The announcement yesterday that another top boxing fight has been signed puts yet more shine on a year that has already been, and looks to continue being, a great one for fans of the sweet science. Let’s take a look at what we’re getting, what we’ve had, and what’s still to come.
Jesse ‘Bam’ Rodriguez vs Sunny Edwards
The fight in question here is a title unification in the flyweight division. Sunny Edwards, a 26 year old Brit with a 27-0 record, has held the the IBF belt since defeating the long-reigning Moruti Mthalane in 2021. He’s developed a reputation as an extremely tricky defensive fighter and a box of tricks (as well as a busy online presence that could be described as confrontational).
Rodriguez, meanwhile, is a 23 year old American who made a huge splash last year. He jumped into the superfly division to take on established veteran Carlos Cuadras at very short notice to win a vacant WBC title, before defending it in a wonderful performance against the great Srisaket Sor Rungvisai. Since then he’s dropped back down to flyweight- in part to allow his brother, Joshua Franco, free movement at superfly for now. He won the vacant WBO belt there against Cristian Gonzalez, though he did have to tough his way through a broken jaw to do it.
That injury may account for some vagueness in the announcement- although the fight is declared as ‘signed and sealed’, there is no date, and promoter Eddie Hearn indicated it won’t happen till winter. That may seem disappointing at first glance, but there’s a positive aspect there. We’ve seen fights be postponed by training injuries fall apart, but if both fighters have committed to contracts that already take injury into account, that at least is unlikely to derail things here.
In any case, the long story short is that, although these two may not have broken through for the more occasional boxing fan, this is an excellent one for the boxing heads, and it’s not the first in a year that’s been giving us a lot. ‘Boxing is dead’ is a refrain that still occasionally rings out- but in 2023 it just isn’t true.
Taking the big risks
It isn’t just that big names are fighting. It’s that multiple fighters are taking risks, signing up for fights they don’t really need for their careers. They do so seeking to prove something and willing to risk the loss if they fall short.
Take Devin Haney. He’d already shown a willingness to make moves when he gave George Kambosos everything he wanted to get their fight signed. He won all the belts then defended them in the contracted rematch, travelling to Kambosos’ turf to do so. In boxing terms, though, the Australian wasn’t really seen as elite, having beaten a Teofimo Lopez who looked far from his best. Thus, despite having all the belts in the division as a result of his victories, Haney still felt he lacked a signature win that really proved he was elite himself.
So he fought Vasiliy Lomachenko. The magical Ukranian has been one of the stars of the lower weights over the last decade, and acknowledged as one of the most skillful fighters going. Sure, he’d taken a couple of losses himself (including to Teofimo Lopez in better form), but he is still one of the toughest opponents anyone could face.
The resulting fight was superb. And yes, while the result was controversial, dispute over the result should not hide that Haney showed a lot there, demonstrating reactions under pressure that we simply wouldn’t have found out about if he’d instead been content to hold his belts safe, taking easier challengers and protecting his ‘0’.
Speaking of Teofimo Lopez, he’s in this conversation too. As noted above, he looked pretty dreadful in losing those belts to Kambosos, and not much better in his step up to light-welterweight late last year, even though he did beat Sandor Martin. He needed something big to restore his reputation, so he fought Josh Taylor.
The Scot, former undisputed champion of the division, had questions to answer too, after a massively lucky win over Jack Catteral last year. With two fighters determined to show their poor form had been a blip, Lopez came out on top, refurbishing his reputation at a stroke. He promptly retired, but we’ll see if that sticks.
Those are just the two most recent, though. We’ve seen Leigh Wood, a champion at featherweight, take a voluntary defence of his interim title against one of the most dangerous fighters in the division, Mauricio Lara. It was a risk he had absolutely no need to take, with a shot at the full belt guaranteed, but delayed. He could have sat on it, or taken a tune-up, but instead he went for about the hardest fight he could. Initially, that cost him, with Lara scoring a spectacular comeback KO- but they rematched within months, and Wood now has his revenge, the full title, and a rise in prominence.
Or take Tim Tszyu. He’s in a similar position, waiting on the full champion (Jermell Charlo) at WBO light-middlweight to heal from injury while he sits on an interim. No-one would have blinked if he’d simply sat and waited for the guaranteed shot, but instead he took on two tricky contenders and won both in style- again sharply raising his profile and visibly improving in those fights.
Even losses can pay off
Poor Ryan Garcia‘s gamble didn’t come off – he got walloped when he stepped in with Gervonta Davis in April. But for all the disappointment (and pain), he’d have learned far more from that loss than any number of wins over hand-picked opponents. And he earned respect from boxing fans who’d previously doubted him as a pretty-boy and instagram star rather than perhaps a dedicated boxer.
Similarly, Anthony Yarde’s decision to take on the fearsome Artur Beterbiev didn’t pay off as far as the result goes- but he came out of it with his reputation enhanced, having put on a much better display than many observers expected. That is one of the changes we’re seeing – for a long time, having a ‘0’ in the losses column was seen as the aim of the game among many boxing stars, and it led to disappointing title reigns, or fighters eased to the top and unprepared when they got there. Now, though, the importance of great fights and great rivalries is coming back into focus, and fighters are getting props for closely fought losses.
All in all, it’s been a great year so far for boxing – but the best is yet to come.
Get hyped: July is going to be great for boxing
The coming month for boxing is, frankly, going to be huge. The obvious top of the bill is Terence Crawford vs Errol Spence, the welterweight superfight we’ve been waiting on for years. Various flavours of boxing bullshit have held it up, but we’re finally getting it – and although it’d have been nice to have seen it sooner, it’s not at the point where either fighter is out of their prime just yet. It’s still just about the best contest in boxing. And, since neither fighter is known to be a defensive spoiler, we’re pretty likely to get the drama to match the event. Look out for it on July 29th.
But while that hogs the attention, it’s only just the best fight happening in that week. The 24th, on the Tuesday of the week before, sees WBO and WBF super-bantamweight champion Stephen Fulton take his belts to Japan to face, Naoya Inoue. Known as ‘Monster’ for a reason, Inoue has been one of the most breathtakingly exciting fighters in the entire sport in recent years, rising up the divisions from junior flyweight to bantam with a series of incredible knockouts.
Now he steps up to super-bantam and immediately takes on the best fighter in the division. It is, again, a huge risk for both- and anyone suggesting an Inoue win is certain should get familiar with Fulton’s game before the end of July. It’s a genuinely brilliant fight- and there’s been no nonsense in getting it made. Even an injury to Inoue only postponed it for a couple of months from its planned May date. Somebody’s ‘0’ has got to go- but both reputations are likely to be enhanced.
Even beyond those two, though, July is stacked with incident. Keep a particularly close eye on Vergil Ortiz vs Eimantas Stanionis, in which the rising star Ortiz takes on the relatively obscure, but very tough, Stanionis. Once again it’s a fighter taking a risk instead of sitting on a mandatory shot- Stanionis holds a version of the WBA belt Errol Spence holds, and therefore would be guaranteed a shot at the winner of the superfight if he waited long enough.
Instead of holding still fighting soft touches until that happens, though, he’s taking on one of the brightest prospects in the sport. And Ortiz, in turn, could easily polish his reputation by knocking over no-hopers or aging stars- but he’s taking a chance against someone who brings relatively little attention in his own right. It’s a superb fight.
Beyond that, there’s a couple of very solid women’s boxing fights, with Savannah Marshall taking on Franchón Crews-Dezurn for her belts at super-middleweight on the 1st, and Alycia Baumgardner looking for revenge against former foe Christina Linardatou on the 15th.
The rest of the year for boxing
The boxing schedule beyond July is yet to come together, but some top fights are set already. In particular, August 12th gives us both Emmanuel Navarrette vs Oscar Valdez, a top clash at junior lightweight, and Oleksandr Usyk facing Daniel Dubois at heavyweight. While clearly we’d prefer to see Usyk face Tyson Fury- it’s boxing, we still need some bullshit- Dubois is about as good an opponent as he could fight in the meantime. He has no intention of sitting still and coasting his career to an end.
After that, things are less certain, but there are positive signs. We’ve just seen reports that Canelo Alvarez will fight Jermall Charlo in September. For Charlo that’s a money fight, but also a huge gamble, jumping divisions after a two-year layoff to fight the best fighter there. And there are also rumours of a showdown between David Benavidez and David Morrell, also at super-middleweight- and that would once again see two fighters who have a guaranteed shot at a ‘full’ belt eventually risk that against each other. They’re two of the best fighters in that division and both are exciting, aggressive boxers, so fingers crossed it comes together.
And, of course, we’ve got the prospect of that Edwards vs Rodriguez fight later in the year.
And really, that’s been the tenor of the year. Fighters who really don’t need to take each other on, doing so anyway and delivering great fights and performances. Here’s to a great second half of 2023 for boxing.
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