It's fair to say that 2017 has been an amazing year for boxing fans, who have had so many great fights that year has over-delivered in many ways. There has been dodgy decisions, farcical contests and all the negatives we associate with the sport, but also a lot of amazing fights. We get some more of those on December 31st with the pick of the bunch being a Light Flyweight unification bout between WBA champion Ryoichi Taguchi (26-2-2, 12) and IBF champion Milan Melindo (37-2, 13). The bout could well shake up Fighter of the Year category and will almost certainly see us with a unified champion at 108lbs, a division which many have been sleeping on in recent years.
Of the two men it's Taguchi who is the more distinguished champion. The 31 year old from the Watanabe gym has held the WBA title since the end of 2014, beating Alberto Rossel for the belt on December 31st. Since then he has racked up 6 defenses, though shown real inconsistencies during his reign. He has dominated the likes of Kwanthai Sithmorseng, Juan Jose Landaeta and Ryo Miyazaki, struggled past Luis De La Rose and Carlos Canizales and looked beatable in both of those fights, whilst impressing earlier this year when he stopped Robert Barrera.
Although a bit of an enigma no one can argue with Taguchi's ability. When he's got his head on and is in the right mood he's an absolute night mare to fight with a very high output, freakish physical stature for a Light Flyweight, standing at over 5'5”, a solid toughness and a real air of confidence. He's not the most skilled but with his long reach, durability and work rate he's going to be a handful for anyone, and even gave Naoya Inoue his toughest bout to date, taking several rounds from the “Monster” back in 2013.
Filipino fighter Melindo only won his title this past May, in his third world title fight, but is arguably one of the top contenders for Fighter of the Year in 2017, with a win over Taguchi possibly earning him the award. He won the title in Japan, when he stopped Akira Yaegashi in 165 seconds, a divisional record, and made his first defense in September when he defeated top South African Hekkie Budler in a 2017 Fight of the Year candidate. Prior to those two wins Melindo was a bit of a nearly man, having put up good efforts in losses to Juan Francisco Estrada and Javier Mendoza and having scored notable wins over Fahlan Sakkreerin Jr, Saul Juarez, Martin Tecuapetla, Carlos Tamara and Muammad Rachman. His resume was on par that of a world champion, but without a win in a big one.
Having gotten his “big win” and a world title the question now is whether Melindo can continue to build on his success. From a technical stand point Melindo is arguably the best fighter at 108lbs. He's got a very, very high ring IQ, is a brilliant counter puncher and understands the ring fantastically. He gauges distances really well, has great timing and knows how to control the distance. From a fight fan perspective he's a real thinking man's fighter, but sadly that comes at a cost and he can be out worked, he can seem lazy and can be swarmed, though he does hit harder than his record suggests and one of his counters can turn the bout on it's head.
This bout really does look like it will be an intriguing clash of styles. It has Taguchi's high work rate, and relative defensive openness against Melindo's low work rate but accurate and smooth counter punching. It will pit two world class fighters against each other and will, potentially, see one walk out as a unified WBA/IBF champion, and the man to beat in the division.
With home advantage we do favour Taguchi, who with a win would spoil Melindo's year, but a win for Melindo is certainly not out of the question. Either man can win, and it is a true 50-50 bout, with a feeling of being something very, very special to close out the year.
Unification bouts are rare in boxing, though thankfully their rareness comes with the feeling that every one of them that we do get is that little bit special. That's arguably the case this coming Saturday as the WBA and IBF Bantamweight titles get unified in Belfast. Going into that bout as champions will be Kazakh brawler Zhanat Zhakiyanov (27-1, 18) and Northern Irish slickster Ryan Burnett (17-0, 9), with Zhakiyanov entering as the WBA champion and Burnett at the IBF king.
Aged 33, and soon to be 34, the Kazakh is really at the point in his career where a loss could well be the end of his career, at least at the top level. That's ignoring the fact that he has actually only just arrived on the world stage, winning his WBA title last time out in a split decision win over Rau-shee Warren in the US. Had the decision gone against him, there's a good chance that Zhakiyanov would have joined the “who needs him?” club and not been able to get a second shot at a world title.
Amazingly for Zhakiyanov his reign was rather lucky, and in his win he was dropped twice, in the opening round by Warren. A smarter fighter than Warren would have jumped on Zhakiyanov in round 2 and closed the show, but the American took his foot off the gas and let the Kazakh regroup, before he out hustled and out-worked the American to earn the decision. That bout proved that Zhakiyanov can over-come real adversity but also showed his limitations and it was clear that he really was a fighter with only one plan, and that pressure.
Although a pressure fighter at heart Zhakiyanov does have very solid power, as shown back in 2014 with his KO of the Year contender against Karim Guerfi. Sadly though he's slow of foot and his punches are certainly not the most technically correct or the fastest. As a results he can be out boxed.
Whilst Zahkiyanov is a pressure fighter Burnett is a pure boxer, and a very talented, slick one at that. He can box on the front foot, or the back foot, and although he's not the most aggressive or exciting of fighters he is one of those natural talents who looks so composed and at ease in the ring that boxing looks second nature to him. He moves wonderfully around the ring and controls distance brilliantly, especially on the back foot where his boxing brain really does shine. Although he can fight on the front foot he does look a lot more effective on the back foot.
Burnett has long been championed as a star for British boxing and at times has shown incredible skills. Whilst those skills are impressive he has also shown a lot of frustrating traits. He's note more than 2 years removed from his last stoppage and his lack of killer instinct has been really annoying, especially given that he has dropped a number of fighters but never gone for the kill, instead racking up unnecessary rounds and potentially boring fans, when he should be using those skills to shine.
Whilst Burnett is incredibly frustrating for fans he's also a nightmare to face, and stylistically Zhankiyanov is made to order. The pressure of the Kazakh will allow Burnett to tee-off on him and make him look stupid. There is a chance that Zhakiyanov will have some moments but the reality is that the movement of Burnett will simply be too much for him, and the sharp shots will take their toll. It's up to Burnett as to whether he'll want to up the pace and seek a stoppage late,but it's hard to see anything but a win for the Northern Irishman.
Over the last year or two we've seen the Light Heavyweight division really explode into life with the emergence of some vicious punchers and aggressively minded destroyers. One of those is WBC champion Adonis Stevenson, who decimated Chad Dawson last year, one is Artur Beterbiev, who completely steam rolled Tavoris Cloud earlier this year, and the other is Russian destroyer Sergey Kovalev (25-0-1, 23).
This weekend sees Kovalev taking part in his most significant bout to date as he battles against American legend Bernard Hopkins (55-6-2-2, 32) in a bout to unify the WBO title, held by Kovalev, with the WBA "super" and IBF titles that are currently held by Hopkins. For both men this is a chance to solidify their claim as the premier Light Heavyweight on the planet, despite the fact Stevenson holds the "linear" title, though there is so much more to this bout than just that claim and the three titles.
For Kovalev this is his chance to really break through and go from heavy handed and exciting fighter to a legend killer, in fact if he stops Hopkins there will be few doubting his credentials as one of the most destructive fighters of his era. For Hopkins however this is a chance to further prove that he is one of the all-time greats and that he really will defeat father time and go out on his terms, not when others tell him he should.
Of the two men it's Hopkins who is the better known fighter, after all his 65 fight career has seen him do it all and more in a career that spans more than 25 years and has seen him unifying titles at both Middleweight and Light Heavyweight. Aged 49 he has really staved off the aging process better than any other fighter and proven himself against more top class fighters than anyone else of his era, which has been a distinctly long one.
The veteran fought his first world title fight in 1993 though came up short to fellow future Hall of Famer Roy Jones Jr. Less than two years later he claimed his first world crown in after stopping Segundo Mercado and would later add the WBC, WBA and WBO titles to become the first fighter to fully unify a division. In 2006 he moved up to Light Heavyweight and dominated Antonio Tarver, since then he has become a 2-time Light Heavyweight world title holder winning the WBC title in his first reign before claiming the IBF title last year, then adding the WBA title this year with his win over Beibut Shumenov. Amazingly a win over Kovalev would see Hopkins becoming the first fighter to win all 4 major titles in 2 separate divisions.
As a fighter Hopkins is a historic fighter though he's also a frustrating one. In the ring h's incredibly highly skilled, very intelligent and knows what a fighter is going to do before they do it, but he is also very negative, holds, spoils and seems to be more capable of lulling an opponent to sleep then knocking them out. It's been that ability more than any other that has allowed him to remain so competitive at such an age and over-come younger fighters like Shumenov and the somewhat poor Karo Murat.
Through his sensational career only one thing has really bothered Hopkins, speed. His 5 high profile losses so far have all come against speedy fighter in the form of Roy Jones Jr, Jermain Taylor, twice, Joe Calzaghe and Chad Dawson and it's fair to say that he has avoided some other quicker fighters due to these losses. Despite that he has continued to fight good fighters, just slower ones.
In Kovalev we have a fighter who really emerged on the world scene last year by destroying a talented foursome of Gabriel Campillo, Cornerlius White, Nathan Cleverly and Ismayl Sillah in a combined 12 rounds. Those four fights took Kovalev from relative obscurity to WBO world champion and he has quickly become one of the sports must watch fighters due to intense offensive mentality and crushing power, power that has seen him dubbed "The Krusher".
Since winning the WBO belt Kovalev has continued to enhance his reputation through 2014 with two more earlier victories as he took out the unbeaten pairing of Cedric Agnew and Blake Caparello in a combined 9 rounds to continue his destruction of the division. In total he has now stopped his last 9 opponents in a combined 33 rounds and it's worth noting that hose opponents had a combined record of 184-26-6 with 3 of the men being unbeaten fighters.
Aged 31 Kovalev is coming into his prime money making years and knows that he needs a win over Hopkins to continue that. That however is easier said than done and Kovalev certainly isn't a speedster like those that have typically over-come Hopkins. Instead Kovalev is a very heavy handed pressure fighter who bring educated pressure, a lot of punches and heavy hands to the ring. His shots aren't thrown as hayemakers but all heavy handed with every shot coming with real force despite many looking like little more than stay busy arm punches. Although not the most skilled he is among the most devastating.
The bout is stylistically very interesting with Hopkins's sharp but negative boxing put against the come forward and intelligent pressure of Kovalev. If Kovalev does manage to fight his usual style he should win, likely by stoppage, though Hopkins always seems to get fighters out of their game plan and fighting his style of fight. If he does that again here then he will likely lull Kovalev into inactivity and take a clear decision himself. It really is a case of whether or not Kovalev can fight his fight or not. If he has too much respect for Hopkins then the old master will do it again and will celebrate his 50th birthday next year as a triple title holder however if Kovalev fights like his usual self and with his typical "I don't give a shit" attitude then we suspect the Russian will become the biggest thing in the Light Heavyweight division, at least for now.
(Image courtesy of Goldenboy Promotions)
This coming weekend's major fight, at least for us anyway, is in Mexico as Japan's incredibly brave and criminally under-rated Katsunari Takayama (27-6-0-1, 10) attempts to unify his IBF Minimumweight title with the WBO title currently held by the big punching Francisco Rodriguez Jr (14-2, 10). The bout, one of the very few Minimumweight title unifications, is a major one for both men who are both looking to claim that they are the best at 105lbs.
For Takayama this bout is a special one. It's his chance to became the first ever Japanese fighter to claim a "Grandslam" and to have won a version of all 4 of the major titles, thus achieving one of the goals he set out to accomplish when he returned to the sport after his short lived retirement. It's certainly a big ask but it's something he seems confident of doing.
For Rodriguez this continues his rapid rise through the sport following his victory over Merlito Sabillo earlier this year. It was that victory over Sabillo that saw Rodriguez winning his WBO belt and announcing himself as a serious force in the Minimumweight division.
Takayama, for those who haven't followed his career, has been one of the true "will fight anyone, anywhere" type fighters. This has seen him travelling to South Africa 3 times, including two fights Nkosinathi Joyi, the Philippines to fight Mateo Handig and to Mexico to fight Mario Rodriguez. In total Takayama has fought just 2 of his last 7 bouts in his native Japan.
Not only has Takayama fought top fighters on the road but he has also fought top fighters in his native Japan. This has included a fight with the brilliant Roman Gonzalez, Yutaka Niida and Eagle Den Junlaphan. In fact going through Takayama's record there are very few fighters that he didn't fight in the Minimumweight division such as Akira Yaegashi and Ivan Calderon.
For Rodriguez this will be his fourth fight with a notable foe. As mentioned above he holds an outstanding victory over Merlito Sabillo and he also holds a win over Manuel Vargas whilst his most recent loss came, via stoppage, to the sensational Roman Gonzalez. It's arguably the Gonzalez fight, in Nicaragua, that told more about Rodriguez than any other. It showed he was tough, despite being stopped, that his work rate was solid and that for a 20 year old he had real potential.
Young, powerful and strong we really do think that Rodriguez is a serious threat to Takayama and could well upset the popular and talented Japanese fighter much like he upset Sabillo. He is a pressure fighter with a growing confidence and ever developing skills that could help make him one of the divisional kingpins over the next few years, if he stays at 105lbs which it's self is a debate and a half.
Going for Takayama however are a number of things, not least his experience against the divisional elite. He is also one of the toughest and bravest fighters out there and if nothing else he has shown an ability to survive, in fact his sole KO loss, way back in 2003, came from over-confidence. Most importantly however is his energy and against a pressure fighter that could well be the key for him to succeed. He has proven capable of being able to fight at a great pace from the opening round to the final bell and, despite being hurt though his career he has been able to bounce back and recover excellently.
Although we tend to feel Takayama has a lot of advantages going in to the fight he has also had major issues in the build up to the bout. Firstly he saw his trainer, manager and mentor Hiroaki Nakade spend time in hospital early in his training camp. That was because Nakade needed an aneurysm removing and whilst he seems to have recovered from surgery it will have been an unwelcome distraction for Takayama. Another problem that has troubled his camp has been a cut over his right eye which was accidentally opened by Naoya Inoue in sparring. That cut, suffered just weeks before the fight, saw several planned spars cancelled and will have seriously thrown a spanner into Takayama's training plans. Thankfully it appears that that facial damage has healed though it is a target for Rodriguez to aim for and the talk is that Takayama really struggled in the spar with Inoue.
We'd like to think that Takayama will win, though we know he's in a very tough contest here and we'd certainly not be surprised at all to see him pushed all the way in a very hard bout. Of course bouts that fought on foreign soil do come with the risk of the judges being swayed by the home fighter and sadly we see that being an issue here. Takayama, for all his skills, isn't a fighter who stops opponents and we'd be shocked if he manages to see off Rodriguez which means it's likely this one is going 12 and we think Rodriguez will get the nod, albeit a controversial one.
(Image courtesy of http://nakazatoboxing.com)
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.