Earlier this year we saw Chinese fighter Can Xu (17-2, 3) [徐灿] shock a large portion of the boxing world by defeating Jesus M Rojas in the US to claim the WBA "regular" Featherweight title. Today he made the first defense of that belt, taking on Japanese challenger Shun Kubo (13-2, 9) [久保隼].
On paper this didn't really promise a lot but actually delivered a really, really fan friendly battle, at a high tempo, fought at mid to close range and had some eye catching back and forths, before the champion broke down the challenger and forced the referee to stop the contest. It was not a fight of the year contender, but still a very, very enjoyable contest to watch.
The first round was a solid one for Kubo, who managed to use his southpaw jab and long arms to control the range pretty well, taking advantage of Xu being a relatively slow starter. Sadly for Kubo, who was picking some really classy shots, he was totally unable to get Xu's respect. That meant Xu could gradually pick up his pace, and like a steam trainer he build up some real momentum.
Round 2 and 3 were still somewhat competitive, with Kubo standing his ground and having some success, but it was coming at a cost with Xu landing more and more shots per round.
It was in round 4 that it was becoming clear Kubo was feeling the pace and being broken down. He was starting to break away from the action more often, trying to create space to catch his breath and not staying on the inside. He was also struggling to avoid the fire of Xu, who was increasing his output round by round, and landing more and more clean shots.
The problems Kubo was having with the volume of Xu got worse in round 5, and he was dropped towards the end of the round, after being badly hurt and eating some solid combinations. It was a testament to Kubo that he fought back as hard as he did, but it was clear he was being broken down, and as we heard the bell he was staggered again.
By now the referee and Kubo's corner were keeping an eye on the challenger and was he was rocked again in round 6 the referee, Gustavo Padilla, stepped in and halted the bout.
Interestingly this was Xu's third stoppage in 5 bouts, and whilst no one would call him a puncher he is certainly hitting hard than his record would suggest. Sadly for Kubo this is his second stoppage loss, and it's really hard to see where he goes from this. Domestically and regionally the Featherweight division is a mine field and it's really, really hard to imagine him making a mark on the sport at 126lbs given how he was broken down here.
Every so often a supposed mismatch ends up being less of a mismatch than expected, in fact instead of a mismatch we get a Fight of the Year contender as the perceived under-dog fights as if their career depends on their performance.
That was the case tonight when Chinese fighter Can Xu (16-2, 2) [徐灿] played his part in a bout with Jesus M Rojas (26-3-2-1, 19), for the WBA "regular" Featherweight title. The bout was a thrilling, pulsating and action packed 12 round war from two men who's style gelled perfectly.
Rojas was expected to win with ease. Most had predicted him to walk through Xu, score an easy early victory and defend his title without any issues. It seemed Rojas also expected that as he put intense pressure on Xu from the open bell. Xu backed off, but unloaded combinations when there space to work with, whilst Rojas worked hard on the inside, trying to make the fight a war.
As the rounds went on Xu's confidence grew and Rojas became less and less intense. The first 5 rounds were insane, all action, incredible intensity. The 4th may well go down as one of the best rounds of the year. But from then on the pace slowed, Rojas seemed to be the one feeling the tempo, and round 6 was a fantastic one for Xu who seemed to begin backing Rojas up.
Xu would go on to back Rojas up again in rounds 7 and 8 as the tempo really seemed to effect Rojas, who was only able to keep a high intensity for a minute or so in a round, rather than the 3 minutes he was pressing in earlier rounds.
Those rounds going to the Chinese fighter made things very interesting, though Rojas did do much better in round 9 as he stopped the rot. That a momentary respite for the Puerto Rican champion as Xu charged again in the final 3 rounds, again pressing, forcing Rojas back and stopping the champion from getting his breath.
Through the 12 rounds there was clear momentum shifts, Rojas easily the dominant fighter in the early stages, Xu in charge in the later rounds. The amount of leather both threw was insane, and it seemed an incredibly close fight as we went to the judges.
The first score read was 118-110, a score that didn't reflect the fight, the second was 117-111, and that didn't reflect the fight, and the third was 116-112. The third card was arguably, at best. Surprisingly however they all went for Xu, who scored a major upset here with a unanimous decision.
Rojas should feel aggrieved by the scores. It was a close fight, it could have gone either way, but it was not a 9-3 or 10-2 type of fight.
For Chinese boxing history was made, with Xu being the first Chinese fighter to win a world title above Flyweight, even if it is only the "regular" title, and we suspect he will be returning to China to fight in front of a huge audience in his first defense. A rematch with Rojas would be very welcome, we suspect it'll be a much easier bout than that for the new champion!
One thing we do see a lot of in boxing is a fighter continuing on despite showing visible signs of being on the slide. We see it time and time again. A great fighter fights on as they are slowing, picking up injuries, and their skills are clearly diminishing. It appears everyone else can see it but them.
Whilst there was no sure fire evidence that Chris John (48-1-3, 22) was "shot" the WBA Featherweight "super" champion did not look amazing back in April when he retained his title with a technical draw against Satoshi Hosono. That fight, which saw John left with a nasty cut from a clash of heads saw John being tagged a few times early on by the Japanese "Bazooka" and many wondered what would have happened had that bout have continued.
Unfortunately for John there was no clash of heads to bail him out today as he took on South African Simpiwe Vetyeka (26-2, 16) and suffered the first loss of his illustrious and memorable career. Worse than just losing however, John was beaten into submission, broken down mentally and physically and finished the bout sat on his stool pondering the future.
The bout it's self was a slow burner. For 2 or 3 rounds very, very little happened. The two men, at times, seemed to perfectly neutralise one another. When one men threw the other blocked, and it looked like we were going to get one of those disappointing bouts where the strengths of each man cancel each other out. It was messy, it was uninteresting and there was very little in terms of clean effective punching. In all honesty the most interesting moments revolved around John twice falling to the canvas.
Round 4 saw the first really notable success from the South African though it was essentially drowned out by the crowd who attempted to sway the judges with a "Chris John" chant. The chant however did little to effect the men in the ring who continued to cancel each other out for the most part. By now though John was slowing. He had been able to land body shots earlier on but now there was very little in terms of clean action from the Indonesian.
We got our first talking point in round 5 as the bout flipped on it's head completely. John appeared to be knockdown around the mid way point of the round, the referee some how ruled a slip but from looking at John when he recovered it was clear that he was a man who was feeling the hurtful effects of something more than a slip. With John clearly hurt Vetyeka went in for the kill.
John would be sent to the canvas again in round 5 and again the referee ignored what was a clear knockdown. Quite what the referee was doing ignoring what looked like clear knockdowns was a mystery, though for John the referees actions didn't help as Vetyeka kept up the assault hurting John in a big way before the bell.
Bravely John came out for round 6 though he was still clearly feeling the ill effects of the previous round. He tried to fight back and tried to survive but again found himself on the canvas. Again it was ruled a slip from a referee who must have thought he was doing John a favour in some sick way. Only moments after getting back to his feet John was down again. This time, finally, there was a count given. Despite getting up and seeing the bell it was obvious that John's 34 year old body had effective said enough was enough. He retired his corner between rounds 6 and 7.
After seeing John remain in his corner an emotional Vetyeka celebrated, not as a man who had merely won a world title but as a man who had a great loss then won, not for himself but for his country, his people and his hero. For John this was a story of a loss of something material, his title. For Vetyeka however the fight was fought in dedication for the loss of the great Nelson Mandela, who had sadly passed away the previous night.
With Vetyeka now holding wins over the two premier names in Indonesian boxing, Daud Cino Yordan and Chris John, he may well need a new country to attack. With the WBA "super" title over his shoulder he'll likely have plenty of options on where to go. Fights with the likes of Nicholas Walters, Evgeny Gradovich or even Nonito Donaire would all hold intrigue and all be real possibilities.
Whilst Vetyeka has a host of options in front of him John's future doesn't look bright. At 34 this may well be his last bout, in fact from rounds 5 and 6 it really should be his last bout. He looked like he still had the speed and the skills in flashes but there was always something missing in this performance. It was like cheap imitation of man who had held some form of a world title for the better part of a decade.
We really hope John returns to Indonesia to a hero's welcome despite the loss. Then after a few days break hopefully he announces his retirement. It'd be awful to see him beaten again by a lesser fighter than Vetyeka, who we regard very highly. There is no shame in losing to Vetyeka, there is shame however in trying to deny that father time effects us all, even the greats like Chris John.
Note-For the picture we've used here, we've selected a younger Chris John, the one who really was one of the top Featherweights on the planet. Not the shadow of that man who fought today
World Title Results
Whether you like them or not World Titles add prestige to any bout as a result we've included the results of world title bouts in this special section.