By Derek Bonnett: As we encounter another new year, the landscape of the boxing scene continues to evolve. With old champions acting out the final stages of their careers and new ones emerging to fill the void, boxing maintains a state of homeostasis and keeps fight fans intrigued even amid the dubious officiating and cries of scandal. Boxing, as always, will endure; however, not every participant with an alphabet title will be so lucky. Inevitably, the mighty will eventually fall and, sometimes, the unlikely will thrive.
In 2018, I finished 7-3 if you grant me some leeway through prognosticated boxing politics regarding Luis Nery. Four of the five champions I favored to remain title clad did just that while Jermell Charlo lost his belt via a controversial decision defeat to Tony Harrison. Miguel Berchelt kept his 130-pound title, making three successful defenses in dominant fashion. Maxwell Awuku and Jonathon Victor Barros suffered TKOs in the third while Miguel Roman met Berchelt in a FOTY contender before succumbing in the ninth. Rey Vargas had a quiet year as a super bantamweight belt-holder, fighting only once, but defending his title against Azat Hovhannisyan by unanimous decision. Zolani Tete performed cautiously in notching a safe points verdicts over Omar Andres Narvaez and Mikhail Aloyan. At super flyweight, Srisaket Sor Rungvisai, a sadly overlooked possible Pound for Pound king, defeated Juan Francisco Estrada in commanding fashion before making quick work of Young Gil Bae in a single round. The Thai boxer finished his year outpointing tough contender Iran Diaz.
My thoughts in regard to who would lose his title in 2018 were a tad less accurate just as the year before. A draw verdict, maligned by many, saved Deontay Wilder from losing his belts to Tyson Fury. Two knockdowns may be the better explanation though. Wilder also defended against Luis Ortiz in a FOTY contender earlier in the year. Adonis Stevenson indeed fell at the hands of Oleksandr Gvozdyk in a sensational bout in December that has left the former champion still hospitalized, but seemingly out of the woods in terms of ring fatality. Stevenson also retained the belt once before this bout with a draw against Badou Jack. Jeff Horn crossed paths with Terence Crawford; ‘nuff said. Luis Nery went 3-0 in 2018, but the politics I alluded to concerned his failure to make weight in his rematch with Shinsuke Yamanaka. Nery lost his title on the scales and went on to win a pair of non-title bouts as a contender. Lastly, Wanheng Menayothin remained champion, arguably the best in his division, and moved to 52-0-0 as a professional! His shaky 2017 had me thinking he may have been on the ropes, but Menayothin looked his best in completely dismantling his toughest opponent on the calendar and penned one of his finest works in crushing Leroy Estrada. Hopefully, a Super Fight with Knockout CP Freshmart awaits.
With boxing it can be increasingly difficult to determine which path champions, or promoters, will take, but fight aficionados can predict the end result with years of insight and a whole lot of guesswork regarding match-making. If not, here are my predictions on 2019 and which champions will retain and those who will lose their belts.
Those Who Will Retain:
Dmitry Bivol, 28, is a champion with most of the technical gifts of a dominant champion in store. What he lacks is big fight experience in his 15-0-0 (11) career which may seem obvious, but in the era of fast-tracked amateur standouts, his path has been more tempered. Bivol had a great 2017 in which his blasted his opposition and was gifted a title opportunity against his weakest foe of the year. Trent Broadhurst lasted only one round against Bivol, but the new champion’s previous twelve rounds against Robert Berridge, Samuel Clarkson, and Cedric Agnew showed early deliverance upon his promise as a professional. In 2018, Bivol was far less spectacular, but the pedigree of challenger grew exponentially. The Russian champion stopped top contender and peer Sullivan Barrera in the final round of a match-up worthy to have made him a belt-holder. Bivol followed this performance up with two workman-like endeavors over durable, albeit faded, veteran hurdles Isaac Chilemba and Jean Pascal. Bivol won lopsided decisions in both conquests. I expect his 2019 will go along this same path as Bivol proves himself against the contenders provided by his sanctioning body. Joe Smith Jr. would be a worthwhile assignment, but he is rumored to face-off against Artur Beterbiev next. The two are arguably the biggest punchers in the division, but Bivol’s boxing ability should diffuse that or, at the very least, negate it well enough to secure a points victory. Contenders Sven Fornling and Umar Salamov appear far too green to threaten Bivol’s reign. At present, Marcus Browne and Badou Jack are set to square off against one another. As the two top-rated boxers for Bivol’s title, the winner likely fits into Bivol’s schedule. Jack figures to be the more difficult assignment and the greatest ranked threat for the champion. I’ll take Bivol in a career defining victory. I also have the safety net of Jack finding himself even in another draw verdict. All jokes aside, Bivol keeps his belt in 2019.
Callum Smith won his belt in stellar fashion by stopping George Groves in 2018. The champion has a fairly ordinary cast of contenders in his top ten with the most dangerous of them, Chris Eubank Jr., already scheduled to meet James DeGale in February. With Eubank most likely off the table, barring a unification bout later in the year, it’s smooth sailing. Former titlist Fedor Chudinov, whilst still a quality name, has looked a tad stale since his stoppage defeat to Groves in 2017. Tyrone Zeuge fell in five rounds to Smith victim Rocky Fielding in 2018. Fielding lingers, but was already stopped in one round by Smith and was thoroughly humiliated by Canelo Alvarez in three rounds just last month. Ah, Canelo? The Mexican star seems determined to return to 160-pounds and seek his biggest challenges there. Smith, 28, has yet to prove himself as a champion, but that’s the type of year I expect. Even if unification comes his way, I see smith standing tall once the ashes settle. Look for Smith, 25-0-0 (18), to reign strong throughout 2019.
Jarrett Hurd is one big bad-ass of a junior middleweight with a strong ensemble of contenders ready to oust him in 2019. Hurd, 28, defeated one of them, Erislandy Lara, in 2018 to unify two divisional titles and earn strong claim to top-dog status in the 154-pound class. Lara deserves a rematch even if the scores looked generous to him in Hurd’s split one-point decision verdict. Hurd would win a rematch and probably hurt Lara sooner. Kell Brook is the top-rated contender and presents a big name for Hurd, but Brook has not seemed so special since losing his welterweight title and may have even given too much of himself in his middleweight challenge of Gennady Golovkin in 2016. I see Hurd winning a punishing fight with Brook taking more punishment than necessary. Former Hurd opponent Tony Harrison recently upset Jermell Charlo to become a champion and unification is plausible if Harrison should feel so bold though a rematch with Charlo is far more likely. Fellow big bad-ass Jaime Munguia is also a belt-holder and would make for a classic phone-booth grind down, but Hurd’s athleticism coupled with his size and power should trump Munguia’s power and size. Hurd has potentially one of the toughest roads for retention in 2019, but his dogged tenacity has backed up a big-time power game well enough thus far. Look for Hurd, 23-0-0 (16), to enter 2020 as a champion.
Juan Carlos Ramirez, 26, just completed an excellent 2018 and pushed his ledger to 23-0-0 (16). Ramirez won his belt and defended it with two fan-friendly performances in decisioning Amir Imam and Antonio Orozco. On tap for Ramirez is former hard-luck title challenger Jose Zepeda. Ramirez is a tough, come-at-you-all-night type of champion, which compensates for any shortage of athleticism or super-star skillset. He is no Pernell Whitaker or Julio Cesar Chavez, but he just might be able to be Juan Martin Coggi who built a lengthy reign in the shadows of his more capable counterparts. Speaking of counterparts, Josh Taylor and Regis Prograis have themselves promised elsewhere for 2019, leaving Ramirez with a cushion of safety. Ramirez’ top ten is comprised of a sexy batch of contenders. Taylor happens to be rated number one, but is currently participating in the WBSS 140-pound tournament. Adrien Broner is rated second and is scheduled to face Manny Pacquiao along with numerous legal allegations later this month. Viktor Postol is still in contention and one bout removed from a loss to Taylor. He presents a formidable challenge, but is a full decade older than Ramirez with a lot of mileage on his chassis. An intriguing match-up with Jorge Linares, now rated third by the sanctioning body, would be the crown jewel for Ramirez in 2019. Linares has one victory under his belt since losing a FOTY contender to Vasyl Lomachenko and is scheduled to meet veteran Pablo Cesar Cano on January 18. This victory would likely lock up a title fight with Ramirez, but one he may not want as badly as he thinks he does. Ramirez is relentless and does not take a backward step. Linares is a lead fighter and once he loses that role, the trouble begins. If it happens, look for Ramirez to win 2019’s Fight of the Year and remain a belt-holder throughout the calendar year.
Daniel Roman, 28, has developed into an unexpected world champion of great quality. In 2018, he notched three title defenses by dominating Ryo Matsumoto and Moises Flores on the scorecards and breaking down Gavin McDonnell in ten rounds. If Oleksandr Usyk’s work did not speak so loudly, Roman may have had greater consideration as Fighter of the Year himself. Roman’s projected path isn’t one without potential danger. Inside the organization’s top-ten are fast-tracked 2016 Olympic bronze medalist, Murodjon Akhmadaliev, who has not earned his number one rating with a 5-0-0 (4) start. There may be promise on the horizon, but I’ll back Roman’s substance at this stage of their games. Diego De La Hoya presents a huge threat and one that makes me hesitant, but his big win over Randy Caballero seems ages ago and the young contender fought only once in 2018. Again, I’m taking Roman should they meet in the ring. Cesar Jaurez, always fun to watch in the ring, is rated third and has a three-bout victory run behind him, but class tells over time and Roman has twelve rounds to shine against the Mexican tough guy. Former titlist Yukinori Oguni also looms in the top ten, but nothing in his history spells upset in a match-up with Roman. Look for the 122-pound class to still boast Daniel Roman, 26-2-1 (10), as a belt-holder throughout 2019.
Those Who Will Be Dethroned:
Artur Beterbiev, 33, may go down as one of the fighters said to have wasted their best years on the shelf or against middling opposition. I mean, after crashing out of the gates in 2014 to drill Tavoris Cloud in two rounds and then smash Gabriel Campillo in four the year after was impressive. Then, he opted to downsize his aspirations and spend the next several years facing no one resembling a true top ten contender. Beterbiev, 13-0-0 (13), was noticeably hurt by Callum Johnson last time out and this could be due to boredom. If Beterbiev seeks a real challenge, he may find his soft schedule of late to be a huge detriment. Heavy-handed Joe Smith Jr. is rumored to be in line for a fight in 2019 and his KO punch is always a factor, particularly since Beterbiev does not cover up well during exchanges. Smith isn’t even in the top ten, but is more appealing than most others in the organizational rankings. Green, but also powerful with a touch more athleticism to his game, Anthony Yarde rates highly and could be a draw worthy of enticing Beterbiev to come to the United Kingdom. Dominic Boesel and Sven Fornling are the highest rated challengers and fit the typical bill of late for Beterbiev in that they are not power threats and have already faced bad defeats at the hands of less-threatening opposition. I’m going out on a limb in believing that Beterbiev is ready to make a move at least for money and that will lead him toward unification or Yarde and Smith. Call it a hunch. Beterbiev’s “0” and belt will go in 2019.
Tony Harrison, 28, will have to be well-managed to retain his boxing trinket in 2019. His decision victory over Jermell Charlo in 2018 was among the most contested decisions of the year, but Harrison surprised many simply by not getting knocked out in another step-up fight. If unification is the path, Jarret Hurd has already stopped him. No safe road there. If rematch is on his mind, fighting Charlo with an even bigger chip on his shoulder may not be advisable for a lengthy reign. Julian Williams, Erislandy Lara, Kell Brook, Erikson Lubin, and even Austin Trout all represent huge risks. Harrison, 28-2-0 (21), won’t be in the driver’s seat long. I expect a safe first defense; a very safe one. Then, I expect Charlo or Hurd to be positioned to swoop in and take the belt. I can envision many scenarios of Harrison’s being dethroned, but all it will take is one to see him a former titlist in 2019.
Ivan Baranchyk, 25, showed good game in breaking down and battering Anthony Yigit in a career best performance. The American-based Russian picked up a vacant belt in the process and now has a handsome list of challengers that includes Sergey Lipinets, Yves Ulysses Jr., and Alexander Duran. Japan’s Hiroki Okada and Akihiro Kondo also rate favorable in the sanctioning body. However, Baranchyk’s number one contender happens to be Josh Taylor and both men happen to be scheduled to meet in the WBSS 140-pound semi-finals. Taylor had a big 2018 and now is in the mix to establish a universal champion in the division. Baranchyk has the same opportunity, but has a tall task ahead of him in Scotland’s Taylor. Even if he passes that test, the winner of Regis Prograis-Kiryl Relikh awaits. That’s an excellent final four going into the semis and that’s where I see Baranchyk’s tournament time ending. If not, I’d favor Prograis and Relikh to do the same. Baranchyk goes beltless in 2019.
Emmanuel Rodriguez has helped Puerto Rican boxing out of a slump as one of a few respectable world class fighters able to pick up a trinket or two in a post-Cotto era. The unbeaten belt-holder, 19-0-0 (12), lacks a genuine threat in his top ten at bantamweight. Rodriguez, 26, would be a solid favorite over Kenny Demecillo or Michael Dasmarinas, whom are scheduled to meet in March. Paul Butler and Jason Moloney have already lost decisions to Rodriguez. Joshua Greer might prove to be interesting, but is a stretch to defeat the champion. In spite of this, there is absolutely no way (hyperbole) Emmanuel Rodriguez remains a belt holder. Two words: Naoya Inoue. Rodriguez has advanced to the semi-finals of the bantamweight WBSS and his reward is Inoue: arguably the most destructive force in boxing. Inoue is capping off a Fighter of the Year run with two first round annihilations of Jamie McDonnell and Juan Carlos Payano. In boxing, there is no sure bet, but Rodriguez losing his belt to Inoue is the closest thing.
Zolani Tete, 30, was on my list to retain last year, but showed signs of slippage or boredom in 2018. His eleven second KO of Siboniso Gonya in 2017 was misleading. While strong, the bantamweight belt holder was unable to hurt or even stun Omar Andres Narvaez in a twelve round shutout early last year. In his WBSS opener, Tete was troubled and even stunned by the tournament weakest link Mikhail Aloyan, who came in with four bouts as a pro including two split verdicts, and won a sloppy decision that ended up being close on the cards. Fighting in the WBSS keeps Tete’s organizing body contenders at bay and there is a likelihood he could meet Naoya Inoue in the final. I could go that route, but that will be my safety net. Instead, I say Tete doesn’t make it to the finals and instead is upended by the possibly resurgent Nonito Donaire. Tete, 28-3-0 (21), is an excellent come forward puncher, who will be more motivated, but Donaire showed good speed of both hand and foot in his upset of Ryan Burnett. Although the fight was ended early due to injury, Donaire looked to be in winning form and now has a boost going into the semi-finals. Fighting back at 118 just may be what Donaire should have been doing all along since moving up in 2011. My mind is made up: Tete won’t have a belt to keep his trunks up come 2020.
Boxing has always been the "Theatre of the Unexpected" and 2019 should be no different. In a sport where Charlie Edwards rises to the occasion to dethrone Cristofer Rosales or Khalid Yafai gets a hometown decision over Israel Gonzalez, anything can, and truly will, happen in the wonderful world of professional boxing.
Derek Bonnett is a member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board. For further boxing discussion contact DBOxing on Facebook.