puncher that swings wildly and doesn’t think about his gas tank. His chin can also be reach and scored upon even if he’s not hurt. Lee Haskins and Takuma Inoue can both box and have the pedigree to make the most of the right opportunity. Nery reign will be sweet, but I expect it will also be short. Thankfully, there’s no rule against regaining a title down line, which I expect Nery to do. My guess is that he will lose his belt in defeat, but political circumstances may also contribute to the Mexican losing his trinket in 2018.
Wanheng Menayothin is another boxer on this list that I consider must watch action, but I am in a small minority outside of Thailand who thinks so. Most of the boxing world is probably still clueless that the minimumweight titlist already matched Rocky Marciano’s 49-0-0 in 2017 with five victories. However, his first, a decision over Melvin Jerusalem, and his most recent, a decision over Tatsuya Fukuhara were both close calls. The Jerusalem fight looked like poor scoring and the Fukuhara was a scare a minimum. At thirty-two, Menayothin is long in the tooth and a veteran of many more bouts than his current peers with more than thirty of those going to the scorecards. Menayothin’s fights have been scheduled for ten or twelve bouts since he was 2-0 in 2007. Ten years is a long time for that and the signs of wear were apparent against Jerusalem and Fukuhara, which provided great action. A showdown with fellow countryman Knockout CP Freshmart may never happen sadly, but it won’t need to in order for Menayothin to be dethroned. His current top four is pretty close to a murder’s row in the division with Leroy Estrada, Byron Rojas, Ryuji Hara, and Simpiwe Khonco ranked in order. At least three of those boxers has a damn good chance of dethroning Menayothin and the other is named Hara, who is no stranger to an action-packed bout. Neophyte Tsubasa Koura could join the parade of young Japanese champions on the rise and is currently rated seventh. Menayothin’s greatest defense is that he fights at home. His second would be his excellent boxing and grinding skills. I expect he break the 50-0-0 mark a couple of times before losing or he may simply retire with that record in hand. My hunch is that we will see a legitimate defeat in 2018.
Boxing has always been the "Theatre of the Unexpected" and 2018 should be no different. In a sport where Caleb Truax rises to the occasion to dethrone James DeGale or Jeff Horn gets a dubious decision over Manny Pacquiao, anything can truly happen any time and any place in the realm of boxing.
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