The past year could have easily been a bust for boxers and fight fans but with some creative thinking the sport found a way to not just survive but even thrive in the face of adversity.
In a boxing year truncated by the global coronavirus pandemic, Australia has still managed to deliver a plethora of compelling contests both at home and abroad. International travel restrictions may have prevented many of our top-rated fighters from pushing forward with their world championship ambitions, but the law of unintended consequences came into play with boxers forced to look locally to stay active. It turned into a windfall for Aussie fight fans who have long been deprived of matchups featuring the best of our domestic crop. So without further ado, let’s get on with the review…
They say that luck is when hard work and opportunity collide and that was certainly true for Jason and Andrew Moloney. Rather than taking a break from the gym in the early stages of the pandemic, the world-rated twins chose to use the time to stay in shape and work on their game while waiting for a fight offer to eventuate. When that call came in from their promoter Top Rank in late May, the Moloneys were more than ready to jump on a big bird for the long-haul flight to Las Vegas to fight one month later.
Super flyweight Andrew was first up defending his WBA ‘regular’ title against Joshua ‘El Profesor’ Franco 17-1-2 (8). Despite getting off to a fast start, Franco came on in the middle rounds and dropped Moloney in the 11th to secure a close decision win.
Two days later with his brother’s loss still fresh in his mind Jason took out his frustration on late replacement Leonardo Baez 18-3 (9). Moloney tore into the body of his much taller opponent and attacked him to the head with hard shots both hands, out-Mexicaning the Mexican to stop him in the seventh round. Baez was a stand-in for Oscar Negrete, who withdrew due to a detached retina two weeks before the bout.
Jason was back in the ring on Halloween when he took on boxing’s toughest assignment, challenging WBA and IBF bantamweight champion Naoya ‘The Monster’ Inoue 20-0 (17) in Las Vegas. The 29-year-old stood his ground but was ultimately outclassed by the man widely considered one of the top three pound-for-pound boxers in the world. Still, he lasted longer in the ring against Inoue than four of Japanese superstar’s last five opponents combined. Expect Moloney, now 21-2 (18) and world-rated by the WBC, WBA and IBF, to get more opportunities this year.
Andrew moved straight into an immediate rematch with Franco in November. Much like the first encounter Moloney started fast, tattooing the titleholder’s right eye with his left jab. The fight was stopped at the end of the second round after the ringside physician determined Franco could no longer see out of his severely swollen orbit. And that is where the rot set in.
Referee Russell Mora incorrectly ruled the damaged to the eye was initiated by an unintentional headbutt, rendering the result a no contest as four rounds had not been completed. The Nevada Athletic Commission utilised their video review system, rewatching the six minutes of footage for almost half and hour. Despite no clear evidence of a headclash, the result was upheld. It was an egregious decision.
Team Moloney has protested the result and are hopefully of securing a third fight with Franco in Australia. Moloney 21-1 (14) maintains a world rating of WBA number two and WBC number five at 115-pounds.
Tim Tszyu stamped his credentials as a genuine junior middleweight contender with a brace of wins in stadium fights. In August, the 26-year-old Sydneysider travelled more than 2,000 kilometres north to meet former Jeff Horn 20-3-1 (13) in his home state of Queensland at Country Bank Stadium in Townsville. The former WBO welterweight champion must now wish he never extended the invitation as he was beat up and cutdown in eight rounds after finding himself on the canvas twice.
December saw Tszyu close out the year with a two-minute mugging of Bowyn Morgan 21-2 (11) at Bankwest Stadium in the Sydney suburb of Parramatta. The New Zealander was no match for Tszyu, who floored him midway through the opening round and knocked him out with a bomb of a right hand as soon as he got back to his feet. It was the kind of ruthless finish you expect to see from a rising star.
Tszyu now holds a record of 17-0 (13) and is gunning for a shot at the winner of the fight between WBO 154-pound champion Patrick Teixeira of Brazil and talented Argentinean Brian Castano in Indio, California in February.
IBF number one lightweight contender George ‘Ferocious’ Kambosos Jr 19-0 (10) travelled to London in October to outpoint former IBF featherweight champion Lee Selby 28-3 (9) over 12 rounds and secure a shot at undisputed champion Teofimo Lopez 16-0 (12). Selby looked to use his movement and box from range but Kambosos kept up the pressure, hurting the Welshman with a right hand in the eighth and finishing stronger down the stretch to win a split decision by scores of 118-110, 116-112 and 114-115. Lopez’s promoter Bob Arum of Top Rank has flagged bringing the undefeated champion to Australia to defend his belts against the brash 27-year-old Sydneysider.
In one of the most ambitious debuts in living memory amateur standout Justis Huni 2-0 (2) won the Australian heavyweight title from Faiga Opelu 13-2-1 (10) in Brisbane in October when the reigning champion’s corner threw in the towel in the seventh round of the 10-round contest. The 21-year-old from Brisbane backed up with a fourth-round knocked of Arsene Fosso 3-1 (3) in December. Huni is looking to get back in the ring in February before taking on Herman Ene-Purcell 17-8 (9) in March, former world title challenger Alex Leapai 32-8-4 (26) in May and former WBA ‘regular’ champion Lucas Browne 29-2 (25) in July. After that it’s off to the Tokyo Olympics, where Huni must be considered one of the favourites for super heavyweight gold.
Jeff Fenech protégé Brock Jarvis 18-0 (16) made his long-awaited return in December when he made his featherweight debut over 10 against Australian bantie champ Mark Schleibs 12-1 (8) in Canberra. It was a typically aggressive performance from the 23-year-old Sydneysider, swarming the smaller Schleibs on the inside as he chipped away at the body and attacked the head at a buzzsaw pace. Jarvis won every second of every round and punctuated the performance with a left hook finish in the fifth. Keep an eye on this kid, he looks to have all the tools.
Several boxers who were expected to have breakout years had their momentum cruelled by the coronavirus pandemic. You can count the world-rated trio of Jai Opetaia, Liam Paro and Demsey McKean among their number.
IBF number four and WBO number seven ranked cruiserweight Opetaia 20-0 (16) stopped Benjamin Kelleher 13-2-2 (4) in six rounds in a stay busy fight in Brisbane in October. WBO number two junior welterweight Paro 19-0 (12) knocked out Romanian James Chereji 17-1 (7) in eight rounds on the Gold Coast in March. On the same card IBF number 12 and WBO number 13 heavyweight McKean 18-0 (12) stopped American Jonathan Rice 13-6-1 (9) in the 10th.
All three will be looking for bigger fights this year as they push their claims for a world title shot. Keep them on your radar.
Few fighters were as busy as Liam Wilson 8-0 (6) in 2020. The 24-year-old super featherweight prospect managed to squeeze in three fights this year for three knockout wins. In St Kilda in February Wilson scored a highlight reel one-punch knockout of Venezuelan southpaw Jesus Cuadras 18-7 (14), who was coming off a 12-round majority decision loss to current IBF 130-pound champion Joseph ‘JoJo’ Diaz 31-1 (15). Jackson Woods 4-2-1 (4) lasted just two rounds against Wilson in Townsville in August while Rodynie Rafol 14-9-2 (7) fared only slightly better, making it through three rounds in Parramatta in December. Wilson will be another one to keep an eye on this year.
Fight of the Year
There were two domestic clashes that were the clear frontrunners for Fight of the Year honours. One was a knockdown-filled shootout and the other was a 10-round war. You can call them 1A and 1B depending on what you like. I won’t argue with what order you place them in.
World-rated lightweight Jacob ‘The Flamingo’ Ng 14-0 (11) quickly realised he had a fight on his hands when he was knocked flat on his back by a big Hunter Ioane 8-1-1 (5) right hand in the opening frame of their 10-round clash in Canberra in December. Ng swiftly retaliated with two knockdowns on his own in the second stanza and the heated two-way action continued until the fifth when Ioane finally wilted. The fast-paced encounter had the crowd on their feet and was one of the most memorable bouts of the year.
Also in December southpaw Darragh ‘Super’ Foley 19-4-1 (9) had to climb off the canvas to eke out a 10-round split decision win over the very game Ty ‘Trigger’ Telford 6-1-1 (2) in Parramatta. Sydneysider Telford got off to a good start with his forward-marching pressure, but the experienced Foley weathered the storm to come on in the middle rounds. In the eighth round Telford knocked Foley through the ropes, but the Australian-based Irishman rallied to finish the fight strongly and secure the victory by scores of 97-93, 95-94 and 93-96. A rematch would not disappoint.
What 2020 lacked in volume more than made up in quality. The matchmaking was, by and large, of a very high standard, with evenly matched fights taking place between Justin Frost and Waylon Law twice, Isaac Hardman and Tej Pratap Singh, and Paul Fleming and Bruno Tarimo, amongst others. Tyson Lantry sprung the upset on Luke Jackson, winning a majority decision over six at lightweight on the Tszyu-Morgan undercard. Internationally, Daniel Lewis came up short in his challenge to Sebastian Fundora in Las Vegas February, going down on points, while Rohan Murdock was stopped in 11 frames by Zack Parker in Manchester in March. Vegas Larfield made a successful US debut against Juan Alberto Flores in November, scoring a third-round knockout on the Moloney-Franco II card.
The past year could have easily been a bust for boxers and fight fans but with some creative thinking the sport found a way to not just survive but even thrive in the face of adversity. Aussie boxing is in a very good place at the moment and if this trajectory continues, we can expect another bumper year.