It's fair to say that 2017 has been an amazing year for boxing fans, who have had so many great fights that year has over-delivered in many ways. There has been dodgy decisions, farcical contests and all the negatives we associate with the sport, but also a lot of amazing fights. We get some more of those on December 31st with the pick of the bunch being a Light Flyweight unification bout between WBA champion Ryoichi Taguchi (26-2-2, 12) and IBF champion Milan Melindo (37-2, 13). The bout could well shake up Fighter of the Year category and will almost certainly see us with a unified champion at 108lbs, a division which many have been sleeping on in recent years.
Of the two men it's Taguchi who is the more distinguished champion. The 31 year old from the Watanabe gym has held the WBA title since the end of 2014, beating Alberto Rossel for the belt on December 31st. Since then he has racked up 6 defenses, though shown real inconsistencies during his reign. He has dominated the likes of Kwanthai Sithmorseng, Juan Jose Landaeta and Ryo Miyazaki, struggled past Luis De La Rose and Carlos Canizales and looked beatable in both of those fights, whilst impressing earlier this year when he stopped Robert Barrera.
Although a bit of an enigma no one can argue with Taguchi's ability. When he's got his head on and is in the right mood he's an absolute night mare to fight with a very high output, freakish physical stature for a Light Flyweight, standing at over 5'5”, a solid toughness and a real air of confidence. He's not the most skilled but with his long reach, durability and work rate he's going to be a handful for anyone, and even gave Naoya Inoue his toughest bout to date, taking several rounds from the “Monster” back in 2013.
Filipino fighter Melindo only won his title this past May, in his third world title fight, but is arguably one of the top contenders for Fighter of the Year in 2017, with a win over Taguchi possibly earning him the award. He won the title in Japan, when he stopped Akira Yaegashi in 165 seconds, a divisional record, and made his first defense in September when he defeated top South African Hekkie Budler in a 2017 Fight of the Year candidate. Prior to those two wins Melindo was a bit of a nearly man, having put up good efforts in losses to Juan Francisco Estrada and Javier Mendoza and having scored notable wins over Fahlan Sakkreerin Jr, Saul Juarez, Martin Tecuapetla, Carlos Tamara and Muammad Rachman. His resume was on par that of a world champion, but without a win in a big one.
Having gotten his “big win” and a world title the question now is whether Melindo can continue to build on his success. From a technical stand point Melindo is arguably the best fighter at 108lbs. He's got a very, very high ring IQ, is a brilliant counter puncher and understands the ring fantastically. He gauges distances really well, has great timing and knows how to control the distance. From a fight fan perspective he's a real thinking man's fighter, but sadly that comes at a cost and he can be out worked, he can seem lazy and can be swarmed, though he does hit harder than his record suggests and one of his counters can turn the bout on it's head.
This bout really does look like it will be an intriguing clash of styles. It has Taguchi's high work rate, and relative defensive openness against Melindo's low work rate but accurate and smooth counter punching. It will pit two world class fighters against each other and will, potentially, see one walk out as a unified WBA/IBF champion, and the man to beat in the division.
With home advantage we do favour Taguchi, who with a win would spoil Melindo's year, but a win for Melindo is certainly not out of the question. Either man can win, and it is a true 50-50 bout, with a feeling of being something very, very special to close out the year.
Unification bouts are rare in boxing, though thankfully their rareness comes with the feeling that every one of them that we do get is that little bit special. That's arguably the case this coming Saturday as the WBA and IBF Bantamweight titles get unified in Belfast. Going into that bout as champions will be Kazakh brawler Zhanat Zhakiyanov (27-1, 18) and Northern Irish slickster Ryan Burnett (17-0, 9), with Zhakiyanov entering as the WBA champion and Burnett at the IBF king.
Aged 33, and soon to be 34, the Kazakh is really at the point in his career where a loss could well be the end of his career, at least at the top level. That's ignoring the fact that he has actually only just arrived on the world stage, winning his WBA title last time out in a split decision win over Rau-shee Warren in the US. Had the decision gone against him, there's a good chance that Zhakiyanov would have joined the “who needs him?” club and not been able to get a second shot at a world title.
Amazingly for Zhakiyanov his reign was rather lucky, and in his win he was dropped twice, in the opening round by Warren. A smarter fighter than Warren would have jumped on Zhakiyanov in round 2 and closed the show, but the American took his foot off the gas and let the Kazakh regroup, before he out hustled and out-worked the American to earn the decision. That bout proved that Zhakiyanov can over-come real adversity but also showed his limitations and it was clear that he really was a fighter with only one plan, and that pressure.
Although a pressure fighter at heart Zhakiyanov does have very solid power, as shown back in 2014 with his KO of the Year contender against Karim Guerfi. Sadly though he's slow of foot and his punches are certainly not the most technically correct or the fastest. As a results he can be out boxed.
Whilst Zahkiyanov is a pressure fighter Burnett is a pure boxer, and a very talented, slick one at that. He can box on the front foot, or the back foot, and although he's not the most aggressive or exciting of fighters he is one of those natural talents who looks so composed and at ease in the ring that boxing looks second nature to him. He moves wonderfully around the ring and controls distance brilliantly, especially on the back foot where his boxing brain really does shine. Although he can fight on the front foot he does look a lot more effective on the back foot.
Burnett has long been championed as a star for British boxing and at times has shown incredible skills. Whilst those skills are impressive he has also shown a lot of frustrating traits. He's note more than 2 years removed from his last stoppage and his lack of killer instinct has been really annoying, especially given that he has dropped a number of fighters but never gone for the kill, instead racking up unnecessary rounds and potentially boring fans, when he should be using those skills to shine.
Whilst Burnett is incredibly frustrating for fans he's also a nightmare to face, and stylistically Zhankiyanov is made to order. The pressure of the Kazakh will allow Burnett to tee-off on him and make him look stupid. There is a chance that Zhakiyanov will have some moments but the reality is that the movement of Burnett will simply be too much for him, and the sharp shots will take their toll. It's up to Burnett as to whether he'll want to up the pace and seek a stoppage late,but it's hard to see anything but a win for the Northern Irishman.
At the start of this year Japan had only ever had one IBF champion, Satoshi Shingaki. This year that number climbed to threee as Katsunari Takayama finally won the IBF Minimumweight title and Daiki Kameda (29-3, 18) claimed the Super Flyweight title.
On December 3rd both Takayama, who defends against Vergilio Silvano, and Daiki will put their titles on the line as Japanese boxing tries to prove that allowing IBF champions isn't a bad thing for the sport.
As mentioned Takayama will be fighting Silvano in the first defense of his title. For Daiki however things are much rickier as he attempts to unify his belt with the WBA title currently held by Venezuelan Liborio Solis (15-3-1, 7). For Solis this will be his second trip to Japan this year following his victory over Kohei Kono to unify the WBA interim and WBA regular titles.
For those of you who remember Solis's fight with Kono it was a really fun fight. Both men had their moments in a give and take contest that saw Solis dropped early on before dropping Kono in the eighth and eeking out the decision late. For many that bout was so good and so close that they were calling for a rematch between the two men, instead however Solis has been inactive for 7 months.
Against Kono we saw a bit of everything from Solis. We saw him boxing and moving, we saw him going to war and brawling and we saw him showing his toughness. It was genuinely great.
Several months after Solis' victory against Kono, Daiki won the IBF title as he out pointed Mexican Rodrigo Guerrero in a contest that was fought in a much different manner. Against Guerrero we saw Daiki sticking, for the most part, to boxing and moving, being negative and trying to avoid too many moments of back and forth action. It was a forgettable contest for the most part, though there was a highlight reel tenth round as both men unloaded.
From having seen both of those fights again recently we are really hoping that this won't fall into a clash of styles. If both men attempt to box for 12 rounds then Daiki's speed could well be the difference in what could potentially be one of the worst fights of the year.
What is, thankfully, more likely is that the bout will have moments of ups and downs. Solis, despite being the shorter man, is expected to have a notable reach advantage and if he can use that to his effect he could prevent Daiki from being overly negative. If he can use that and force Daiki the bring some action to him we could have a number of rounds like the tenth of the Daiki/Guerrero bout.
We'll admit we're hoping that Solis has the ability to bring the best from Daiki. If he can then we may, again, see Solis involved in a great contest in Japan and a contest that is fitting the "unification" tag that this bout has. If we end up with a forgetable one however then we expect the Japanese will further slate the way the Japanese Boxing Commission has accepted the IBF.
It'd be a shame for the fans to refuse the IBF as organisation opens up new doors to major fighters. For example a possible Light Flyweight clash involving Johnriel Casimero and Kazuto Ioka, Ryo Miyazaki or Naoya Inoue, or a fight involving a Hisashi Amagasa and Evgeny Gradovich at Featherweight.
Oddly the winner here, despite being a unified champion, would likely only be viewed as the third best fighter at 115lbs behind both Srisaket Sor Rungvisai and Omar Andres Narvaez, the WBC and WBO champions respectively. Interestingly both Narvaez and Srisaket have beaten Japanese fighters in recent bouts with Narvaez stopping Hiroyuki Hisataka and Srisaket stopping Hirofumi Mukai.
World Title Previews
The biggest fights get broken down as we try to predict who will come out on top in the up coming world title bouts.