By: Matt O’Brien
“I think 2016 should go down as one of the worst years in boxing history, maybe the worst.” – Oscar De La Hoya, October 2016.
Photo Credit: HBO Sports
The Golden Boy’s sad assessment of the state of boxing almost a year ago may have been somewhat of an exaggeration, but it’s fair to say 2016 was not exactly a banner year for the sport. Still recovering from the stench of the Mayweather-Pacquiao mega-letdown in 2015 and facing the prospect of being usurped as the world’s No.1 combat sport by a surging UFC, boxing was certainly in need of a serious shot in the arm.
Many of the sport’s detractors, especially the less informed members of the mainstream media as well as some of the staunchest supporters of MMA, were prepared to go even further than De La Hoya and pronounce the imminent demise of the Sweet Science. Writing for the LA Times in September 2016, for example, reporter Dylan Hernandez confidently declared: “Boxing is dead”.
Well, if boxing is dying, it is one hell of a glorious death. 2017 has been an absolute treat, with a raft of superb cards around the world and several of the best and most meaningful fights across the divisions getting made.
January started with a bang as the world’s two best super middleweights, James DeGale and Badou Jack, fought to a draw in their attempted unification fight in New York. Keith Thurman then unified two welterweight belts in March, while April saw 90,000 fans pack out Wembley Stadium for one of the best heavyweight title fights in recent memory. Errol Spence travelled to the UK for another massive stadium showdown with Kell Brook in May, and in June Andre Ward and Sergey Kovalev fought to determine pound-for-pound supremacy in a rematch for the WBO/WBA/IBF light-heavyweight championships. Then in August boxing crowned it’s first undisputed champion for 12 years, as Terrence Crawford captured all four major belts at 140lbs.
Of course, most recently the richest fight in history also happened to take place in a boxing ring and saw MMA’s biggest star easily dismantled over 10 rounds. The list of huge boxing fights in 2017 goes on and on, and this weekend the trend continues.
Boxing’s little men do not always receive the attention or the acclaim that fighters higher up the weight classes typically garner, but it’s hard to ignore this stacked super flyweight card. Three quality fights, two of which are for world titles and feature two of the most talented operators in the sport, while the third pitches two exciting former world champions against each other in a battle of top contenders. There is nothing not to like about this event.
Kicking things off, American viewers will be treated to their first look at Japanese sensation Naoya “The Monster” Inoue (13-0), as the WBO 115lbs champion makes the sixth defense of his title on his American debut, versus Antonio Nieves (17-1-2) of Cleveland, Ohio. The young phenom is already a two-weight world champion at just 24 years of age and his fluid, rangy technique and vicious body attack is one of the most pleasing styles to watch in the sport. Expect the Japanese prodigy to do the business and set up a return to American soil against one of the other winners on the main card.
The chief supporting bout is a terrific Mexican civil war between former WBC 115lbs champion Carlos Cuadras (36-1-1) and former WBA/WBO 112lbs champion, Juan Francisco Estrada (35-2). Since losing a closely contested points decision to Roman Gonzalez back in 2012, Estrada is on a nine-fight win streak, including impressive victories over former world champs such as Brian Viloria, Giovani Segura and Hernan Marquez. Meanwhile Cuadras is also on the comeback trail having lost his title to Gonzalez, being defeated over twelve rounds in the Nicaraguan’s 115lbs debut last year.
In what promises to be an exciting, high-skills match-up, the winner will command a spot as the top contender in the division. This one could go either way, but I’m going with the crisp combination punching of Estrada to see him through to a points victory in a tightly fought bout.
Finally, the main event on Saturday sees an immediate rematch of one of the most grueling fights and biggest upsets of the year so far, when the unheralded Thai Srisaket Sor Rungvisai (43-4-1) claimed a surprising majority decision over Roman “Chocolatito” Gonzalez in March. The Nicaraguan four-weight world champion went into that contest with a perfect 46-0 record and was widely regarded as the finest pound-for-pound fighter on the planet. Floored in the opening stanza by the naturally bigger challenger, Gonzalez responded well and took firm control of the contest over the middle rounds. The Thai fighter showed incredible guts and resilience to come back into the fight over the second half, though he seemed very fortunate to receive the judges’ verdict – if Gonzalez had won just a single extra point on one of the scorecards, he would have retained his title via majority draw.
In the first fight the two men threw an incredible combined total of 1,953 punches, and the return is likely to be just as bloody and fiercely contested. “Chocolatito” clearly owns the superior skillset of the two, but he is also fighting at a significant disadvantage in weight. The smaller frame and aggressive, counter punching style of Gonzalez also means that he will inevitably spend much of the fight “in the pocket”, with the extra natural strength of the Thai posing real danger. Although I expect the more accurate punching and better defence of the former champ to prevail, as I believe he deserved to last time, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Sor Rungvisai drag Gonzalez into another war of attrition and make it a close call on the official cards once again.
The fun does not end at the sound of the main event’s final bell, however. In fact, almost as exciting as the card itself are the potential follow-up fights that can be made in the wake of Saturday’s results.
Most obviously, assuming that both come through with a “W”, one of the best matches that could be made – not only in the super flyweight division but in the whole of boxing – would be a blockbuster clash between Japanese star Inoue and Nicaraguan legend Gonzalez. As well as crowning a unified and lineal champion at 115lbs, this would also springboard the winner towards the dizzy heights of boxing’s best practitioners, pound-for-pound. A match-up of this quality would easily surpass any to take place in boxing’s lower weight classes since Michael Carbajal and Humberto Gonzalez became the first little men to headline a PPV card back in 1993, in what turned out to be one of the fights of the decade. It is no exaggeration to say that a potential meeting between “The Monster” Inoue and “Chocolatito” Gonzalez could live up to similar expectations.
Estrada and Cuadras, both in the hunt for a rematch with Gonzalez, could equally provide exciting opposition for Inoue, should a superfight between the aforementioned pair be left to “marinate” a while longer, to use the promotional jargon. Assuming the two Mexicans deliver the kind of drama expected on Saturday, any combination of winner and loser of that fight vs. Gonzalez or Inoue would make for compelling viewing.
Of course, there is also the prospect of either Sor Rungvisai or Nieves – or both – pulling off the upset and throwing a great big spanner in the works. The Thai’s experience and gutsy style make him a tough assignment for anyone, and even coming off a decent losing performance versus Gonzalez he would still present an interesting challenge for Inoue, with a fight between the two South-East Asians no doubt doing great business in Japan. And while Nieves starts as a huge underdog, he comes in without the pressure of being expected to win on his shoulders. The Japanese fighter is boxing away from home for the first time, and while it’s hard to see him losing, Sor Rungvisai’s win over Gonzalez should remind us that no fight is a foregone conclusion.
In short, the possible combinations of intriguing matches emanating from this weekend’s fantastic card are numerous, and the fact that one of boxing’s lowest weight classes is gaining the kind of attention usually reserved for stars in the heavier divisions is a great sign that the sport overall is in very good health.
So, if you know anyone suggesting that boxing is “dying”, you might want to direct them over to HBO this Saturday night – they’ll see that the Sweet Science is alive and kicking. With so many other excellent fights already on the horizon, including the GGG-Canelo megabout and a plethora of mouth-watering match-ups in the World Boxing Super Series, boxing really is booming.