By Anthony Cocks
Last year I came up with a list of Aussie boxers to watch out for in 2017. It’s that time of year and I’m at it again. My rules are quite simple. I’m looking to nominate the boxers who I think will make the biggest impact on their division in 2018. To keep it interesting I’ve decided not to nominate the same boxers two years running. I have also included a brief review of last year’s nominations to see how close – or far – I was from the mark.
HEAVYWEIGHT: Demsey “The Tower of Terror” McKean 11-0 (5)
Demsey McKean has coveted the Australian heavyweight title since he started boxing. In March he was scheduled to take on national champion Willie “Wild Bill” Nasio 10-3 (9) in Darwin for the crown, but the reigning titleholder withdrew due to injury. McKean took on previous victim Hunter Sam instead, scoring a 10th round TKO in a fight he was dominating.
The Nasio fight was rescheduled to May, however this time an injury to McKean forced another postponement. By the time they both made it to the ring at the Melbourne Pavilion in October the bad blood that had been bubbling away for over a year was ready to boil over. At 6-foot-6 the towering Ipswich southpaw used his height and range to outbox the hard-hitting New Zealand-born Queenslander in the early rounds before ramping up the pressure in the middle rounds, sending Nasio to the canvas before stopping him in the sixth.
At 27 McKean is still fairly young for a heavyweight and after three years in the pro game admits he’s still learning on the job. But against the current crop of Aussie heavies that includes last year’s selection Lucas Browne and the returning Alex Leapai, McKean stacks up nicely as a boxer likely to improve his level of competition and make his mark in 2018.
LAST YEAR: Lucas “Big Daddy” Browne 25-0 (22)
One fight for one KO win against 40-year-old American trailhorse Matthew Greer 16-21 (13). Sure, it was the former WBA “regular” heavyweight champion’s first fight in 15 months, but I was still expecting more from the big man. As he inches towards 39 he’s going to have to get a move on if he wants to get his name mentioned amongst the best heavyweights in the world, unless of course he harbor a secret desire to best George Foreman’s celebrated heavyweight record. Team Browne have a number of options on the table, one of which is Dillian Whyte at the O2 Arena in London next February. The sooner he gets back in the ring, the better. He has a lot of lost time to make up for.
CRUISERWEIGHT: Jai Opetaia 13-0 (10)
It is easy to forget how young Jai Opetaia is. Maybe that’s because he was just 16 years old when he qualified to represent Australia as a heavyweight at the 2012 London Olympics. The 22-year-old Samoan-Australian southpaw was kept busy in 2017, fighting five times including two fights at heavyweight with only one bout going past the second round.
In July Opetaia took his first real step up in class when he faced longtime Australian champion Daniel Ammann 32-10-1 (7) for the vacant OPBF cruiserweight title as well as the national crown over 10 rounds. Opetaia purposefully paced himself, winning every round on two of the judges’ scorecards before putting Ammann away in the ninth. It was a mature, composed performance from the 6-foot-2 Sydneysider.
October saw Opetaia matched with unbeaten American Frankie Lopez 9-1 (7), who is trained by former world champ and International Boxing Hall of Fame inductee Virgil “Quicksilver” Hill, for the vacant IBF Youth cruiserweight title. Lopez lasted exactly 2:55 after an Opetaia left cross sent him crashing to the canvas and the follow up assault prompted Hill to sky the towel.
Opetaia moves very well for a big man, is excellent at cutting off the ring and possesses explosive, fight ending power. He is still a year or two away from facing world class opposition but I expect his level of competition to continue to improve in 2018 as he looks to establish himself in the world rankings of the ultra-competitive 200-pound division.
LAST YEAR: Mark “Bam Bam” Flanagan 23-5 (16)
Mark Flanagan scored a big opportunity against Russia’s WBA cruiserweight “super” champion Denis Lebedev 30-2 (22) in July but the fight didn’t exactly go to plan. Flanagan was strangely subdued, letting Lebedev get off first in what was often a tactical battle against the southpaw champion. Down in the ninth, Flanagan was not without his success, he just failed to let his hands go enough and seemed a step or two behind Lebedev, losing by scores of 120-107, 119-108 and 119-108. After the fight Flanagan rued the fact he gave Lebedev so much respect.
In a return to his hometown of Townsville in November, Flanagan took out his frustrations on Argentine Pablo Matias Magrini 19-3-1 (15) knocking him out cold with a right uppercut in the fourth round of the WBA Oceania cruiserweight title fight. If he can get back into the world rankings the 27-year-old still has plenty left in the tank to make some noise if he can just throw caution into the wind the next time a big opportunity comes his way.
LIGHT HEAVYWEIGHT: Damien “Super” Hooper 13-1 (8)
Many people had written Hooper off after his shock 0:21 second loss to unheralded West Australian Rob Powdrill in 2014. A stint in jail further held back his career and decision wins over Marlon Alta, Kyle Brumby and Nader Hamdan did nothing to convince people he could match it with the better class of boxers in the 175-pound division. At 25 years old his career had stalled.
In a reversal of roles, Hooper contacted Duco Events matchmaker Stuart Duncan insisting on a fight with Vegas-based Russian Umar Salamov 19-1 (14) on the undercard of the WBO welterweight title fight between Manny Pacquiao and Jeff Horn in Brisbane in July. Duncan explained how talented Salamov was, coming off a stellar performance against Emil Markic on the undercard of Joseph Parker’s WBO heavyweight title defence against Razvan Cojanu in Manukau City, New Zealand in May. Hooper insisted he was ready for Salamov.
And fair play to Hooper. The proud Aboriginal sprung the upset, outboxing the lanky 23-year-old over 10 rounds to claim the IBF and WBO International titles and a world ranking to boot. All three judges had Hooper up six rounds to four, 96-94. The victory made Top Rank boss Bob Arum, who was ringside, sit up and take notice.
Now ranked WBO #14, Hooper is in the box seat to capitalise on the Salamov victory in 2018. At his best the talented boxer-puncher can match it with anyone in the division. Hooper is at an age where he needs to knuckle down if he really wants to achieve what he is capable of in the fight game. I think we will see that from him in 2018.
LAST YEAR: Trent “El Terrible” Broadhurst 20-2 (12)
No matter how I slice it, this pick was a bust. An easy third round TKO win over shopworn veteran Nader Hamdan on the Anthony Mundine vs Danny Green II undercard in Adelaide in February was followed by a gigantic leap in class when Broadhurst challenged former amateur star Dmitry Bivol 12-0 (10) for the WBA light heavyweight title in Monte Carlo in November. The best I can say about this is that Broadhurst stepped up and had a crack, lasting exactly one round against the hard-hitting Russian-based Kyrgyzstan-born sniper. At 29 years old Broadhurst still has a bright future in the game if he wishes to continue on, but he should steer clear of punchers.
SUPER MIDDLEWEIGHT: Rohan “No Mercy” Murdock 21-1 (15)
After a year on the sidelines due to a motorcycle accident in Indonesia followed by a hand injury that required two surgeries and nixed his chance to fight on the Horn-Pacquiao undercard, former world number six super middleweight Rohan Murdock finally returned to action in October. The 25-year-old Gold Coaster shook off the rust with an easy TKO3 against Tanzanian journeyman Said Mbelwa 43-26-5 (28) on the undercard of Dennis Hogan’s world title eliminator against Japan’s Yuki Nonaka, then backed up with a ten round unanimous decision over the capable Apti Ustarkhanov 15-3-3 (5) of Russia for the vacant WBO Oriental super middleweight title on the undercard of Jeff Horn’s WBO welterweight world title defence against Gary Corcoran in December.
Bob Arum has already flagged plans to have Murdock fight on the undercards of reigning WBO super middleweight champion Gilberto Ramirez 36-0 (24) twice in the New Year – once in the United States, another time in Mexico – to help build the Aussie’s profile and develop demand for an eventual Ramirez-Murdock fight that fight could take place on Queensland’s Gold Coast.
Super middleweight remains one of the most competitive divisions in Aussie boxing, which made this pick very hard. But with Arum onboard and a plan already mapped out for 2018 culminating in a world title tilt, it became impossible to overlook Murdock as my 168-pounder to watch next year.
LAST YEAR: Zac “Dynamo” Dunn 24-1 (19)
If you asked me 12 months ago to pick my top two Aussie who I thought would succeed in 2017, I would have said Jeff Horn and Zac Dunn. Unfortunately the 26-year-old Melbournian had a year of mixed results. Entering 2017 as the reigning Commonwealth 168-pound champion, the future looked bright for the hard-hitting Dunn. But a TKO7 loss to David Brophy in March derailed his world title ambitions when his corner threw in the towel after a body attack from the 27-year-old Scotsman broke him down in a fight that was even on two of the judges’ scorecards at the time of the stoppage.
Dunn took some time off before resurfacing in Mexico in October to KO Luis Eduardo Paz in four. He followed this up with a return to the Melbourne Pavilion, the site of his only professional loss, to summarily dispatch Cedric Spera of Belgium, also in four rounds. Now trained by Mick Hargraves, I’m sure we will see Dunn will rebound in 2018.
MIDDLEWEIGHT: Michael “Pretty Boy” Zerafa 22-2 (13)
Michael “Pretty Boy” Zerafa was only in action once in 2017, but what action it was. The 25-year-old Melbournian scored one of the knockouts of the year when he put Kiwi-based Argentinean Tomas Andres Reynoso 11-2-1 (3) to sleep in the sixth round of a scheduled eight with a beautiful left hook at the end of a three punch combination. Reynoso’s head swiveled as he caught the punch on the point of the chin, his arms dropped by his sides and he fell face first to the canvas. It was a moment of violent beauty.
Zerafa was overmatched when he took on a rampaging Peter Quillin back in 2015, losing by brutal stoppage to the in the fifth, but it’s worth remembering that Zerafa was competitive in the early rounds landing some good jabs and right hands despite the Brooklynite weighing as much as 180-pounds on fight night.
If Zerafa can stay healthy and string together a few wins there’s no reason why another big opportunity won’t come his way.
LAST YEAR: David Toussaint 12-0 (8)
Finally, a pick from last year I can call a success! Canberra middleweight David Toussaint kept his unbeaten record intact with a pair of solid victories in 2017. In July the 26-year-old southpaw boxed his way to victory against American Shane Mosley Jr 10-2 (7) over eight rounds on the Pacquiao-Horn undercard in Brisbane. A six round technical decision over Liam Hutchinson 11-5-1 (5) followed in September back on his home ground at the Hellenic Club in Woden, ACT.
JUNIOR MIDDLEWEIGHT: Anthony Buttigieg 13-0 (3)
Anthony Buttigieg only had one fight in 2017 but what a cracker it was. In his first fight scheduled for more than eight rounds, the 29-year-old Melbournian claimed the vacant Commonwealth 154-pound title with a 12 round split decision win over the undefeated Rocky Jerkic 15-1 (12) at the Melbourne Pavilion in March, winning by the thinnest of margins with scores of 115-113, 114-113 and 113-115.
A scheduled October clash in Melbourne with Britain’s Adam Harper 8-0 for the Commonwealth crown fell through after a knee injury to the Aussie forced a postponement. A new date is expected to be announced in the New Year for the mandatory challenge.
In his 13 fight pro career the swarming, busy Buttigieg has defeated a range of styles, from lanky boxer-punchers through to brawlers and southpaws. Harper will have his work cut out for him, as will any Aussies in the deep 154-pound division.
LAST YEAR: Dennis “Hurricane” Hogan 26-1-1 (7)
Hogan had to wait until October for his first and ultimately only fight of the year when he took on Japan’s Yuki Nonaka 31-9-3 (10) in a WBO eliminator. Headlining his new promoter DDP Sports inaugural card, the 32-year-old transplanted Irishman ambushed Nonaka, winning every round. Expect Hogan to get his shot at the WBO 154-pound championship currently held by Sadam Ali – who scored a shock win over retiring Miguel Cotto at Madison Square Garden in December to claim the title – at some stage late next year.
WELTERWEIGHT: Kris George 13-1 (7)
Toowoomba’s Kris George had a breakthrough win in 2016 against 2012 London Olympian Cameron Hammond, 16-0 at the time, to claim the vacant Commonwealth welterweight title on points over 12 rounds. In October 2017 he successfully defended the title against Cronulla’s Jack “Gelignite” Brubaker 13-2 (7), stopping him on cuts in the sixth round of a competitive fight. At the time of the stoppage George was ahead 48-47 twice and trailing on the third card 46-50. It was 28-year-old George’s only fight for the year.
George, who injured his left hand in the fourth round of the bout, is expected to be back in the ring in March at Rumours International in his hometown of Toowoomba on a Brendon Smith-promoted card. His lone loss was to world ranked Can Xu of China in a junior welterweight contest in his eighth pro fight.
With a little more activity in 2018 there is no reason that George can’t be banging on the door of a top ten world ranking by the end of the calendar year.
LAST YEAR: Jeff “The Hornet” Horn 18-0-1 (12)
Last year I wrote that “Team Horn will fancy their chances against the ageing Pacquiao who, despite still being a formidable force in the ring, has lost half a step since his prime when he was a whirling dervish tearing his way through the weight classes in the late 2000’s. Horn is young, aggressive, active and agile, with decent speed of hand and foot and a deadly right cross. If he has a flaw it’s his habit of learning in when he punches, which could make him vulnerable to a mid-range counterpuncher like the Pacman. But youth, hunger and fearlessness has a way of overcoming experience and old legs at times.” There’s nothing more I have to say on that.
Stay tuned for Part 2 covering junior welterweight to flyweight.
Questions? Comments? Complaints? Abuse? Email: email@example.com