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.
It's amazing to think that during the history of boxing no Japanese fighter has ever won a world title in Europe. That may change however on June 13th as the once beaten Ryosuke "Eagle Eye" Iwasa (19-1, 12) travels to England to take on the talented and tricky Lee Haskins (31-3, 13) in a contest for the IBF “interim” title, a title that Iwasa's handler believes will be upgraded to the IBF regular title later in the year.
Firstly, as many will know, we are typically critical of the “interim” title fiasco that the WBA have on their hands. However the IBF rarely hold “interim” title fights and they are limited to when a champion is injured. In this case their “proper” champion, Randy Caballero, is indeed injured and isn't expected back in to the ring for several months. Rather than freezing up the title the IBF have elected for their two top ranked contenders to meet in what is a genuinely appealing match up.
Of the two fighters Haskins is, by far, the more experienced man. He has been a professional since 2003 and already holds a number of notable wins, including decision victories over Jamie McDonnell, Stuart Hall and Jason Booth. Sadly for Haskins however he has had a number of issues including a style that has helped keep him away from British TV for swathes of his career and issues with durability, with all 3 of his losses coming by stoppage.
Early in his career Haskins looked brilliant and quickly raced out to 15-0 (9). He showed off impressive speed, lovely countering ability and a style that saw him fighting with hands down and switching stances. That perfect record was ended in his 16th bout as he was stopped by the under-rated Tshifhiwa Munyai. Just 2 fights later Haskins suffered his second set back, courtesy of an injury against the talented but light hitting Ian Napa.
Since falling to 16-2 Haskins has gone on an excellent 16-1 run scoring notable wins against Jamie McDonnell, Stuart Hall and Jason Booth. His sole loss during that 17 fight run came against Stephane Jamoye, in what was a contender for 2012's FOTY. Of course we know Jamoye's limitations, given his loss to Shinsuke Yamanaka, but Jamoye managed to impose his style on the fight and Haskins had to fight fire with fire.
Aged 31 and stood at 5'5” Haskins typically fights as a southpaw though has shown the ability to switch hit. At his best he's an elusive and tricky type of fighter who controls distance well and uses a sharp jab to keep opponents at range. Up close Haskins can go to war and has fast hands though on the whole he is happy to fight on the outside and tie up on the upside. When he's forced to take the fight to an opponent he can struggle but most opponents are unable to really force Haskins out of his safety zone.
At 25 years old Iwasa is significantly younger than his foe though in many ways lacks the experience of Haskins. He has been a professional since 2008 and lacks a genuine stand out win. He does however have some notable wins over the likes of Kentaro Masuda and David De La Mora. His most notable bout to date however was a loss, to the tremendous Shinsuke Yamanaka back in 2011. The step up to fight Yamanaka was too much too soon for Yamanaka though he managed to acquit himself well before being stopped very late in the bout.
Although Iwasa isn't a hugely experienced fighter as a professional he was a very accomplished amateur with a record of 60-6 (42) in the unpaid ranks. Those amateur credentials have been part of the reason that Iwasa has been fast tracked and has already claimed the Japanese and OPBF titles in his short career.
As a Bantamweight Iwasa is a relatively large fighter stood at 5'7” and physically he matched up with Shinsuke Yamanaka very well. At the time of that bout Iwasa lacked the experience though showed that he had the power and ability to really trouble Yamanaka.
In the ring Iwasa is a talented southpaw boxer-puncher. He hits harder than his record suggests, as seen by the fact he troubled Yamanaka, though at times he's reckless and can be tagged himself. When boxing smartly Iwasa is very sharp though he can be put under pressure, as Richard Pumicpic showed. Whilst Iwasa put the performance against Pumicpic down to weight issues it's fair to suggest that those issues may rear their head again in the future.
Coming in to this fight it really seems like a case of the man who can enforce his style will come out on top. It's a question as to whether or not Haskins will be able to keep Iwasa at arm's length or whether the Japanese fight can get his range and land his heavy shots with the left hand. We know Haskins has scouted the left hand but there is a lot of difference between know it's a weapon and being able to prevent it from being used. If Haskins can keep his movement up and make the most of his jab the odds are that he takes a decision at home in Bristol. If Iwasa can make it a fire-fight however we see the Japanese fighter stopping the home favourite and bringing back the title, doing what others, such as Hidenori Otake and Akio Shibata, were unable to do.
It's a compelling match up of styles and a really good match up on paper, we just hope it doesn't end up having some sort of controversy hanging over the result.
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.