One thing that was undeniable about the boxing scene in 2020, was that it was a year that messed up the calendar, significantly, and saw so many bouts being cancelled or postponed. Due to the effects of Covid19 a lot of major names in the sport either didn't fight at all in 2020, or fought just once, as their careers stagnated for a year. Thankfully it appears that 2021 will be the year that things get back to normal, at least in the last few months of the year.
Two men that were massively affected by the Covid19 pandemic were WBC Bantamweight champion Nordine Oubaali (17-0, 12) and his mandatory challenger Nonito Donaire (40-6, 26), who had a planned bout cancelled when Oubaali tested positive for Covid19. Donaire himself would also test positive for the virus, though it appears his positive test was likely a false positive, as he got a negative response in a confirmatory test that he and his team paid for.
With neither man fighting last year, and with Oubaali having a planned March defense cancelled as well, neither man has actually fought since November 2019, when they both featured on the same card over in in Japan. That card saw Donaire lose to Naoya Inoue, in the WBSS Bantamweight final, and Oubaali beat Naoya's younger brother Takuma Inoue to retain the WBC title. Following those bouts in Japan, and the cancellation of an eliminator featuring Luis Nery who failed to make weight, Donaire was made the mandatory challenger to Oubaali, in what looked like a great bout for early 2020. Before the pandemic left it's mark on the sport's calendar.
Despite the long lay off for both men, and the issues of 2020, we'll get to see the two men clash this coming weekend in arguable the best Bantamweight bout currently on the schedule, and one of the most interesting bouts the division has seen in well over a year. It's a bout neither man can afford to lose, and a bout that sets the winner up for a potential unification bout, possible with Naoya Inoue or Johnriel Casimero.
So with that back story out of the way how do we see this bout? And what can we say about the two men involved?
The defending champion, Oubaali, is a 34 year old southpaw who was a former amateur standout before turning professional in 2014. He started his career well and picked up notable wins over Hiram Irak Diaz, Julio Cesar Miranda, Alejandro Hernandez and Mark Anthony Geraldo in his first on his way to a world title fight. When he finally got his world title shot he beat Rau'shee Warren for the then vacant WBC title, which he has now defended twice, stopping Arthur Villanueva and scoring the aforementioned win over Takuma Inoue in 2019. For a man with just 17 bouts his resume is genuinely solid, not spectacular but really solid. Sadly however for a man who is now in his mid 30's, in a division where most fighters are consider on the slide at the age of 30, his careers underwhelming, and it's clear he will need to not just win here, but rack up other wins to live up to his full potential.
In the ring Oubaali is a solid technician. A really good technical boxer, with under-rated power, a surprising physicality, very good speed, sharp punches and good work rate. He is, however, small at the weight, has questionable stamina, and there are perhaps some questions about his durability. To date he's yet to face an actual world class puncher, and he was hurt against Inoue in the later rounds, as Takuma surprisingly made the very competitive late on, despite what the scorecards for that bout suggest.
When it comes to Nonito Donaire it's fair to say there it little that hasn't already been said about the Filipino legend and future Hall of Famer. He is a legitimate legend and there is no denying that. Aged 38 Donaire has been there, done that and got the T-shirt. He made his professional debut way back in February 2001, when his first world title in 2007, when he upset Vic Darchinyan, and became one of the few major stars of the lower weight classes. He managed to win world titles at Flyweight, Bantamweight, Super Bantamweight and Featherweight, while scoring notable wins over a who's who, of who. He has beaten Darchinyan, Moruti Mthalane, Raul Martinez, Rafael Concepcion, Hernan Marquez, Volodymyr Sydorenko, Fernando Montiel, Omar Andres Narvaez, Wilfredo Vazquez Jr, Jeffrey Mathebula, Toshiaki Nishioka, Jorge Arce, Simpiwe Vetyeka and Ryan Burnett. Despite picking up losses along the way he has one of the best resumes in the sport today. A truly brilliant resume.
In the ring Donaire has changed his style over the years, but some things have remained the same. Over the years he has tried boxing southpaw, and was once very light on his feet, but as he's aged he's become less reliant on his speed, with his legs and footwork both slowing, in fact he's almost a flat-footed fighter. Instead of relying on speed he's relied on his physicality, size, power and strength, and he's a huge Bantamweight. Last year he dwarfed Inoue in their bout and will tower over Oubaali here. He's strong, tough, with a dynamite left hook, a really impressive chin, thunderous jab, good technical skills and excellent timing. Given he's now 38 it's hard to know what he's got left in the tank, but given his performance last time out, against Inoue, there is a feeling he may well have one more big performance left before he calls time on his career.
It's hard to know what both men will be bringing to the ring here. Both have been out of the ring for more than 18 months, both old are for Bantamweights and whilst Oubaali is younger it'll be interesting to see how he looks following his legitimate bout with Covid19.
At their best it would be almost impossible to favour Oubaali. Even now it's hard to pick the Moroccan born French fighter, who's key advantages are being younger than Donaire and being quicker. We suspect he lacks the fire power to get Donaire's attention, he'll be the much smaller man, he'll have to work incredibly hard to get in and get without eating Donaire's stiff jab and potent left hooks. Especially if he tires again as he did against Takuma Inoue. If a tired Oubaali, perhaps even an Oubaali feeling the effects of his 2020 illness, show up, this could be a very, very tough night for him.
That's not to say Oubaali can't win. He could out work and out fiddle Donaire early on, then see out the 12 rounds fighting on the retreat. We can see that happening, but we're not expecting it. Instead we see Oubaali starting well, but tiring through the fight and then being stopped late as the power, size, and strength of Donaire wears him down.
Predictionm - TKO10 Donaire.
The Minimumweight division over the last 16 months has been frustratingly quiet, with very, very little happening since the start of the Covid19 pandemic. It's been the most among the most frustrating division in the sport with champions being pretty inactive and challengers being inactive, forcing the division to almost stand still at times.
We get the the WBC title and the IBF title have changed hands since the start of 2020 but since the start of 2020 we have only seen two IBF title fights a single WBC, WBA "super", WBO and WBA "Regular" title fight. That's at world level. We have also seen just a single Japanese title fight and single Japanese Youth Youth title fight in the division. And we've also had no bouts for the OPBF or WBO Asia Pacific titles showing just how frustrated the division has become in the pandemic era.
Thankfully it seems like this could be set to change through what's left of 2021 and the division might finally begin to come alive.
Kicking off the potential revival of the Minimumweight division we'll see world title action this coming Saturday as WBA "super" champion Knockout CP Freshmart (21-0, 7) defends his title against fellow Thai Pongsaklek Sithdabnij (23-6-1, 13). This is a rare "Bloodline Battle", a world title bout between two Thais, and sadly it looks like a massive down grade from the last one, which incidentally saw Panya Pradabsri dethrone Wanheng Menayothin for the WBC title. Unlike that bout however, there will be significantly less international interest here, and very, very few will give the under-dog any kind of a chance. At all.
The unbeaten 30 year old champion, also known as Thammanoon Niyomtrong, has held some version of the WBA Minimumweight title since beating Carlos Buitrago in October 2014, for the "interim" title. Back that he was an exciting unbeaten hopeful stepping up his competition quickly, and looked like a breath of fresh air, with a unique fighting name. Since then he has claimed the WBA "regular" and "super" titles and become one of the few foundations for which the division has been built around, along with Wanheng. Sadly though he's also proven to be a very frustrating fighter to follow and someone who is lacking that extra gear, or may more exactly lacking the willingness to move into that top gear. In many ways he's of the same mentality, although different style, to Dmitry Bivol. It's clear he's talented but as long as he's winning he doesn't care about the style in which he wins.
Knockout is a talented fighter, he's a clean puncher, he's got solid defense, a good ring IQ and he knows his way around the ring. There is no denying his talent. This guy can box. Sadly though he's not very exciting. He lacks power, he lacks tenacity and work rate, and seems to also struggle with stamina. He keeps a predictable pace through much of the bout, coming alive early on, and controlling behind his under-rated foot and clean counter puncher. Earlier in his career he was much more exciting, but seems to have willingly tuned that down to fight safely, and to just defend his title, without creating any fuss or drama. In fact the most drama his recent bouts have had came from when ArAr Andales took the fight to him and we went to the scorecards early due to a cut. That fight aside there been no drama in a Knockout bout for years.
Again that's not to say the champion can't fight, he can. He's beaten Byron Rojas twice, Carlos Buitrago twice, Rey Loreto, Toto Landero and Xiong Zhao Zhong. He's just not exciting.
Pongsaklek Sithdabnij, also known as Siridech Deebook, is a 28 year old fighter who really isn't too well known. In fact fans who don't follow boxing outside of Asia will almost certainly know nothing about him, other than that he has taken the fighting name of a former Flyweight great, And there's good reason for that. There's not too much to talk about when it comes to Pongsaklek, despite managing to turn his career around, massively, he's not really proven himself as being ready for a world title fight. In fact he's almost certainly getting this fight due to Covid19 restrictions regarding travel in and out of Thailand.
The challenger debuted in 2009 and began his career with 3 straight losses, and was 0-3-1 after 4 bouts. Following that stumble he managed to find his groove in 2015, including a major upset over the then 22-0 Kongfah Nakornluang, winning 11 in a row to get his career going. Since then things haven't been plain sailing however and he's gone 12-3, losing to Yudel Reyes, Kompayak Porpramook and Marco John Rementizo. Not exactly Murderers' Row. He has also struggled in other bouts, narrowly over-coming Kompayak in a rematch, limping past Romshane Sarguilla, and edging a bout with Seksan Khumdee. Again not exactly the competition of an upcoming world title challenger.
In the ring Pongsaklek is the type of fighter who looks like he's always doubting himself. He's not quick, sharp, powerful or particularly polished. He's young and hungry but lacks the tools to really dominate fights. Against Kompayak for example, he was lucky the former world champion was heading towards his 40's. He doesn't throw a lot unless he absolutely needs to, he doesn't look confident and he certainly doesn't have fight changing power. Notably he has fought at Flyweight in the past, and is going to be big at Minimumweight, but he's not shown himself to be someone who uses his size well. When he does get more aggressive, and to his credit he can dig deep and up his work rate, he looks very sloppy and doesn't have that clean, crisp quality to his punches that we want to see at world level. He's just, sadly, very average in pretty much every way.
Given what we've seen from both men we expect Knockout to start well, take control early and then simply out box Pongsaklek, who will look to move through the gears, but will be sloppy in his offense, will be left chasing Knockout a lot, and will be countered, tied up and hitting the air a lot in the second half of the bout.
Although this is a world title bout at 105lbs between two Thai's we're not expecting a great fight. We are expecting a bit of a sloppy, dull, clear decision for the champion, who needs a run out after more than a year of inactivity.
Prediction - UD12 Knockout CP Freshmart
The growth of the DAZN service as a distribution network for boxing is still something of a work in progress, and there are still a lot of areas where the service needs to improve, with the commentary being one of the most notable. Despite that the service has been fantastic for a number of reasons, and one of those is the fact the service seems to have taken a very clear interest in picking up fighters from the lower weight classes. In the last 12 months alone we have seen 3 of the 4 Light Flyweight world champions compete on the service and that is something that we didn't expect to see, but something we're really happy about. Finally a major outlet is shining a light on one of the most over-looked divisions in the sport.
DAZN's foray into the Light Flyweight division saw IBF champion Felix Alvarado beat the fight out of Deejay Kriel in January and saw WBA "Super" champion Hiroto Kyoguchi defeat Axel Aragon Vega in a brilliant tear up in March. On May 8th we get the chance to see another champion, this time WBO champion Elwin Soto (18-1, 12) in action as he takes on Japanese veteran Katsunari Takayama (32-8-0-1, 12). Like the two other two recent bouts in the division this could end up being a really brutal and thrilling bout between two men at very different stages of their careers.
Of the two men American audiences will likely be more familiar with Soto, especially newer fans to the sport. Soto won his WBO title on American soil when he stopped Angel Acosta, in his US debut, and has since defended the title twice, both in the US, with decision wins over Edward Heno and Carlos Buitrago. In his title win he looked talented, but flawed, and was struggling with stamina late in the bout, until hurting Acosta, who had been dropped in round 3, and forcing a controversial 12th round finish. Since then he has again looked more like a youngster who is growing into being a champion, rather than someone close to being the complete product, with both of his defenses leaving plenty to be desired. And whilst that sounds negative, the reality is that Soto seems like the sort of fighter who maybe won a world title before he was really ready for it, and needs to take another year or two to mature into the fighter he will become.
Although not the complete article yet Soto is still a monster. He's got huge power, an impressive chin, an an economical style. He presses forward, he's strong and tough and is still really rounding off his boxing skillset fight by fight. Although still improving Soto is slow of foot, sometimes a bit too methodical, and happy to come forward behind a tight guard rather than letting shots fly. A very stark comparison to the likes of Kyoguchi and Alvarado. He looks easier to outbox than the other two, due to not working as much, but is just as dangerous and strong as the other two, and arguably has the biggest upside given his young age.
Although we have been impressed by Soto at times, it is worth noting that faltering Carlos Buitrago ran him a lot closer than the scores cards suggest, and Edward Heno also gave him a very tough bout. He's the type of fighter who, against someone with a lot of quick movement will struggle to shine.
If you're a long term fan of the lower weights Katsunari Takayama needs no introduction at all. However it's fair to say that most fight fans aren't long term watches of the lowest weights and have sadly missed out on the career of the "Lighting Kid" who is now edging towards his 38th birthday and is not the fighter he used to be. At his best he was a whirring dervish of activity, willing to skip around the ring, let shots go in bunches, and use a lot of in and out movement, without too much worry of what was coming his way. He had a brilliant chin and could rely on it when he needed to, and was able to stand and trade when he wanted. His style made for some brilliant bouts against the likes of Yutaka Niida, Francisco Rodrgiuez Jr, Fahlan Sakkreerin Jr and Jose Argumedo among others. He was also a serial belt collector winning the WBC, the WBA interim title and the WBO and IBF titles, twice. All at Minimumweight. Sadly it's hard to know just how good he is going to be at Light Flyweight.
The bigger issue for Takayama isn't so much the move up in weight, he did fight at Light Flyweight early in his career, but instead his skin. During his career the accumulated punishment has left his skin very paper like, and he has been cut numerous times during the later part of his career. In fact 3 of his last 5 bouts have ended via technical decision, dating back more than 5 years. Aged 37, moving up in weight, with paper skin, taking on a big puncher, things don't look good for Takayama.
Saying all that however Takayama hasn't taken much punishment recently. In 2016 he retired before chasing a place at the Olympics. He failed in his pursuit for a Tokyo 2020 place and returned to professional boxing last year, putting on a brilliant performance against former 2-time world challenger, at Light Flyweight, Reiya Konishi. That bout showed that Takayama still has his legs and output to go, at least for 6 rounds, though of course it's a very different proposition over 12 rounds against a big puncher like Soto.
At his best Takayama would have been a stylistic nightmare for Soto. His non stop movement, ability to take a shot and high output would have been a very tough assignment for a man like Soto, who is powerful but low activity and slow of foot. This current version of Takayama however is a very different kettle of fish, and we're really not sure if Takayama's face can hold hold up or whether his legs can go 12 rounds.
We would genuine love to see Takayama win. It would be one final chapter in a career that has been amazing to follow and really seen him tread a track rarely seen by a Japanese fighter, as he actively pursued IBF and WBO titles. The reality however is that father time and a long career has probably left Takayama with only a slim chance here.
Our expectation is that Takayama starts well, uses his feet, and stops Soto from getting set, and getting his shots off. Using a tactic similar to what Carlos Buitrago did, but busier. As the fight goes on however the power and physical strength of Soto will take over and Mexican will leave Takayama busted open and force the doctor to wave off the bout.
The real question, for us, is what will cause those cuts, and when will the bout be stopped? Takayama has been involved in head clashes and if one of those occurs it would be a surprise, at all, to see a technical decision here. On the other hand Soto is a big puncher and there's a real chance that his punches will bust up Takayama and force a stoppage.
Prior to the end we expect Takayama to set a high pace, at least early on, and force Soto to fight at a much higher tempo than usual. We expect a lot of leather to be thrown here and for the bout to be, yet another, fantastic Light Flyweight action bout. Expect regular exchanges, with Soto landing the heavier blows and Takayama landing at a high volume. Sadly though it's hard to see the bout ending in any other way, other than Takayama wearing a crimson mask.
For gamblers out there, Takayama by technical decision might be worth a shot, but a slim one. For everyone else, the obvious outcome is Soto by TKO, and that's the one we'll be picking.
Prediction - TKO9 Soto (cuts)
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.