By Anthony Cocks
It’s that time of year when we look back over the past 12 months and forward to the new year. In my annual review of Aussie boxers, I list the ones to watch by division in 2019. To keep things interesting I have decided not to nominate the same boxer in my column twice. I have also included a review of the previous year’s nominee to see how close – or far – I was from the mark.
HEAVYWEIGHT: Willis ‘The Hitman’ Meehan 7-0 (6)
The son of former WBO heavyweight title challenger Kali Meehan, the six-foot-five, 280-pound southpaw brings power, pedigree and unusual athleticism for such a big man to the ring. After more than two-years out of the game Meehan returned with a vengeance in 2018, bowling over Jonasa Kavika 3-1 (2) of Fiji in two rounds in July and Hungarian Richard Nemeth 3-1 (3) in a single frame in November.
A skilled and talented rugby league forward, the 23-year-old will have to decide sooner or later which sport to dedicate his time and effort to. As of right now, he is doing a handy job of competing at both.
Meehan already has two assignments locked in for the new year starting with a fight in Sydney on February 8 against TBA followed by a six-round bout three weeks later in Melbourne against Julian Esteban Ruiz. Activity is the key to Meehan developing as a pro and if he sticks to his early schedule for 2019, there’s no reason he can’t be challenging for the national crown or regional honours before the end of the year.
LAST YEAR: Demsey ‘The Tower of Terror’ McKean 13-0 (7)
Southpaw McKean spent much of the year on the sidelines recovering from hand surgery to fix ligament damage to his right hand before returning to the ring in October. An easy sixth round stoppage of former super middleweight fringe contender Victor Oganov in an eight round contest was followed by a TKO4 win over the ageing Roger Izonritei in defence of his national crown in December. The ‘Tower of Terror’ recently called out former WBA ‘regular’ champion Lucas ‘Big Daddy’ Browne, a big step up in class but not an impossible one considering the Perth banger’s indifferent form of late.
CRUISERWEIGHT: Jayden ‘Plugger’ Nichols 7-1-1 (1)
The nuggetty Tasmanian has all the attributes you like to see in a prizefighter: a willingness to take on bigger men on the road despite his diminutive stature and a heart the size of Phar Lap. Nichols, who is almost always at a height and reach deficit, has to work harder than most to close the distance but he fights well out of the pocket and knows how to pick his shots well.
This year saw him claim the vacant national crown against Uria Afamasaga in April before losing the belt in his first defence on points to Ben Kelleher in Queensland in July by scores of 94-97, 93-97 and 91-99.
Next up he faces veteran Kane Watts in Melbourne, a fight where he will again be the underdog. But providing he can keep his workrate up in the mid-rounds, it’s a fight I believe he can win on points.
LAST YEAR: Jai Opetaia 16-0 (13)
It’s impossible to fault Opetaia’s 2018 campaign with three fights for three wins all within three rounds against solid opposition. Ben Kelleher was stopped in the third round of his Australian title challenge in January, while Germany’s Lukas Paszkowsky didn’t make it past the second round in April. Tough Queenslander Kurtis Pegoraro didn’t fare much better, getting knockout out in two frames in June. The only thing that slowed down his progress was his twice-postponed fight against IBF number seven Bilal Laggoune in Belgium, which will now take place on March 22. Opetaia is ranked number nine by the WBO.
LIGHT HEAVYWEIGHT: Reagan ‘The President’ Dessaix 16-1 (11)
In a really tough call I have nominated youth over experience here as former world title challenger Blake Caparello could’ve easily filled this slot. The black mark against ‘Il Capo’ was his decision loss to world-rated Isaac Chilemba in a fight he looked to have in the bag going in to the final four rounds. Instead, I have chosen ‘The President’ Reagan Dessaix as my one to watch in the 175-pound weight class.
The 22-year-old Dessaix, who is ranked WBA number 13, had a breakthrough year highlighted by a stunning second round knockout over experienced campaigner Steve Lovett 17-3 (13) in November. Early in the year he posted wins over Shintaro Matsumoto of Japan by TKO4 in March, a KO2 over Peter Ato Ricketts of Ghana in May and six-round shutout over Michael Van Nimwegan in August.
The uber-confident Dessaix faces his toughest test to date when he travels to Melbourne to face WBC number 10 and WBO number 12 Caparello on February 22 in what will be a real litmus test for the rising star. One thing is for sure, Dessaix won’t die wondering.
LAST YEAR: Damien ‘Super’ Hooper 14-1 (9)
In his lone fight for 2018 Hooper engaged in one of the best fights of the year. His knockdown, drag-out brawl with Renold Quinlan in defence of his WBO International title had everything you want in a boxing contest. WBO number eight Hooper controlled the early rounds before being hurt and dropped twice in the fifth before rallying to finish off Quinlan in the ninth and penultimate round. At the time of the stoppage Hooper was leading by three points on two of the judges’ scorecard and trailing by a point on the third. Unfortunately persistent legal trouble has sidelined Hooper for the rest of the year but there are plans for the rangy boxer-puncher to return to the ring in Sydney on February 8.
SUPER MIDDLEWEIGHT: Jayde ‘El Matador’ Mitchell 18-1 (9)
In a lineball call I opted for the slick boxing Mitchell here over power-puncher Bilal Akkawy, both of whom had tremendous years. In the end I felt ‘J-Mitch’ was closer to the finished product while Akkawy still needs a little more polish to deliver on his enormous potential.
Coming off neck surgery in late 2017 Mitchell returned to the ring in March to knockout Ariel Zampedri in three before turning back the tough challenge of Kerry Foley over 10 rounds in September. Foley had Mitchell in trouble in the middle rounds but the smart-boxing Mitchell managed to survive those shaky moments to sweep the later rounds and win a competitive but clear-cut decision by scores of 97-93 across the board. A 10-round points win over survival-minded Kim Poulsen in December was something of a non-event but if nothing else it gave Mitchell some ring time to close out the year.
The 32-year-old Mornington Peninsula pugilist, who is ranked WBA number 10 and WBC number 12, is conscious that the clock is ticking on his career and is keen to chase the big fights in 2019.
LAST YEAR: Rohan ‘No Mercy’ Murdock 24-1 (17)
Murdock couldn’t have performed better in 2018, going three for three and closing out the year with the WBO number 4 ranking at 168-pounds. Fourth round stoppage victories over Frankie Filippone in February and Pablo Nievas in September were followed by a wide 10-round points decision win over WBO number 11 Rolando Mansilla for the vacant WBO Oriental title in December. With the backing of burgeoning promotional outfit DDP Sports and the guidance of manager Mike Altamura, 2019 promises big things for the classy 26-year-old Gold Coast puncher.
MIDDLEWEIGHT: Tej Pratap Singh 14-4-2 (8)
The oft-overlooked Singh had the busiest years of anyone on this list, competing six times while scoring some breakthrough wins along the way. Don’t be fooled by the four losses on his record. The have-gloves-will-travel Singh could just as easily be 19-1 if a little luck had gone his way.
In March he stopped one-time hot prospect Jake Carr in the sixth round to claim the vacant WBA Oceania title while in July horrendous refereeing by Malcolm Bulner saw him robbed of a legitimate victory over former IBF middleweight champion Sam ‘King’ Soliman, with the result of their 10-round bout eventually being overturned to a no-contest. Victories over Jerome Pascua, Harley Love, Kerry Davies and Jason Leuken rounded out his successful 2018 campaign.
Expertly trained by Gerry Murphy, it looks like Singh will finally get the opportunities he deserves in 2019. Let’s hope the officials give him an even break.
LAST YEAR: Michael ‘Pretty Boy’ Zerafa 25-3 (14)
Last year I had Zerafa listed as the middleweight to watch in 2018 but he outsmarted me by making the clever move down to junior middleweight where he largely enjoyed a year of success. In March he claimed the Commonwealth crown against Brit Adam Harper, boxing smartly off the back foot to pitch a virtual shutout. Zerafa would secure two more wins but it was the Harper performance that opened doors to him in the UK with Eddie Hearn eventually matching him with Kell Brook in December in what was expected to be a walkover for the Sheffield banger. Instead WBA number eight Zerafa overcame a shaky start to have Brook wobbled in the middle rounds and finished strongly over the second half of the contest. Forget what the scorecards said, this was a competitive fight down the straight. Zerafa will be afforded more big fight opportunities in 2019.
JUNIOR MIDDLEWEIGHT: Tim Tszyu 11-0 (9)
The son of former undisputed junior welterweight kingpin and International Boxing Hall of Fame inductee Kostya Tszyu, undefeated junior middleweight prospect Tim Tszyu has continued to improve with every step up in competition in 2018.
In April he outboxed Kiwi slickster Ruben Webster before the corner threw in the towel in the fifth round of their six round contest in Brisbane. In Sydney Indonesian banger Larry Siwu made a brave stand the following month but was dispatched in four, while Stevie Ferndinandus couldn’t escape the first round in August. A trip to Bendigo in regional Victoria in September ended with a spectacular stoppage of Marcus Cornejo again in the opening frame.
Although not the explosive puncher his father was, Tszyu is a heavy-handed power puncher who uses an educated jab and excellent timing to set up his powerful right cross. And just like dad, he has a tremendous finishing instinct.
Team Tszyu 2.0 are determined to fight as often as possible in as many different venues as possible as they build their brand across the length and breadth of this wide brown land. Look for that activity to continue into 2019 as they pick up more regional titles to force their way into the world rankings by the end of the new year. His first assignment in 2019 will be in Sydney on the February 8 card against the notorious TBA.
LAST YEAR: Anthony Buttigieg 13-0 (3)
Buttigieg claimed a big scalp in the talented Rocky Jerkic in a contest for the vacant Commonwealth 154-pound crown in 2017 and I was expecting him to parlay that into more success in 2018. He was in fact set to defend the Commonwealth belt against Adam Harper until injury put paid to that, opening the door for Michael Zerafa to have arguably his most successful year in the pro game. Unsighted in the prize ring in 2018 and with no return date being discussed, it’s hard to know what the future holds for this once promising pressure fighter.