In 2018 we've seen the Flyweight division go through some huge changes, and not a single fighter who began the year a world champion is actually still a champion. In fact the longest reigning champion in the division is Artem Dalakian, and his WBA reign only began in February. To end the year the division may have one more sting in the tail, as IBF champion Moruti Mthalane (36-2, 24) makes his first defense, of his second reign, and goes up against unheralded Japanese challenger Masahiro Sakamoto (13-1, 9).
The champion is a true veteran of the sport. He turned professional in 2000, as an 18 year old, and got his first big break in 2008, winning an IBF eliminator. Unfortunately he would come up short in his first world title fight, losing by TKO due to cute to Nonito Donaire in Las Vegas, but gave Donaire one of his toughest bouts at the time. Despite losing to Donaire we did see Mthalane claim the title a year later, beating Julio Cesar Miranda for the vacant title. As the champion he would make 4 defenses over 3 years, stopping Zolani Tete, Johnriel Casimero, Andrea Sarritzu and Ricardo Nunez. Sadly though politics would play a part in hins reign, not only leading to inactivity but also eventually leading to Mthalane vacating, rather than facing Amnat Ruenroeng for a very paltry purse.
Despite vacating the belt Mthalane remained a leading Flyweight contender, and would get a chance to recapture the belt this past July, a chance he made the most of by beating Korean based Pakistani fighter Muhammad Waseem by unanimous decision in Malaysia.
At the age of 36 is ancient for a Flyweight, and with 38 bouts on his record is certainly a fighter who has had a hard career. He has real wars with the likes of Donaire, Nunez, Waseem and Jether Oliva, who gave Mthalane a horribly swollen eye. Despite being old Mthalane is a technical master in the ring, with an excellent boxing IQ, an aggressive style, which can be either that of a pressure fighter or an aggressive counter puncher, and he is a surprisingly quick an powerful fighter. Defensively he's sound, though there are some question marks about his stamina, and he was running on empty in the later rounds against Waseem.
Whilst the champion has long been under-the-radar, hard core fans have known about him for around a decade. The challenger on the other hand is a real unknown for those who don't follow the Asian scene, and more specifically the Japanese scene. He made his first mark on the sport in 2015, winning the All Japan Rookie of the Year at Flyweight and would lose his first title bout the following year, losing in a WBO Asia Pacific title bout to future world champion Sho Kimura. Thankfully for Sakamoto he would win that regional title the following year, stopping Kwanthai Sithmorseng, and defend it once, stopping Pigmy Kokietgym. Sadly those are the only 2 wins of major note on his record, and his loss to Kimura came at a time when no one really knew who Kimura was, and was the win that put Kimura on the road for his break out win against Zou Shiming in 2017.
Although Sakamoto hasn't had much TV exposure, aside from his Rookie of the Year stuff, he has got plenty of footage out there on boxingraise. That footage shows a smart fighter, a fighter who thinks about what he's doing, and boxing with his brain. Sadly though it shows a fighter with not exceptional natural talent. He's a a good, steady, boxer, but not a quick one or a monstrous puncher. He's a fighter who appears to have been more about hard work, dedication and gradual development, something that was clear between the loss to Kimura and his wins against the notable Thai's.
With a loss to Kimura it's fair to say that Sakamoto has lost the biggest bout of his career. This bout is bigger though and he will be the clear under-dog. He's up against the most technically proficient fighter he has ever faced, and a man who has a wealth of experience at world level. Sakamoto's team have been developing a game plan for Mthalane for a while, and it's almost certainly one based around making the most of Mthalane's advanced age. Sadly though the Japanese fighter is likely to find himself up against it here.
We would love to see Sakamoto win, and the potential rematch with Kimura or a unification bout with Kosei Tanaka, though the truth is that he is the huge under-dog here. We suspect his lack of experience at this level will be a major problem. We suspect Sakamoto will have moments, but sadly will come up short to the pressure and accuracy of the very talented champion.
The Flyweight division has long been one of the best divisions in the sport, combining both great fighters and amazing bouts. In recent years however it's wobbled a bit as the top guys have gone up in weight and left the 112lb weight class feeling a little bit like a void as fighters begin to step up to bigger challenges. This has seen the likes of Roman Gonzalez, Juan Francisco Estrada, Donnie Nietes all abandon the division for success at Super Flyweight. As a result the division currently lacks in terms of x-factor, with good but not amazing champions, like Sho Kimura and Artem Dalakian. We're currently missing a real star in the division, and whilst Cristofer Rosales looks to be the best of the bunch he doesn't have the same allure as a Gonzalez, Estrada or even the now retired Kazuto Ioka.
This coming Sunday we get the chance to see another two fighters throw their hats into the ring to try and become the division's star and the new IBF Flyweight champion. The bout in question will see former champion Moruti Mthalane (35-2, 24) attempt to reclaim the title as he faces off with Korean based Pakistani fighter Muhammad Waseem (8-0, 6).
Of the two men it's Mthalane who is more well known. He is best, internationally, for giving Nonito Donaire a few really tough rounds back in 2008, before being stopped on cuts in round 6. Since then the South African has gone 13-0 (9), with some notable issues with inactivity plaguing his career. Although he hasn't been massively active he has notched up some brilliant wins, including victories over Julio Cesar Miranda, Zolani Tete, Johnriel Casimero and Ricardo Nunez. Sadly he has, like many African fighters, struggled to get the career defining fights on a big stage and actually gave up the IBF title rather than get paid pennies to face a then unknown Amnat Ruenroeng after 4 defenses.
Since vacating the IBF title Mthalane has been arguably the best Flyweight to essentially be locked out of the title picture. He's too dangerous to face as a voluntary and he was unable to secure a mandatory position until the IBF title was vacated by Donnie Nietes. Despite missing out on a world title fight he has been picking up his activity and he fit 3 fights into 2017, winning all 3 by stoppage.
At the age of 35, soon to be 36, the South African will know that a loss will be the end of his hopes of becoming a 2-time world champion, at least with the 4 big organisations. He is however a tough, skilled, accurate and aggressive fighter with very under-rated power who will look to take the fight to his foe here.
Waseem on the other hand is a bit of an unknown to many fans, and this will be, by far, the highest profile bout of his career. The Pakistani born fighter turned professional in 2015 under the promotional guidance of Andy Kim, who has matched Waseem aggressively and gotten him very high level training. He made his professional debut in a 10 round bout for the Korean Bantamweight title and less than 10 months later he had claimed the WBC Silver Flyweight title. From then on it seemed like he was heading towards a WBC title fight but financial issues almost derailed his career. What had been a fast track to the top approach for Waseem hit a brick wall and he spent 2017 fighting in stay busy fights on under-cards in Panama.
In the ring Waseem has looked like a fighter able to do it all. He can box, he can bang and he can move. He began his career like a fighter wanting to test things, get used to the ring and the distance of a fight, looking like he was working on things all the time. After his 2016 win over Giemel Magramo however he's had to do a lot less to pick up wins and instead beaten some very abject opponents in any way that he wanted. If he can still mix the different styles together then it's very possible that he could use his speed to out fox and bamboozle the hard hitting Mthalane.
At 30 years old Waseem is young enough to have a nice reign, if he comes out on top here, but given his lack of financial backing there is a real issue he could find his reign cut short like Mthalane did when he held the title a few years ago.
Although there is a huge gulf in experience here we do actually favour Waseem. He appears to be the fresher fighter, the fighter who hasn't had the bouts against the likes of Donaire and Nunez. Mthalane is going to be dangerous through the fight, and Waseem can't get lazy, but if he uses his legs, moves and prevents Mthalane from setting his feet there's a great chance for Korea and Pakistan to claim a world champion.
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.