The Lightweight division is one of the weird division's in the sport right now, thanks to some odd decisions, and political game playing, by the WBC and the WBA. On paper it should be a division with 2 champions set to unify their titles in Spring, but instead it has two legitimate champions, two pretenders to the throne and another pretender on the way.
WBO, WBC "Franchise" and WBA "Super" - Vasyl Lomachenko (14-1, 10)
In the good old days unification bouts were the ideal and the type of bouts that were supposed to clear up the mess made by having 4 world titles. Instead Vasyl Lomachenko has found out that unifying titles has created a mess with the WBA and WBC both inventing new titles just to collect additional fees whilst someone ties up the main belts. Lomachenko moved to the Lightweight division in 2018, seeking challenges after the pointless match up with Guillermo Rigondeaux in 2017. He won the WBA belt in his divisional debut, he unified that with the WBO title in his next fight, had a mandatory and then added the WBC to his collection. In the space of 15 months he had won 3 titles and was lining up a bout at the IBF belt, before the WBC decided to call him the "Franchise" champion, creating a new belt for Devin Haney, and the WBA created a regular title, now held by Gervonta Davis.
WBO - Teofimo Lopez (15-0, 12)
The only legitimate title that Lomachenko doesn't hold is the IBF belt held by explosive American puncher Teofimo Lopez, who claimed the belt in December when he stopped Richard Commey. The touted American is an exciting, heavy handed fighter, but did have some flaws exposed last year when he faced Masayoshi Nakatani and struggled with Nakatani's size, reach, jab and toughness. His win over Commey covered over the Nakatani fight and set him up for the divisional super fight with Lomachenko. He's the division's banger, with dynamite fists, but out of the ring issues, and a lack of experience, combined with over-confidence, could be a problem when he takes faces someone like Lomachenko. At the age of just 22 he's being groomed as a future superstar of American boxing, and win or lose to Lomachenko he has the time to rebuild and become a big player on the US scene.
WBC "In Recess" - Devin Haney (24-0, 15)
Another unbeaten American youngster is Devin Haney, who got a WBC title in weird fashion, when the WBC made Lomachenko the Franchise champion and upgraded Haney's interim title. After defending the belt against the unknown Alfredo Santiago he suffered an injury and the WBC then made him Champion in Recess, making the whole giving him a title, in the way they did, look even more of a joke. At 21 years old and with sensational natural ability, a good boxing mind and a confident, yet level headed, approach in the ring Haney has the hall marks of being something very special. Sadly the WBC have cheapened his first title reign and it feels very much like he's been given an "email world title". His time will come, and he will be a star, but his WBC reign, so far, feels like little more than a cash grab by the WBC.
WBA "Regular" - Gervonta Davis (23-0, 22)
Another unbeaten American making their mark in the division, now, is Gervonta Davis, who made the move up in weight in December. He claimed the "vacant" WBA "regular" title when he stopped Yuriorkis Gamboa last time out, but he really failed to shine against an injured Gamboa. The fact Gamboa lasted into the 12 round, whilst fighting much of the bout on 1 foot, is a worry for Davis, who had been blowing out most opponents early on. Although a very talented and explosive fighter we do wonder about Davis' commitment and professionalism, and he looked in poor condition last time out. He is, also, naturally very small at the weight and this could be a major issue when he begins to face natural Lightweights.
As well as the champions at 130lbs we also have some interesting contenders in the division, with a mix of established names and emerging hopefuls.
Shavkatdzhon Rakhimov (15-0, 12)
IBF mandatory contender is Tajik born Russian Shavkatdzhon Rakhimov, an aggressive, raw fighter with heavy hands and brutal body shots. He's mostly fought in Russia where he has notched solid wins over Malcolm Klassen and Robinson Castellanos, though did travel outside of Russia for his last bout, an 8th round TKO win over Azinga Fuzile. Rakhimov can certainly be outboxed, but he's a hard man to beat with his power, toughness and physicality.
Oscar Valdez (27-0, 21)
Former WBO Featherweight champion Oscar Valdez has abandoned the 126lb division and began his pursuit of a second divisional world title as he's moved up to 130lbs. On paper this looks like a move that may not be the best for the Mexican. At 126lbs Valdez was a brutal, explosive boxer-puncher but he didn't look good at all in his Featherweight debut, where he was dropped by Adam Lopez and given a real test. At 29 years old we understand him outgrowing the Featherweight division, but we do wonder whether he can replicate his success at 130lbs.
Andrew Cancio (21-5-2, 16)
American puncher Andrew Cancio lost the WBA "regular" title last time out, when he was stopped by Rene Alvarado. That bout saw Cancio lose the WBA title and later leave Golden Boy Promotions under a cloud dissatisfaction, following a very public falling out between fighter and promoter. Cancio has since signed with Top Rank and is likely to get opportunities under Bob Arum who has several top names in the division under his promotional banner. Although not the most talented fighter out there the 31 year old can punch and a bout between him and some of the other contenders in the division would be fantastic to watch.
Joseph Diaz (30-1, 15)
Joseph "Jo Jo" Diaz is a former is a 2012 Olympian who has banged on the door a few times, albeit at Featherweight. He lost a competitive bout in 2018 to Gary Russell Jr, then beat Jesus M Rojas, but failed to make weight. Since the Rojas mishap Diaz has moved up to the Featherweight and looked a bit hot and cold. He looked solid against Freddy Fonseca but struggled with journeyman Jesus Cuadro. He'll be getting his first crack at a Super Featherweight world title at the end of the month, when he takes on IBF champion Tevin Farmer. For Farmer the bout is a chance to legitimise his much maligned reign whilst Diaz will be looking to prove he's world class.
Muhammadkhuja Yaqubov (15-0, 9)
Another Tajik born Russian in the division is 24 year old Muhammadkhuja Yaqubov. He's not on the same level of development as Shavkatdzhon Rakhimov, despite the two men having the same number of bouts, but he is another very talented, very aggressive and very fun to watch fighter. In recent years Yaqubov has beaten the likes of Ernie Sanchez, Emanuel Lopez, Jhon Gemino and Abraham Montoya. The unbeaten Yaqubov is really fun to watch but will need to alter his style if he's to make the most of his abilities, and is likely to take longer to get into the mix than some of the other contenders in the division.
Carl Frampton (27-2, 15)
Former Super Bantamweight champion Carl Frampton singled his intent to be a player at 130lbs last year, when he took on Tyler McCreary and took a clear win over the previously unbeaten American. At the age of 32, and turning 33 in February, time is ticking on Frampton's career and it really does seem like it'll have to be this year for him to make a mark on the 130lb weight class. There has been a lot of talk of the "Jackal" fighting against Jamel Herring, though the original plans for that bout have had to be pushed back.
Joe Cordina (11-0, 7)
Welshman Joe Cordina is a former Olympian who is inked to the powerful Eddie Hearn. Talented, well schooled and at 28 years old Cordina looks like he's ready to push on with his career and 2020 could be a really big year for him. He turned professional with a very strong amateur background, though didn't have much hype. He has since developed carefully and it would seem almost a given that Eddie Hearn will secure the Welsh Wizard a title fight sooner rather than later. Expect him to fight in at least 1 eliminator this year, and potentially make his US debut to try and drum up interesting in him facing the Tevin Farmer or JoJo Diaz winner.
3 bouts we want to see in 2020:
Leo Santa Cruz Vs Rene Alvarado
Oscar Valdez Vs Andrew Cancio
Miguel Berchelt Vs Shavkatdzhon Rakhimov
The Super Featherweight division is one that has an interesting feel to it right now, with a good mix of champions, and a solid variety of challengers. Sadly the division hasn't been giving us the fights we want, but it's not been boring either with a number of solid bouts taking place at 130lbs in recent years.
WBC-Miguel Berchelt (37-1, 33)
Heavy handed Mexican Miguel Berchelt has become a bit of a forgotten figure in the division, yet he's probably the most interesting fighter at 130lbs. "El Alarcran" is 28 years old and has held the title for around 3 years, since stopping Francisco Vargas way back in 2017. Berchelt not only has a win over Vargas but also victories over Takashi Miura, Miguel Roman and Jason Sosa. Heavy handed, exciting, and aggressive Berchelt should be a focal point for the division but needs a suitable dance partner in 2020, rather than fighters who are on the slide, like he's faced in recent bouts.
IBF - Tevin Farmer (30-4-1, 6)
One fighter who has been given a lot of attention is American Tevin Farmer, who has been one of the big winners from Eddie Hearn working with DAZN, who have really tried to make Farmer into a star despite serving him up some awful challengers. The "American Idol" is a slippery and highly skilled defensive fighter who has run up 4 defenses since winning the title in August 2018. Sadly his competition has, for the most part, been against European level challengers who were horribly unproven at world level. Thankfully at the end of this month he steps up, massively, to take on Joseph Diaz in what should be a genuine, and well over-dug, test for Farmer.
WBO- Jamel Herring (21-2, 10)
American fighter Jamel Herring is a real good guy, a former US Marine and a man with a fantastic story. He was a former amateur standout who struggled to make an impact at 135lbs but has really found his footing at Super Featherweight with wins against Masayuki Ito and Lamont Roach. Aged 34 his time on top is likely limited, though there is talk of a big money bout with Carl Frampton fight later in the year. Despite a likely short reign he'll make the most of it and is a very skilled southpaw boxer-mover with fantastic height and reach for the division. Probably the "weakest" of the champions but still a very good fighter, who seems to want the big bouts.
WBA "super" - Leo Santa Cruz (37-1-1, 19)
The WBA have a mess on their hands at 130lbs, with Leo Santa Cruz winning the "super" title in November when he moved up in weight and took on Miguel Flores for the then vacant "super" title. Santa Cruz is a legitimate big name, and a "4 weight" world champion, but a title like this does him no favours at all. Sadly his reign at Featherweight was relatively poor and although still a fun fighter to watch the Mexican has lost much of the good will fans had for him when he was at Bantamweight and Super Bantamweight. A high guy with a solid chin and under-rated skills Santa Cruz had the tools to be a star, though like Berchelt a lack of credible opponents and in ring activity, has helped him back from being a real star.
WBA - "Regular" Rene Alvarado (32-8, 21)
The WBA really do want us to never forget the mess they have created at 130lbs. We've just mentioned Santa Cruz winning the "super" title, the supposedly more legitimate version of their "world" title. The reality however is that Rene Alvarado is the true champion in the division. Alvarado beat Andew Cancio in November for the belt, which was the same belt Cancio had taken from Alberto Machado, who in turn had beaten Jezzrel Corrales who had beaten Takashi Uchiyama, who's reign had been 6 years. The WBA really have created a mess and it doesn't end here. As for Alvarado he's an under-rated, aggressive, rugged type of guy who is riding an excellent 8 fight winning run. Although he has 8 losses he's very much better than the record he sports and a true nightmare at 130lbs.
WBA "interim" - Chris Colbert (14-0, 5)
When we said the WBA have made a mess here we weren't joking. It was on November 23rd that Alvarado claimed the WBA "regular" title, beating Andrew Cancio. On the same night the WBA let Santa Cruz and Flores fight for the Super title. Less than 2 months later they manufactured an "interim" title that talented 23 year old American Chris Colbert won when he beat Jezzrel Corrales. Colbert is a genuine talent, but this title is a farcical one and the heads of the WBA are really making a mockery of themselves with things like this. Colbert is a very good contender on a good run of wins, and fought 5 times in 2019. He should be a top contender, not a plastic title holder.
The contenders, and hopefuls, at Featherweight do make for an interesting mix from all over the globe. It's a division that perhaps lacks in terms of depth, but makes up for it in just how varied the division's hopefuls are. This isn't a division based around one country, but has contenders from every corner of the planet.
Tugstsogt Nyambayar (11-0, 9)
Mongolian fighter Tugstsogt Nyambayar is set for a WBC title fight in February, against Gary Russell Jr, and if he wins he would become the second ever world champion from Mongolia. "King Tug" is a skilled, heavy handed boxer-puncher but has got some real question marks over his head. He has been down a number of times, and it's hard to know, for sure, if that's a chin issue, or a problem with his balance. He often seems to be completely fine when he gets up, and it doesn't appear he's got any durability issues, but he has been down a few times so the question does remain. If he can dethrone Russell Jr we are likely to see the WBC title being a lot more active than it has been, so fingers crossed Nyambayar does take home the win in February.
Mark Magsayo (20-0, 14)
Filipino fighter Mark Magsayo has been banging on the door of a world title fight for a while and it would be a surprise if he get a shot sooner, rather than later. The talented Pinoy has managed to move out of the shadows of ALA and scored a couple of wins last year. Another win or two, letting him shake whatever rust is left, would help prepare him for a world shot, and an eliminator later in the year would certainly be over-due. It's time now that his backers put some money up for top opponents and let us find out just how good Magsayo really is.
Ryo Sagawa (9-1, 4)
Japanese champion Ryo Sagawa has been on a great run after an early career loss in 2017. He's won his last 8 in a row and has beaten the likes of Ryo Matsumoto, Al Toyogon and Reiya Abe, and has raced up the rankings. The talented boxer-puncher is 25 years old and is expected to defend his Japanese title against mandatory challenger Hinata Maruta later this year, after that's out the way don't be surprised to see Sagawa being linked to world title eliminators, if not world title fights themselves. He's a former amateur standout and he's quickly proving to be a versatile professional fighter who can box, punch and if needed, brawl. The only real worry is a concern about his chin, which has been shown to be less than solid already.
Michael Conlan (13-0, 7)
Talented former amateur standout Michael Conlan turned professional after a controversial 2016 Olympics, and did so after famously giving the bird to the judges. He turned professional with a lot of hype and expectations and the popular view was that he was going to be raced to a world title, potentially facing Shakur Stevenson somewhere down the line. Sadly Conlan has proven to be a rather frustrating fighter to get behind. The 28 year old is talented but appears to lack real power, and has a style that certainly isn't going to attract huge volumes of fans. He has strong Irish backing, and that will certainly help him get big fights and big crowds, but it would take some real changes for Conlan to go all the way to the top.
Musashi Mori (11-0, 6)
Another Japanese fighter than deserves a mention is 20 year old prospect Musashi Mori. The youngster, who is trained by Ismael Salas and managed by former world champion Yasuei Yakushiji, is already a regional champion and ended 2019 by stating that he was intending to fight for a world title in 2020. Don't be surprised at all if we hear a lot about Mori this year, and potentially even see him making a US debut at some point, to try and raise his profile. At the moment it's hard to see his route to a world title, though a potential bout with Can Xu, in China, would be possible, but a very tough ask for the youngster.
Miguel Marriaga (29-3, 25)
Hard hitting Colombian Miguel Marriaga is in an interesting position as his career seemed to be winding down after a loss to Vasyl Lomachenko, but now rumours are that he will get a world title fight with WBO champion Shakur Stevenson. Marriaga is certain on the wrong side of 30, aged 33, but is powerful, tough and dangerous. We wouldn't say he's the best possible opponent for Stevenson, but he is arguably the toughest opponent Stevenson will have faced so far, so it's hard to complain too much. Marriaga is a good test for a youngster and that's essentially the role he'll be playing against Stevenson.
Oscar Escandon (26-5, 18)
It's hard to know what to make of 35 year old Colombian Oscar Escandon. He's lost 3 of his last 4 but gave his career a massive, almost career saving, shot in the arm in December when he took out Jhack Tepora. Although no world beater Escandon does seem to be a very legitimate gate keeper and it'll be interesting to see whether or not he can land another big win this year. If he can it wouldn't be a surprise at all if Escandon managed to another world title fight before his career comes to an end.
The Featherweight division has gone through a lot of changes recently and we wouldn't be surprised to see it shine as a division in 2020 with a lot of very interesting match ups already being spoken about for the year ahead, one of which is just a few short weeks away.
IBF - Josh Warrington (30-0, 7)
One of two champions in the division known more for their volume punching than their power is Englishman Josh Warrington. The IBF champion claimed the belt in May 2018, when he dethroned Lee Selby, and has made 3 defenses, including wins over Carl Frampton and Kid Galahad. Warrington is a massive star in Leeds, and can fill out the local football stadium and at 29 is coming into his physical peak. Talk of unification bouts, with either WBO Shakur Stevenson or WBA Can Xu, have done their rounds and both of those would be very interesting bouts for Warrington, if the Englishman wants to prove he's the best in the division.
WBA - Can Xu (18-2, 3)
Chinese fighter Can Xu really burst on to the global scene last year when he took the WBA title with a win over Jesus M Rojas. Since then he has gone from strength to strength, defending his title against Shun Kubo and Manny Robles III. Like Josh Warrington it's fair to say that Xu is more known for his volume, and according to Compubox threw over 1,500 in his last bout, than his power. Despite that Xu does seem to hit harder than his record suggests and he has enough on his shots to get the respect of his opponents, even if he can't stop them. After his second defense he did call out Josh Warrington, and that would be an insane bout to watch, though we would be surprised to see that fight being made next. As the face of Chinese boxing Xu has the potential to bring huge attention to the sport, and could be a very significant figure going forward.
WBO - Shakur Stevenson (13-0, 7)
Fast rising American star Shakur Stevenson turned professional on the crest of momentum following a very impressive run at the 2016 Olympics. The expectation was that he would be an immediate star. It did however take a little while for Stevenson to settle into the pro ranks and really find his feet. In his last few fights however the Top Rank Promoted youngster has looked fantastic blowing out Viorel Simion, stopping Jessie Cris Rosales and dominating Christopher Rosales and Joet Gonzalez. It's still early days for the 22 year old, who only won the WBO title in October, but the future looks very, very bright for Stevenson. Rumour was that he would be facing Warrington next time out, but it now seems that his first defense will be against 33 year old Colombian Miguel Marriaga, who has quietly rebuilt since a 2017 loss to Vasyl Lomachenko.
WBC - Gary Russell Jr (30-1, 18)
It's hard to think of a man with the talent of Gary Russell Jr who has squandered their prime in a similar fashion. Russell had the ability to take the Featherweight division by the scruff of the neck and make it his. He could have been the face of American boxing and a massive star with his lighting quick speed and under-rated power. Instead his WBC title reign, which began in March 2015, has seen him defending the title just 4 times so far. That's once a year! It's unclear whether Russell doesn't like fighting, or just can't be bothered but his horrific level of activity has sat the WBC title on a shelf and really damaged both the title and his reputation. He is expected to make his annual appearance for 2020 in February, when he defends the WBC title against Tugstsogt Nyambayar. At the age of 31, and with his 32nd birthday coming in June, Gary Russell Jr really has wasted his career. A massive shame.
The Super Bantamweight isn't overly reliant on just the top guys, as there are some excellent fighters coming through the ranks and forcing themselves into the mix as legitimate contenders. It's here that the division really does it's self some massive favours. Not only is there a lot of contenders, but they are very varied in how they fight, and their experience.
Murodjon Akhmadaliev (7-0, 6)
Former Uzbek amateur standout Murodjon Akhmadaliev is leading the charge for contenders and will be getting his shot, at unified champion Danny Roman no less, at the end of January. The talented "MJ" is a heavy handed boxer-puncher who really was an exceptional amateur before turning professional and being fast tracked through the ranks, to a mandatory title fight. Despite the amateur pedigree Akhmadaliev hasn't fought like an amateur, and is instead a very aggressive fighter who is very fun to watch. A real emerging gem, who could be on the verge of something very big this year.
Hiroaki Teshigawara (21-2-2, 14)
Heavy handed Japanese boxer-puncher Hiroaki Teshigawara has really made himself into a legitimate contender in the last few years, after almost an unknown in 2016. Prior to his loss to Ryo Akaho in October 2016 few would have paid much attention to Teshigawara but since then he has gone 9-0 (8) and picked up notable wins against Keita Kurihara, Jason Canoy, Teiru Kinoshita and Shohei Omori. Those wins have helped put "Crush Boy" on the verge of a world title fight. Although gifted with heavy hands Teshigawara is more than just a puncher and utilises feints and peculiar angles and timing much better than most Japanese fighters.
Tramaine Williams (19-0-0-1, 6)
Unbeaten "Mighty Midget" Tramaine Williams has promised a lot since his 2012 debut, and it's really time the 27 year old broke through. The talented southpaw is lightning quick, hits much harder than his record suggests and is a real natural talent. Sadly his progress hasn't been anywhere near as quick as it should have been, but with 4 fights in 2019 he now has the momentum to have a big 2020. If Williams can be focused on the sport and get the support from promoters that he needs he could become a genuine contender this year, and he appears to be a genuine a genuine nightmare to fight.
Angelo Leo (19-0, 9)
Few men made the moves that Angelo Leo made in 2019 to move from prospect to contender. "El Chinito" went 4-0 during the year and scored notable wins over Mark John Yap and Cesar Juarez, stopping Juarez in 11 rounds, to put himself on the map. The 25 year old hits harder than his record suggests, is highly skilled, quick, exciting and looks a natural in the ring. Although he's maybe a year away from a title fight we would expect a big 2020 for Leo who will almost certainly end the year on the verge of a world title fight. Do not sleep on this very talented youngster.
Ronnie Rios (32-3, 16)
It seems hard to believe that Ronny Rios has only just turned 30! The upset minded veteran has been a professional for over a decade and despite some mixed results he has repeatedly shown that he can pull it out the big wins and be involved in the upper levels of the division. With wins over Rico Ramos, Andrew Cancio, Jayson Velez and Deigo De La Hoya it's hard to write Rios off against anyone. He'll almost certainly get a another shot at a world title and he could, on his day, upset any of the champions.
Carlos Castro (24-0, 10)
The 25 year old Carlos Castro isn't a big name but he's someone who has started to knock on the door of the division. The skilled boxer-mover scored a notable upset last year, over Genesis Servania, where he made the Filipino look very slow and clumsy, and is maybe only 3 or 4 fights away from becoming a legitimate contender. We'd like to see Castro face a couple of opponents of some note this year and really earn his shot. He's a legitimate hopeful, who has remained under the radar, some how.
Mike Plania (23-1, 12)
Unheralded Filipino Mike Plania is one of the many hidden gems from the Philippines, and one who should be on the radar of fight fans. If he's not he will be. The 22 year old "Magic" has notched 8 wins since his 2018 loss to Juan Carlos Payano and looks to be edging his way to another big fight in the US. From his last 5 bouts 4 have been in the US, and it'll only be a matter of time before his handlers let him off the leash and put him in there with a fellow contender. Although not a huge puncher Plania hits hard enough to get respect from opponents, is well schooled and is certainly someone who will begin to get a lot of eyes on him in the near future.
Thomas Patrick Ward (29-0, 4)
Englishman Thomas Patrick Ward is one of the fighters that belong the long list of fighters who should be better known than they are. The 25 year old is backed by MTK and is skilled enough to be in the world title mix. Sadly his team haven't yet backed him in the way they should and he's been unable to build on the momentum his 2019 win over Jesse Angel Hernandez. If MTK really believe in Ward they now need to put their money where their mouth is and pay for him for him to face fellow contenders and move him forward. His last 3 opponents were awful and he needs better. Ward lacks power but has a brilliant boxing brain, fantastic skills, great movement and understand of the ring. Now he just needs some suitable dance partners.
Luis Nery (30-0, 24)
Controversial Mexican fighter Luis Nery continued to drag his name through the mud in 2019 by missing weight for a WBC Bantamweight title eliminator. With that weight issue rearing it's head again it's clear he needs to move to Super Bantamweight, where he will actually be able to fight without expecting opponents to bend over to accommodate him. The exciting and heavy handed southpaw will make an interesting addition at 1222lbs, though we do wonder if his weight bullying tactics will have the same effect here as they did at Bantamweight. Nery, despite all his issues, is a talent and he can be involved in some thrilling contests down the line, but he really needs to sort his career out. This year he needs to put all the issues with weight behind him, leave the Bantamweight division, and go make his mark at Super Bantamweight.
3 bouts we want in 2020:
Emanuel Navarrete vs Hiroaki Teshigawara
Rey Vargas Vs Thomas Patrick Ward
Angelo Leo Vs Tramaine Williams
The Super Bantamweight division has been an interesting one in recent years, despite some issues. We've had some really interesting fights, fighters who appear willing to be busy and prove themselves. Whilst we've not seen a host of unification bouts we have seen top fighters facing legitimate contenders and the division has moved on nice in the last few years, without really setting it's self on fire. Right now we have good champion, a good amount of talented contenders, and a lovely mix of styles.
WBA "super and IBF - Daniel Roman (27-2-1, 10)
Aggressive technician Daniel Roman is, at the time of writing, the unified WBA and IBF champion and went about things the hard way. He won the WBA title in Japan, stopping Shun Kubo, went back over to Japan for his first defense, against Ryo Matsumoto, and then went to war with TJ Doheny in a unification bout. The wonderfully respectful Doman was sadly forced out of a mandatory defense against Murodjon Akhmadaliev last September, but will face Akhmadaliev at the end of January in a mouth match up.
WBC - Rey Vargas (34-0, 22)
The 29 year old Rey Vargas may not be the most exciting or explosive fighter at 122lbs but the WBC champion is going to be a very tricky man to dethrone. Standing at close to 5'11" and with freakish reach Vargas is a guy that fighters will struggle to get close to and will have to take risks against. Sadly for all his talent, and he is talented, his bouts lack drama and excitement. Potentially set to change his promotional affiliation in 2020 there are options out there for Vargas, though we suspect he'll out grow the division before someone takes a title from him. Decribing Vargas in a word is easy, "awkward", beating him however is not easy in the slightest.
WBO - Emanuel Navarrete (30-1, 26)
Every division needs a destructive force and at Super Bantamweight we have Emanuel Navarrete, the Top Rank fighter who went 4-0 (4) in 2019 and has only seen the final bell once in his last 13 fights. His 2018 win over Isaac Dogboe saw him winning the WBO title and since then he has shown no mercy in stopping his opponents. Sadly his opposition hasn't been great since winning the title, a rematch with Dogboe aside, so hopefully 2020 brings a step up in class for the 24 year old "Vaquero". Quantity was fine in 2019, now lets see him in with some quality this year.
IBF "interim" - Ryosuke Iwasa (27-3, 17)
Former IBF champion Ryosuke Iwasa enters 2020 as the IBF "interim" champion, and is in an interesting position as the year kicks off. He'll be the mandatory challenger to the Roman Vs Akhmadaliev winner, if they wish to keep the unified titles and is in a great position to build on an excellent win against Marlon Tapales. The Japanese fighter, dubbed "Eagle Eye", does blow hot and cold but he looked really good against Tapales and will hopefully show that level of performance more often going forward.
In 2019 we saw the Bantamweight division go through a lot of changes. We saw titles change hands, one old veteran look resurgent, and one contender essentially prove, again, that they can't make the weight any more. It was a division that benefited from the occasional surprise, and saw the WBSS add real prestige to the divisional kingpin. It's a division that is one of the strongest in the sport right now, and one of the most interesting, with so many match ups that could end up amazing us this coming year.
WBA "super" and IBF - Naoya Inoue (19-0, 16)
The division's kingpin right now is Japanese "Monster" Naoya Inoue, the man who unified the WBA "super" and IBF titles and won the WBSS late last year. The Ohashi gym fighter, who recently inked a deal with Top Rank, has the star power, the destructive punching, the skills and mentality to prove himself that we should be wanting to see from more fighters. At the time of writing he's pencilled in to fight in the US on April 25th, and is expected to have a huge year, working alongside Top Rank to increase his profile. Expect a big year from Inoue.
WBC - Nordine Oubaali (17-0, 12)
French-Moroccan Nordine Oubaali cemented his place among the divisional elite with an under-rated 2019 campaign. He began the year beating Rau'shee Warren for the vacant WBC title, and then travelled to defend it against Arthur Villanueva and Takuma Inoue. The powerfully built champion is now 33 and will be looking for big money fights in 2020, if he can get past WBC mandatory challenger Nonito Donaire. Although talented, strong and heavy handed there were question marks asked of him late against Takuma Inoue, and we do wonder about his stamina and punch resistance. Those two issues aside, he looks fantastic, and it will take a special fighter to beat him.
WBO - John Riel Casimero (29-4, 20)
Multi-weight world champion John Riel Casimero put the cat among the pigeons in the division last year when he stopped Zolani Tete in 3 rounds to claim the WBO title. He then made it clear that he wanted Inoue next, in a bout that could well be confirmed by the time this gets published. The explosive, yet inconsistent, Filipino is both a genius and a rotter depending on how he feels on any given day. At his best he is a talented, heavy handed and unpredictable thunder-puncher. On other days he's the sort of fighter who sleep walks through bouts he should win. If he's on form he could be real trouble for Inoue with his unconventional shots and spiteful power.
The Super Flyweight division not only has 4 excellent champions but also has wonderful depth in terms of contenders, with several former world champions knocking on the door, and a former world title challenger now mandated for another world title. What's notable is not just the sheer depth in the division but also how varied it is, with a lot of different countries being represented. Due to how deep the Super Flyweight division is we've decided to not just look at contenders here, but two prospects who we expect to cross over into contenders in 2020, showing just how interesting the division is right now.
Srisaket Sor Rungvisai (47-5-1, 41)
Hard hitting Thai Srisaket Sor Rungvisai announced himself to a global audience during an 11 month run that saw him score 2 wins Vs Roman Gonzalez and one over Juan Francisco Estrada. Sadly since then it's been a weird time for Srisaket, who hasn't looked the same. A loss in April 2019 to Estrada killed his moment and we've not seen the Thai in action again. Despite the fact he's promoted by Eddie Hearn talk of a Srisaket Vs Yafai bout has never really been heard and it seems like the English promoter has forgotten all about his destructive Thai. If Srisaket's not able to get a meaningful fight in 2020 it could well be that he ends up being remembered as a flash in the pan by international fans.
Roman Gonzalez (48-2, 40)
Nicaraguan legend Roman Gonzalez might not be what he once was but he is still arguably the biggest name in the division and now with his wear and tear and age, he's got a target on his back. Both Kazuto Ioka and Kal Yafai have began to circle like vultures. We hope Gonzalez has more in the tank than his detractors realise, but the reality is that his 50 fight career has been a long and hard one, and Super Flyweight was never the best for his career. If he can land a big fight this year, he has a chance, but if he's forced to wait until 2021 it could be too late for "Chocolatito" to reclaim a title. Given how little he's fought in recent years he is, oddly, a bit of a dark horse in the division right now, and that might serve him better than being the rampaging monster he once was.
Francisco Rodriguez Jr (33-4-1, 24)
The criminally under-rated Francisco Rodriguez Jr is best remembered for his incredibly fight with Katsunari Takayama down at 105lbs but has quietly become a force at 115lbs. Notably he's likely to have been written off for a run of bouts that saw him going 1-2-1 in 2014/2015 but he's now riding a 14 fight winning run. That run has included notable wins over Yohei Tobe, Hernan Marquez, Oswaldo Novoa, Ramon Garcia Hirales. He does still need a win over a top contemporary contender to earn a shot, but he's certainly having a resurgent run and deserves a mention.
Donnie Nietes (42-1-5, 23)
If any fighter "done fucked up" in 2019 it was Filipino Donnie Nietes. He entered the year the WBO Super Flyweight champion and ended the year on milk cartoons with the word "missing" above his head. The 4 weight champion looked set for a tremendous end to a brilliant decade but instead wasted the whole year on the outside looking in. At 37, he turned 38 in May, it's hard to know what Neites has left, but the crafty "Ahas" is as skilled as they come and if he lands a big fight this year it's hard to rule him out, even against the very best in the division. Fingers crossed ALA Promotions in the Philippines can secure Nietes a career defining opponent this year, or else he might as well retire, having had a truly legendary career.
Andrew Moloney (21-0, 14)
Unbeaten Australian Andrew Moloney is one of the hidden talents in the division, and like many top contenders in the division appears to be getting frozen out. He's the current "interim" champion and in theory lined up to fight Kal Yafai, though it seems likely that Yafai and his team will do what they can to avoid the high risk-low reward Australian. Moloney isn't unbeatable, but he is a very hard man to look good against, and he combines power, skills and speed very well. He has future world champion written all over, but of course, needs a shot at the top. We suspect he finally gets his crack at the back end of 2020, though with the WBA and their games we wouldn't be surprised if Yafai is promoted to "Super" champion and Moloney is only able to fight for the regular title.
Jeyvier Cintron (11-1-0-1, 5)
Puerto Rican fighter Jeyvier Cintron lost on New Year's Eve in a WBO title bout against Kazuto Ioka, but he impressed through out and certainly shouldn't be written off on the back of that loss. If anything the loss to Ioka should be seen as more of a learning experience for Cintron, who learned the real value of body shots through the bout. With a little more professional seasoning the 2-time Olympian is likely to win a world title, and at 24 years old his handsome mush is likely to be one of the key faces in the lower weights.
Israel Gonzalez (25-3, 11)
Although Israel Gonzalez has come up short twice, losing by stoppage to Jerwin Ancajas and losing a very debatable decision to Kal Yafai, the Mexican has booked himself a third world title fight. Gonzalez recently won an IBF eliminator in Japan to force a second shot at the IBF title. Sadly he was so easily beaten by Ancajas in their clash we don't imagine he'll have much success in their inevitable rematch, but we do need to applaud Gonzalez. Unlike many in the division he has been chasing fights and going in as the under-dog. The 23 year old has, excuse our language, "given no shits" about facing good fighters and we really want to applaud him for that. Maybe, though, he does need another bout or two against a good southpaw to prepare for Ancajas. Given his age we genuinely do see him winning a world title down the line, but it might well be a few years down the line.
Ryusei Kawaura (7-0, 4)
Ryusei Kawaura is one of the two prospects we want to speak about here. The 25 year old is a protege of former world champion Hiroshi Kawashima, and although certainly not a big name international Kawashima was one of the smartest boxing in Japan. With Kawashima passing knowledge down to his young charge, expect to see big things of Kawaura, who will likely look for a national or regional title in 2020. He's a long way from a world title fight, but as we've seen from Japanese prospects in the past, it only takes 1 big year and they suddenly end up in the mix.
Sunny Edwards (14-0, 4)
Englishman Sunny Edwards, the brother of former WBC Flyweight champion Charlie Edwards, is a long way from a world title fight but is certainly one to keep an eye on in terms of the British and European scene. A flashy and skilled boxer Edwards will get a lot of attention in 2020. Sadly for the 24 year old he is in arguably the toughest division in the sport today and although many in the UK may see him as a future world champion he will need to be matched very carefully to get there. Despite that he's charismatic, an interesting character and well worthy of some attention. A very skilled youngster who Frank Warren will likely look to use a lot in 2020.
3 bouts we want in 2020:
Kazuto Ioka Vs Juan Francisco Estrada
Donnie Neites Vs Roman Gonzalez
Kal Yafai Vs Srisaket Sor Rungvisai
One of the best division's in the sport right now is the Super Flyweight division, which has been delivering some great fights over the last few years, some frustrations and plenty of twists. It's a division that has probably under-delivered in recent years, yet has still managed to give us things like Srisaket Sor Rungvisai Vs Roman Gonzalez, Srisaket Sor Rungvisai Vs Juan Francisco Estrada, Donnie Neites Vs Kazuto Ioka. Give the make up of the division right now we expect big things from it in 2020, especially with the talk of certain champions who appear to be hunting the other top guys.
WBC - Juan Francisco Estrada (40-3, 27)
Mexican fighter Juan Francisco Estrada is quite probably the best fighter in the division, and certainly has the strongest claim as the #1. He is a wonderfully talented boxer-puncher who has had notable success at Flyweight, where he held unified titles, and Super Flyweight, where he beat Srisaket Sor Rungvisai to claim the WBC title last year. Although not a huge puncher he's a clean accurate hitter and gets respect from everyone he faces due to his effectiveness. It'll take a special fighter to dethrone Estrada who is still maturing, and is only 29 years old.
WBO - Kazuto Ioka (25-2, 14)
Although Estrada is probably the #1 in the division he's probably not actually the most distinguished fighter holding a title at Super Flyweight. That is, arguably, Kazuto Ioka who is now a 4 weight world champion, having won titles from 105lbs all the way up to 115lbs. The talented Ioka is a Japanese star who attracts multi-million viewing numbers for his bouts and has proven to be a smart boxer-puncher himself. He's not quite as fluid or versatile as Estrada but is quite possibly the sport's most under-rated body puncher, and with Ismael Salas behind him he's continually adding to his box of tricks.
IBF - Jerwin Ancajas (32-1-2, 22)
Filipino southpaw Jerwin Ancajas burst on to the scene with a big upset win against McJoe Arroyo in September 2016, making him the longest reigning current world champion in the division. Sadly he is also the most frustrating. He's been active, and defended the title in 4 continents, but his competition has generally been poor. There were big money offers on the table to unify with the then WBO champion Naoya Inoue early in his reign, and whilst that would have been a real beating for Ancajas, he's seemingly managed to avoid all the big fish in the division. Whether that's good management, taking the most money for the least pain, is up to debate but the reality is the once promising reign of Ancajas has meandered into meaningless. With 7 defenses under his belt the feeling is that he, and his team, are happy to keep the belt without truly testing their man. Frustratingly his next mandatory will likely come against a man who he dominated in 2018, meaning little is likely to change in terms of the quality of Ancajas's reign.
WBA - Kal Yafai (26-0, 15)
English Kal Yafai has also had a frustrating reign as the WBA champion. He's held the WBA title for over 3 years, made 5 defenses and still lacks a legitimate super fight. In fact he's yet to really prove himself as a champion. In 2018 he narrowly scraped by Israel Gonzalez, and despite lots of talk about big fights he's yet to land one. The talk now is a title defense against Roman Gonzalez, and whilst that would be big, it's a shame it's taken over 3 years for us to get to that point. Whilst not everything is Yafai's fault, and a proposed bout with Estrada falling through due to an injury to the Mexican isn't his fault, it very much feels like he has milked the title for all it's worth and only began seeking challenges when his back has been forced against the wall.
Takahiro Onaga is a regular contributor to Asian Boxing and will now be a featured writer in his own column where his takes his shot at various things in the boxing world.