Last year we saw a Chinese fighter really announce himself on the world stage with two big wins in the US. Between those two bouts he fought one at home, in what is actually a bit of a forgotten treasure from the year. It's a bout that we don't think many Western fans watched, but it was entertaining, action packed and a fun little battle in Fuzhou. Albeit a rather one sided little battle, with the Chinese star battering a former world champion in impressive fashion.
Can Xu (16-2, 2) v Shun Kubo (13-1, 9)
The Chinese fighter in question is Can Xu, who announced himself in a big way in January, when he upset Jesus M Rojas to claim the WBA "regular" Featherweight title. The win was a massive shock, and saw Xu become the first Chinese fighter to win a world title above Flyweight. It wasn't just a big win but was an exciting win, with Xu throwing an incredible amount of leather in that fight and instantly endearing himself to US fans with his style, toughness, and personality.
After winning his title his next saw him go home and fight in front of Chinese fans, who wanted to see their new star in action. That lead to him taking on former WBA "regular" Super Bantamweight champion Shun Kubo, a talented and gutsy Japanese fighter.
Although Kubo isn't a big name he managed to make something of a buzz in 2017, when he stopped veteran Nehomar Cermeno, who retired between rounds 10 and 11, for the WBA "regular" title. His reign was a short one, as he was beaten up by Daniel Roman in his first defense. He bounced back from that loss by defeating Hiroshige Osawa and appeared to be fighting at a better weight for his gangly and rangy frame. It was assumed the extra few pounds would actually help him take a punch and allow him to fight at a weight more suited to his body.
In the opening moments we saw Kubo looking to create distance, use his jab and keep Xu at range. It was the type of gameplan the challenger was going to need to use to have any chance. Not only did he need did he need to keep it at range, but he also needed to get Xu's respect, some how. Sadly for Kubo that was always going to be the toughest part, given Xu has a brilliant chin, to go alongside his incredibly engine.
Kubo's tactics had success in the opening round, but by the end of it Xu was starting to cut the distance, get inside and get some of his shots off. The second round saw Xu build on a good finish to the opening round, and Kubo realised he had to respond, giving us some fun back and forth as both men let shots go up close. Kubo's gameplan had began to fall apart, and he had began to fight Xu's fight. This was where the excitement level began to increase, and where the bout began to get one sided.
From round 3 on wards Xu began to fully fight his fight, setting the pace, coming forward and letting his hands go, throwing punches in bunches. Kubo fought back, bravely, trying to do what he could to fight off Xu, standing his ground when he needed to, boxing when he could, and fight with heart and desire of someone desperate to win. That desire shone, but the gulf in ability wasn't something that be over-come by desire alone.
In the end Kubo got ground down, but not without playing his part in a short, exciting, little battle that was overshadowed by Xu's two other fights from the year. Of course those other two bouts were much memorable 12 round battles, and exhibitions in volume punching at a higher level.
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 Featherweight division is a really frustrating one, with inactive champions and a long queue of contenders. Thankfully whilst it is a frustrating division it is one with a lot of depth to it, and a lot of interesting contenders, from former champions to unknown youngsters making their mark. Here we'll have a look at some of those contenders.
For those who misses it we also had a recent look at the divisional champions The state of the Division - Featherweight - The Champions
Can Xu (15-2, 2)
Little known Chinese fighter Can Xu made his debut in 2013, and lost 2 of his first 5 bouts, but has since reeled off 12 wins and climbed up the rankings thanks to wins over the likes of Hurricane Futa, Chris George, Corey McConnell and Nehomar Cermeno. He made his US debut last year, and looked really poor in beating Enrique Bernache but clearly has got the skills to beat good competition. He's a light punching fighter who throws a lot, looks pretty tough and has sparred with the likes of Naoya Inoue. Sadly for Xu his lack of power and world level experience is going to be a problem for him when he faces the top fighters in the division. He will be back in action on January 26th in his biggest bout to date, challenging WBA "regular" champion Jesus M Rojas in what is an incredibly tough looking test for the Chinese fighter.
Joseph Diaz (27-1, 14)
American 26 year old Joseph "Jo Jo" Diaz was a stand out amateur, fighting at the 2012 Olympics and the 2011 World Amateur Championships, before making his professional debut in later 2012. Since turning professional he has been an active fighter and has score notable wins over the likes of Rene Alvarado, Jayson Velez, Horacio Garcia, Victor Terrazas and Jesus M Rojas. Sadly he failed to make weight against Rojas., in a bout for the WBA "regular" title, and was beaten by Gary Russell Jr, in a WBC title fight. Diaz is talented but lacks power and will be forced to fight hard in every top-level fight he has.
Miguel Flores (23-2, 11)
American fighter Miguel Flores is a 26 year old who is set for a WBC title fight on February 16th, taking on Leo Santa Cruz. Were he not set for a title fight, which is an undeserved one, he wouldn't be listed here. He has been stopped in 2 of his last 3 bouts and we now need to go back to August 2016 to see his last win of note, a close decision win over Ryan Kielczweski. Although a decent fighter we really don't see him as a legitimate contender, as stoppages to Dat Nguyen and Christ Avalos have shown, and instead another poor challenger for the frustrating Leo Santa Cruz.
Carl Frampton (26-2, 15)
Northern Irishman Carl "The Jackal" Frampton is one of the division's more proven and more popular fighters with fantastic ring IQ and a good mix of skills, speed and power. Sadly at the age of 31 and with a tough career behind him we do wonder how much longer he will remain as an active fighter, and there is a chance we won't actually see him fight again. He was last seen fighting a few days ago, losing a decision to IBF champion Josh Warrington, and despite having moments in that fight he did look his age against the younger, fresher man.
Abner Mares (31-3-1, 15)
It's hard to know exactly what to make of the 33 year old Abner Mares, a talented multi-weight champion from Mexico. We suspect he'd be best suited at Bantamweight, where his 5'4" frame will still him from being outsized, but his next bout is set to take place at 130lbs, against Gervonta Davis. His last few fights have mostly been at Featherweight, where he's had a mixed record, losing to Jhonny Gonzalez and twice losing to Leo Santa Cruz whilst beating the likes of Andres Gutierrerz and Jesus Marcelo Andres Cuellar. At his best he was a skilled punching machine, but now he seems to be faded fighter looking for a big pay day. Still a skilled fighter, but one past his best.
Tugstsogt Nyamabayar (10-0, 9)
Mongolian hopeful, and former amateur standout Tugstsogt Nyamabayar is a hotly tipped 26 year old who turned professional in early 2015 and has been very impressive through his short yet destructive career. He stopped his first 8 opponents, including the tough Jhon Gemino, before being taken the distance by the then 19-0 Harmonito Dela Torre. Sadly his 2018 was a bit of a write off, with only a 3 round win over Oscar Escandon, but he's set for a bit 2019 with a contest against Claudio Marrero set for January 26th. A win over Marrero will open the doors for a huge fight later in the year for the heavy-handed Mongolian.
Marlon Tapales (31-2, 14)
Former WBO Bantamweight champion Marlon Tapales is a 26 year old Filipino fighter who skipped the Super Bantamweight division to attempt to make a mark at Featherweight. He's a short southpaw, but someone who has really underrated power and a gritty toughness. With only a 42% stoppage rate Tapales would be easy to write off an easy opponent but he has stopped his last 5 bouts early and scored of those wins on the road, twice stopping Shohei Omori and also stopping Pungluang Sor Singyu. He's very tough, very hard hitting and manages to use his lack of size very well. He's going to be a very, very hard man to beat at Featherweight.
Satsoshi Shimizu (8-0, 8)
2012 Olympic bronze medal winner Satoshi Shimizu is the leading Japanese contender, and the current OPBF champion. He's a former amateur standout who is being guided by the Ohashi gym and has so far looked thoroughly destructive since making his debut in September 2016. Although a very heavy handed fighter there are question marks about Shimizu's actual skillset, and since making his debut he has looked technically flawed, with wide swings and flat footed. Ohashi are expected to secure him a world title fight in 2019, though we don't see an easy title being out there for the 32 year old puncher.
Claudio Marrero (23-2, 17)
Dominican fighter Claudio Marrero will be the next opponent for the aforementioned Tugstsogt Nyamabayar and is a proven quantity in and around world-class. He made his debut way back in 2010 and took gradual steps up in class until losing to Jesus Marcelo Andres Cuellar in 2013, he would bounce back with some explosive performances before a 2017 loss to Jesus M Rojas, which slowed his climb. In 2018 he fought just once, stopping Jorge Lara. Marrero is technically raw, but explosive, exciting and unpredictable. He's able to hurt fighters but also be hurt and is one of the most must watch fighters in the division.
Kid Galahad (26-0, 15)
Unbeaten Englishman Kid Galahad is the current mandatory challenger for the IBF title, currently held by Josh Warrington, in what would be a big all-British title fight for 2019. The 28 year old from Yokshire, though originally from Qatar, is a skilled boxer-mover who has come through the British scene the hard way, winning British and European titles, before winning an eliminator on the road this past October. Despite being unbeaten there are question marks over him, and he has failed a drugs test in the past and put on some very dreary performances, which may make him a hard sell, outside of his eventual world title shot at Warrington. A talent, but a frustrating one.
Shun Kubo (13-1, 9)
Japanese fighter Shun Kubo is a former WBA Super Bantamweight champion who stopped Nehomar Cermeno for that title in 2017 following a short reign as the OPBF champion. Following his title loss he has moved up in weight and is looking to become a 2-weight champion. He's proven to be tough and gutsy, and has the frame to build into a big Featherweight, but is technically flawed and needs to work on technique before fighting for another world title. At 28 years old and with the powerful Shinsei gym backing him he does have a shot at getting a title fight in 2019, though will almost certainly need to travel and would be a clear under-dog. Despite not being a big name he is in the WBA's rankings and could well see himself fighting for one of the many WBA variations in the future.
Genesis Servania (32-1, 15)
Former WBO title challenger Genesis Servania really made his mark in 2017, when he gave Oscar Valdez a much tougher fight than anyone had expected. The Filipino dropped Valdez before being dropped himself in what was a very entertaining contest. Since then he's not been able to get a big break, though has scored 3 stoppage wins and took part in a high profile with Naoya Inoue. Servania is a technically strong boxer-puncher with under-rated power, tough defenses and he can be in some very entertaining scraps, as we saw in 2013 when he fought Konosuke Tomiyama and gave us a thrilling contest. We're expecting to see him busy in 2019, due to a link up with Top Rank, and he may well get another world title fight before the end of the year.
Reiya Abe (18-2, 9)
Japanese fighter Reiya Abe is one of the more unknown fighters on this list, despite the 25 year old being on an impressive 10 fight winning run. That run has seen him defeat the likes of Satoshi Hosono, Tsuyoshi Tameda and Shingo Kusano, and work his way towards a May date for a Japanese title fight. He's currently ranked by a couple of world title bodies, despite having never had a title bout, but he's not ranked without merit, having given Hosono his clearest defeat to date. He's a talented boxer puncher with a lot of potential, and we suspect we'll see that potential being allowed to shine in 2019, though don't imagine he'll be getting a world title fight any time soon.
Kiko Martinez (39-8-2, 28)
Spanish veteran Kiko Martinez has had an amazingly strange career which appears to just go on and on. He's 32 years old now and debuted in 2004 taking his first massive win in 2007, when he stopped Bernard Dunne in 86 seconds for the European Super Bantamweight title. Since then he has had a distinguished career, winning and losing the IBF Super Bantamweight title and mixing with top fighters around the world. Every time he's written off he seems to bounce back and recently won the European Featherweight title to remain in the mix for one more world title bout. Given his age, his hard career and the mounting number of losses the hard hitting "La Sensacion" may not get another shot, but until he retires we suspect he will be a perennial contender.
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.