In 2019 we saw the Bantamweight division go through a lot of changes. We saw titles change hands, one old veteran look resurgent, and one contender essentially prove, again, that they can't make the weight any more. It was a division that benefited from the occasional surprise, and saw the WBSS add real prestige to the divisional kingpin. It's a division that is one of the strongest in the sport right now, and one of the most interesting, with so many match ups that could end up amazing us this coming year.
WBA "super" and IBF - Naoya Inoue (19-0, 16)
The division's kingpin right now is Japanese "Monster" Naoya Inoue, the man who unified the WBA "super" and IBF titles and won the WBSS late last year. The Ohashi gym fighter, who recently inked a deal with Top Rank, has the star power, the destructive punching, the skills and mentality to prove himself that we should be wanting to see from more fighters. At the time of writing he's pencilled in to fight in the US on April 25th, and is expected to have a huge year, working alongside Top Rank to increase his profile. Expect a big year from Inoue.
WBC - Nordine Oubaali (17-0, 12)
French-Moroccan Nordine Oubaali cemented his place among the divisional elite with an under-rated 2019 campaign. He began the year beating Rau'shee Warren for the vacant WBC title, and then travelled to defend it against Arthur Villanueva and Takuma Inoue. The powerfully built champion is now 33 and will be looking for big money fights in 2020, if he can get past WBC mandatory challenger Nonito Donaire. Although talented, strong and heavy handed there were question marks asked of him late against Takuma Inoue, and we do wonder about his stamina and punch resistance. Those two issues aside, he looks fantastic, and it will take a special fighter to beat him.
WBO - John Riel Casimero (29-4, 20)
Multi-weight world champion John Riel Casimero put the cat among the pigeons in the division last year when he stopped Zolani Tete in 3 rounds to claim the WBO title. He then made it clear that he wanted Inoue next, in a bout that could well be confirmed by the time this gets published. The explosive, yet inconsistent, Filipino is both a genius and a rotter depending on how he feels on any given day. At his best he is a talented, heavy handed and unpredictable thunder-puncher. On other days he's the sort of fighter who sleep walks through bouts he should win. If he's on form he could be real trouble for Inoue with his unconventional shots and spiteful power.
The top of the Bantamweight division is exciting, well matched and really interesting. That's despite the fact the WBC title is vacant, and is currently a real mess due to the WBC's failure force bouts to actually take place. The WBC's mess however is responsible for a backlog of challengers, as the division lines up to fight for belts.
For those who missed it, we had a look at the division's champion's here The state of the Division - Bantamweight - The Champions
Please note these aren't in a particular order, other than the 4 men fighting for the WBC interim and regular titles, who are at the top based on the fact they have fights in the next few weeks.
Petch Sor Chitpattana (48-0, 33)
Unbeaten Thai 25 year old Petch Sor Chitpattana, who also fights as Petch CP Freshmart and is listed as Tasana Salapat, who has racked up an incredibly looking 48-0 record. Sadly Petch has fought almost nobody of note through his career, which began back in 2011, but his winning run has seen him climb into the WBC rankings and he'll be fighting for the WBC "interim" title on December 30th against Takuma Inoue. From the footage available he's a pretty basic southpaw, but he could end up being someone who just needs a chance to shine. We'll see very shortly.
Takuma Inoue (12-0, 3)
Petch's opponent in the WBC "interim" title fight will be 22 year old Japanese fighter Takuma Inoue, the younger brother of Naoya Inoue. The unbeaten Inoue is a much more tested than is upcoming foe, having beaten the likes of Mark John Yap, Tatsuya Fukuhara and Hiroyuki Kudaka already. He's a talent, but is cursed with the Inoue name, which has put a lot of pressure on his shoulders, especially when he doesn't have the frightening power of Naoya. Although not a puncher Inoue is a good outside boxer, and can hold his own in a brawl. It should also be noted that whilst he struggles to score stoppages he has regularly dropped decent fighters.
Nordine Oubaali (14-0, 11)
Another man involved in the WBC mess is unbeaten French fighter Nordine Oubaali, a hard hitting southpaw with a strong amateur background who will be fighting for the WBC regular title on January 19th. Oubaali is a 2-time Olympian, fighting at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, who turned professional in 2014 and has notched notable wins over Iran Diaz, Julio Cesar Mirando and Alejandro Hernandez. Although he's looked fantastic since his debut it does seem like he's yet to face a prime natural Bantamweight opponent, something expect to see when he returns to the ring in the new year against Rau'shee Warren.
Rau'shee Warren (16-2-0-1, 4)
American fighter Rau'shee Warren is a 3-time Olympian who will face the aforementioned Oubaali in the new year for the WBC title. His career promised a lot, but it took a long time to really get going, following his debut back in 2012. In 2015 Warren challenged the then WBA "super" champion Juan Carlos Payano, losing a close decision before winning a rematch the following year to win the title. Warren's reign was a very short one, losing in his first defense to Zhanat Zhakiyanov, despite dropping Zhakiyanov twice. A 2017 win over McJoe Arroyo showed Warren was still a skilled fighter, but his activity has been limited and his lack of power is likely to be am issue when he faces Oubaali.
Luis Nery (28-0, 22)
Controversial Mexican fight Luis Nery is currently banned in Japan and is a fighter who is responsible for the current WBC mess. He was a very regarded hopeful before beating Shinsuke Yamanaka in 2017, then failing a drugs test, then failed to make weight for the rematch with Yamanaka. Since returning following a WBC suspension we've seen Nery score a couple of wins but he's certainly a fighter who will have a long journey back to redeeming his name. He's spoken about a bout with Naoya Inoue in recent weeks, and whilst that bout would be something special, there is also a clear feeling that no one in Japan will want to deal with Nery, who has proven to be as unreliable as he is talented. At 24 he has a long time to rebuild his name, but will need to be an angel when it comes to drug testing, weight making and everything else if he's to get the big fights he wants.
Carlos Cuadras (37-3-1, 27)
Former WBC Super Flyweight champion Carlos Cuadras is another fighter who has a reputation to rebuilding following drug issues, although unlike Nery where the drugs was used for making weight Cuadras' problem was related to recreational drugs. Cuadras beat Srisaket Sor Rungvisai back in 2014 for the WBC Super Flyweight title and remained a top Super Flyweight until recently, losing the title to Roman Gonzalez in 2016 and then losing 2 of his following 3 bouts. It seems like his struggle with form has been put down to weight issues and he's now looking to make his mark at Bantamweight. At 30 it'll be a challenge to see him have a lengthy reign, but he has the talent to hold his own with most in the division.
Jason Moloney (17-1, 14)
Earlier this year we saw Australian fighter Jason Moloney take a huge step up in class, but his ability as he ran IBF champion Emmanuel Rodriguez close in a very competitive and interesting contest. The 27 year old is a fantastic boxer-puncher who has scored a number of notable regional wins, such as wins over Marco Demecillo and Lolito Sonsona, as well as a win over former world champion Kohei Kono. Although perhaps a touch under that ability of the divisional elite Moloney's performance against Rodriguez suggests he can hold his own with almost anyone at 118lbs, and deserves another shot at a world title in the new year. He's a sharp puncher and the bout with Rodriguez will serve his development well, even if he did lose his unbeaten record to the Puerto Rican.
Lee Haskins (35-4, 14)
At the moment it's unclear whether Englishman Lee Haskins is going to fight again, following the late cancellation of an IBF world title eliminator. If he is active then he has to be regarded as a contender in the Bantamweight division, given a prior reign as an IBF champion, which only ended in the summer of 2017. The 35 year old "Playboy" is a tricky, smart switch hitter, who is getting on in terms of age, but is a nightmare to box with his unorthodox and frustrating style. Sadly if his career is now over it's one less contender that the Bantamweight division has hovering around the title picture.
Mark John Yap (29-13, 14)
The situation around Filipino veteran Mark John Yap is a strange one right now. He was last seen losing in a WBC eliminator to Takuma Inoue, a bout that he entered as the OPBF champion, though a falling out of sorts with Mutoh gym saw the gym state he had retired whilst the fighter stated he had been abused by the Japanese promotional outfit. Whatever the truth it appears that Yap's career could be held up for a while as the promotional mess and contracts all slow down his return to the ring. His record doesn't suggest he's anything special, but his record form has shown he's a world class contender, and the longer he's out of the ring the bigger the shame. He's an excellent fighter, and we're really hoping things get sorted and Yap gets back in the ring sooner rather tha later.
Michael Dasmarinas (28-2-1, 19)
Filipino fighter Michael Dasmarinas is a bit of unknown outside of Asia, but the 26 year old is a talented boxer-puncher who has the powerful Ringstar Management behind him. He lost a bout earlier in his career but has since gone 25-1-1 (17) including wins over the likes of Hayato Kimura, Jhaleel Payao and Karim Guerfi. Although very talented, and the current IBO champion, Dasmarinas looked very lucky to escape with a draw against the previously unheralded Manyo Plange in September. It was recently announced that Dasmarinas would be getting back in the ring in March to fight Kenny Demecillo in an IBF world title eliminator.
Manyo Plange (17-0-1, 15)
Having just mentioned Manyo Plange it makes sense to speak about Ghana's hard hitting, and criminally under-rated, fighter. Plange is an unknown by many though was an outstanding amateur who competed at the 2008 Olympics, beating Filipino Harry Tanamor. He turned professional in 2012 and has been slowly making his name at home before taking on Dasmarinas in Singaporet,aking a draw from that bout. We felt he deserved the win against the Filipino, though it seems we weren't the only ones impressed, with Ringstar management signing him after that bout. It's unclear where Plange is going to end up by the end of 2019, but we'd love to see him get another big bout during the next 12 months. He deserves a rematch with Dasmarinas, at the very least.
Liborio Solis (28-5-1-1, 13)
Venezuelan veteran Liborio Solis is a former WBA Super Flyweight champion who has proven to be a tough out for top Bantamweights, having given Jamie McDonnell and Shinsuke Yamanaka fits in world title challenges at 118lbs. Solis' activity in recent years has been a problem, though he is a fighter who is small, aggressive, has under-rated power, good defense, a great work rate and a real will to win. It's hard to see any of the champions rushing to face him, but he's here on merit and does deserve one more shot, given that his second bout with McDonnell ended inside in a No Cotnest.
Ryan Burnett (19-1, 9)
Former IBF and WBA "super" champion Ryan Burnett is one of the most naturally talented boxers in the division, sadly though his career is currently on hold after suffering a nasty freak injury in his recent loss to Nonito Donaire. The talented Northern Irish fighter is a gorgeous boxer, with great timing and ring craft, in fact one of the few things missing from his game is power. Despite only having 20 bouts he has already scored wins over the likes of Lee Haskins and Zhanat Zhakiyanov. At 26 he does have time to recover from the injury he suffered against Donaire, but we do wonder if he will ever be 100% given how bad that injury was.
Kenny Demecillo (14-4-2, 8)
Filipino 26 year old Kenny Demecillo is one of the most obscure contenders on this list, but is highly regarded by the IBF and is set for an IBF eliminator in March against Michael Dasmarinas. He's been waiting for a shot for a while, having seen Lee Haskins pull out of an arranged bout with him. Demecillo has really come into the title mix thanks to a major upset win back in March against Vyacheslav Mirzaev. Other than that he lacks in terms of big wins, but has beaten the likes of Daryl Basadre and Jestoni Autida. Demecillo is perhaps a dark horse in the mix here, but given his IBF status her certainly needs to be regarded as a contender.
Mikhail Aloyan (4-1)
Former Russian amateur standout has the record of a prospect on paper but Aloyan proved he was a contender when he ran WBO champion Zolani Tete close earlier this year in a WBSS bout. The Russian 30 year old started his career impressively, with wins against good competition, and despite losing to Tete showed there was a lot to like with a high boxing IQ, good speed and timing. Unfortunately he also showed that he totally lacked power, enjoyed holding and spoiling, and struggled to really impose himself. We do wonder whether Bantamweight is really the best weight for him, but he's certainly a talent, and at 30 we don't expect him to take on many lesser fighters as he hunts a second world title fight.
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.