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.
The Bantamweight division has been on of the sports most over-looked divisions in recent years, despite having had world champions all over the planet. The long reigning Shinsuke Yamanaka has proven to be the top guy in the division, with notable wins over a who's who of contenders like Vic Darchinyan, Tomas Rojas, Malcolm Tunacao, Suriyan Sor Rungvisai, Anselmo Moreno and Liborio Solis, but Yamanaka aside the division seems to lack in star power. The other champions in the division, like Marlon Tapales and Lee Haskins, are very good fighters but they lack the fan base to create a huge buzz at home, despite both having been in some sensational fight. Despite being an over-looked division it does give us some interesting match ups, one of which is set to take place his coming Friday in Ohio.
The bout in question sees WBA “super” champion Rau'shee Warren (14-1-0-1, 4) defending his title against Kazakh puncher Zhanat Zhakiyanov (26-1, 18) in a speed Vs power bout.
Warren, a former 3-time US Olympian, won the title last year with a razor thin win over Juanm Carlos Payano and will be looking to make his first defense and solidify his standing as a world class fighter.
In the ring Warren really is a speed king with speed to burn in both his hands and his feet. He's not a puncher but he certainly hits harder than his record suggests, with knockdowns against a number of fighters that have seen the final bell with him. Whilst many of those knockdowns will be down to his speed, rather than power, he certainly can hurt fighters.
Not only is Warren fast but he's also a very highly skilled fighter, as any 3-time Olympian would be. He might not have shone at the Olympics, losing in his first bout at all 3 Games, but he did accomplish a lot of other things in the unpaid ranks, including winning a gold at the 2007 and a bronze at the 2005 World Amateur Championships. He isn't just skilled but has also began to show his adaptive ability and has transitioned from his amateur style to a professional style, though it did take a while for him to do that whilst saw him struggle in the early part of his career.
Zhakiyanov is a much more “agricultural” fighter. He's a big, strong, tough and powerful Bantamweight who has scored some brilliant knockouts during his career, with his 5th round KO against Karim Guerfi being a frightening shot. That KO came during a long run of stoppages from the Kazakh, who stopped 12 foes in row from May 2011 to May 2015. Despite that impressive stat there was little in terms of quality in there, with Guerfi being the best of the names.
That KO run of the Kazakh came to an end last year, when he claimed a split decision win over Yonfrez Parejo for the interim title in Monaco, and Zhakiyanov certainly didn't shine there, in fact he didn't shine at all in 2016 with his only other bout being a less than great win over Hector Roland Gusman, a bout in which he was dropped. It was a year in which Zhakiyanov's lack of speed and predictability saw him really exposed as little more than a limited puncher.
With his power Zhakiyanov always has a chance, if he catches a fighter clean he can put their lights out. Landing clean is however a big ask, especially against a fighter like Warren who is illusive, smart and fast. We suspect the speed and skills of Warren will be the difference here with Zhakiyanov being unable to land his home run punch, which he would need to connect with here to have any chance at all. With Zhakiyanov being as clumsy as he is we wouldn't be that shocked to see a hungry Warren make a statement and actually see off a tiring Zhakiyanov in the later rounds.
Monaco may be well known for it's gambling, huge yachts, wonderful scenery and rich people however there is a slowly growing reputation for the countries boxing events, which have been promoted by South African promoter Rodney Berman. This Saturday sees Berman, and his “Golden Gloves Promotions” return to the European principality for a very cosmopolitan card featuring a variety of nationalities.
For us one of those bouts is of a particular interest as Kazakhstan's heavy handed Zhanat Zhakiyanov (25-1, 18) challenges WBA interim Bantamweight champion Yonfrez Parejo (17-1-1, 8), from Venezuela. On paper this is the most significant bout for either man so far and could well help set the stage for some big Bantamweight bouts in 2016.
The champion is a little known Venezuelan 29 year old who turned pro in 2009. His first bout of note saw him defeat the then unbeaten Jean Sampson in 2012 before being stopped, in 8 rounds, by the excellent Hugo Ruiz. Since then he has racked up 6 wins, including a decision win over Angky Angkotta in Indonesia and a win over Luis Hinojosa in 2014 to win his title.
From the footage of Parejo he looks to be a crafty fighter with an excellent and busy jab, intelligent movement and fast hands. Whilst his jab did catch out eye in terms of his punching we were actually more impressed by his calmness and confidence in the ring. He's certainly not the best Bantamweight out there, and he does make mistakes, but there is a lot of positives to take from his previous performances and he does look like the type of fighter who could frustrate fighters on the back foot.
Saying all that however Parejo has lost to the only world class fighter he's faced and hasn't really scored a win of world renown, hence why he's an unknown fighter.
Whilst Parejo is a known to only the hardcore and Latino fans Zhakiyanov is actually known in Europe, where he has spent some of his career under the guidance of the legendary Ricky Hatton. It's been under the watchful eye of Hatton that Zhakiyanov has claimed the European title and climbed the world rankings. Despite the link to Hatton however the Kazakh is a very well traveled fighter having already fought in Kazakhstan, Russia, Uzbekistan, Thailand, Switzerland, the UK, Belarus, Hong Kong, Australia and Bulgaria.
In the ring Zhakiyanov looks like a very limited fighter. In fact to call him fundamentally flawed would be a compliment. What he does have in his favour however is power and physical strength. It's been his power which has resulted in his victories, some of which have been sensational like his win over Karim Guerfi who he iced in style. Watching him it seems clear he can be out boxed but going to war with him seems to be a stupid idea for anyone.
Whilst his flaws will hold him back from ever being a real star Zhakiyanov doesn't have time to waste any more as he turns 32 just days before the fight and it seems it's “now or never” for “ZZ”.
Watching the two men it seems clear that Parejo is the much better boxer, and in fact he clearly has the ability to box his way to a decision. Sadly for him we don't really know how tough he is and there is a good chance that he will be caught hard from a Zhakiyanov shot that ends the night early.
We're expecting Parejo's boxing to be the key early though as he slows down in the middle rounds there will be more opportunities for the Kazakh who will manage to tag the Venezuelan. When he does that, then things will be come interesting and we could see a new champion being crowned.
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.