Boxing in a pandemic: Where do we stand?

For three agonising months, boxing came grinding to a halt. Of course, it wasn't alone. Sporting events across the world paused in order to shift a major focus towards dealing with an emerging threat of the coronavirus. 

Anxiety grew amongst fighters in all four corners of the globe as to how and if events would get back up and running in the near future. The lockdown period between March and June must've felt like an eternity for both those who strive day in, day out to earn a living, and those who devote due care and attention to the endless stream of action that the modern era seemingly never fails to produce.

A glimmer of hope was needed, and it duly arrived on June 7 courtesy of Top Rank and Bob Arum. They set the precedent initiating a fighter 'bubble'- from which nobody could go in or out to reduce the risk of coronavirus transmission- along with rigorous testing protocol.

Featherweight challenger Shakur Stevenson prevailed on that first card back, and the positive reaction enabled the green light for other promoters to follow a similar path and provide their own respective events, including Frank Warren (Queensberry Promotions), Eddie Hearn (Matchroom Boxing) aswell as Al Haymon at PBC.

In what has undoubtedly been a tough financial period across the boxing world, the calibre of fights throughout the pandemic hasn't failed to deliver. 

Hearn's innovative 'Fight Camp' at the Matchroom HQ in Essex, stretching over four weeks in August, culminated in the shock of Alexander Povetkin scoring a KO win over Dillian Whyte to dent his WBC title hopes. 

Most recently, fans were treated to a pay-per-view showpiece that saw former Undisputed Cruiserweight champion Oleksandr Usyk display his Heavyweight credentials in a 12-round war with Dereck Chisora.

Warren made the BT Sport studios the base for his lockdown shows, and included Daniel Dubois, Anthony Yarde as well as a first IBF & WBA defence for Josh Taylor as his main events to name a few. 

It goes without saying that the North American audiences have also been treated to a generous amount of sensational match-ups themselves since the return of packed cards.

Teofimo Lopez produced an unbelievable performance on the way to outpointing a man who many believed to be at the top of the pound-for-pound list in the way of Vasiliy Lomachenko. In doing so, he added the WBA, WBC (franchise) & WBO straps to an IBF belt claimed in the dismantling of Richard Commey last December.

A monster card in Connecticut saw both Charlo brothers, Jermall and Jermell, defeat the tough pair of Sergiy Deveryanchenko and Jeison Rosario to defend the WBC Middleweight title and win the WBA & IBF Light Middleweight titles respectively. 

Explosive WBO Bantamweight champion John-Riel Casemiro defended his crown on the same night, potentially paving the way for a unification with Naoya Inoue, who defended his own WBA & IBF Bantamweight titles on October 31 with a trademark round 7 knockout victory over Jason Moloney.

Both Casemiro and Inoue will certainly be keeping an eye on the other belt up for grabs at 118lbs, as current holder Nordine Oubaali squares off with popular Filipino veteran Nonito Donaire on 12 December.

There was also the small matter of a World Boxing Super Series final in the midst of a hectic period of fight weekends, an evening which saw Latvian Mairis Briedis take a majority decision over Cuban Yuniel Dorticos to win the Cruiserweight tournament and be crowned IBF champion to boot.

With a number of competitive events already in the books, the road ahead may well allow a number of potential meetings to rise to the forefront across a plethora of weight classes that certainly keep with the post-lockdown trend of endless intensity. 

  • All-British Heavyweight unification in the pipeline for 2021

 

Providing that everything goes as smoothly as predicted, fans across the globe, especially British, may well be treated to an undisputed Heavyweight clash for the ages as Anthony Joshua and Tyson Fury have provisionally agreed terms for a two-fight deal in 2021. 

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However, a monumental clash for the all the marbles will only be on the cards if Joshua overcomes IBF mandatory Kubrat Pulev on December 12, and Fury comes through a scheduled bout on December 5 with his opponent yet to be confirmed, although a name put forward by promoter Frank Warren is that of former European Heavyweight champion Agit Kabayel.

Deontay Wilder and his manager Shelley Finkel remain adamant, however, that the Gypsy King will have to oblige to a rematch clause following the previous bout in February, so there may be a a twist in the tail as of yet as to how the division unfolds. 

Elsewhere, Oleksandr Usyk is now mandatory to Joshua's WBO title after the victory over Chisora on Halloween, and if that belt ends up being vacated, Usyk is likely to be in pole position to take on the winner of the huge upcoming domestic tussle between Daniel Dubois and Joe Joyce for the right to hold that piece of the Heavyweight title jigsaw. 

  • Dilemmas at Super Middleweight and Welterweight

 

The situation at 168lbs has a capability to produce some eye-catching  meetings to say the least. Liverpool's Callum Smith holds the WBA belt, Caleb Plant the IBF, and Billy Joe Saunders the WBO, leaving the WBC title currently vacant after David Benavidez was stripped having failed to make weight before his scheduled defence against Roamer Alexis Angulo.

Whether or not any offers have been made between promoters for potential unifications down the line are unknown, with Smith and Plant's future undecided as of yet. Saunders will remain active by taking a domestic encounter with St Helens' Martin Murray on December 4. 

A touted meeting between Smith's most recent opponent, John Ryder, and David Lemieux (who lost to Saunders in Quebec City in 2017), is being talked about for the Joshua event in December and might add a mandatory situation if one of the governing bodies were to sanction the bout as an eliminator. 

The lure of a super-fight with one of the pound-for-pound's best, Canelo Alvarez, still looms, and is only adding to the uncertainty of how the Super Middleweight division is going to shape up. The Mexican may well even hold out for a trilogy fight with Gennady Golovkin, despite having been ordered by the WBC to face Avni Yildirim for that specific crown.

Down at 147lbs, four elite operators occupy the title spots. The legendary Manny Pacquiao (WBA), Errol Spence Jr (IBF), Shawn Porter (WBC) and Terence Crawford (WBO) will undoubtedly feel confident in testing themselves against one another to unify further down the line, but with the possible obstruction of promotional issues, the welterweight crowns may remain evenly spread for the current period.

Spence Jr has an upcoming outing against the experienced Danny Garcia in-front of a regulated crowd in Dallas on December 5, and there's British interest in Crawford's next bout on November 14 as he takes on Sheffield's Kell Brook, who is dropping down from his recent active weight of 154lbs to face a formidable opponent in 'Bud'.

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A major threat to any of the elite in this division is the figure of unbeaten 22 year old Vergil Ortiz Jr. The Texan is 16-0, all arriving by way of knockout, the last of which against previous world title contender Sammy Vargas in Julyextending his alarming credentials to really cause one hell of a stir in this Welterweight division.

Similar to Ortiz, another emerging talent firmly on the radar at 170lbs is Philadelphia's Jaron Ennis. A year older than Ortiz, Ennis is 26-0 with 24 finishes inside the distance, and has been particularly destructive in his bid to thrust himself into the limelight. His last outing harnessed a typically fierce stoppage success over an opponent in Juan Carlos Abreu who'd never been stopped, and he'll look to keep the momentum rolling with yet another bout on the Oubaali/Donaire undercard.

  • Lopez the man to beat at Lightweight, but Gervonta Davis is back in business

 

Eyebrows were certainly raised when the announcement was made confirming Teofimo Lopez's first defence as IBF Lightweight champion against a fighter with the prowess of  ring magician Lomachenko. The Brooklyn native, of Honduran descent, displayed a truly punch-perfect performance to end the night as the undisputed king of the 135lbs division. 

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Technically, Lopez stole the WBC 'franchise' belt from Loma, but the WBC have previously stated that it is indeed the recognised version for undisputed status despite exciting American talent Devin Haney being upgraded to a full championship earlier on in the year. Haney defends his title on 7 November, taking on Yuriorkis Gamboa in Florida.

There's a man under the wing of a certain Floyd Mayweather who will have something to say about Lopez's perch at the top of this division; WBA 'regular' Lightweight & WBA 'Super' Super Featherweight champion, Gervonta Davis.

Tank proved he was back to his destructive best having brutally stopped former Featherweight champ and the highly resilient Leo Santa Cruz with a classy uppercut inside 6 rounds in San Antonio on 31 October. 

The options are certainly there. Lopez may have to defend against recently named IBF mandatory George Kambosos Jr following his points win over Wales' Lee Selby on the Usyk/Chisora card, or he may hold out for what would be another highly technical showdown against the winner of the upcoming December 5 clash between Ryan Garcia and Luke Campbell.

Baltimore's Davis may opt for a crack at Lopez given the chance, an opportunity to upgrade his regular version of a world title at 135lbs, or could well tempted by the return of Lomachenko for a final assault at his Super Featherweight crown.

Remaining at Super Feather could also open the door to a potential all-American showdown with Gary Russell Jr, who has been vocal on social media of his desire to make that happen in the days following Tank's victory in Texas, or a unification against either Mexican WBC champ Miguel Berchelt or the victor of a touted meeting between Northern Ireland's Carl Frampton and WBO champion Jamel Herring.

  • What else could we be seeing in the near future?

 

12 December, on the undercard of Joshua/Pulev, sees Lawrence Okolie get his shot at a world title, taking on Poland's Krzysztof Glowacki for the WBO Cruiserweight belt.

Towards the end of the year, Ireland's Katie Taylor defends all four of her Lightweight crowns against Miriam Gutierrez, as Terri Harper defends her WBC Super Featherweight title on the same card and Rachel Ball goes for WBA Bantamweight glory. 

After blitzing mandatory Apinun Khongsong, Josh Taylor outlined his intentions to challenge fellow unified champ at 140lbs, Jose Ramirez, in a fascinating undisputed contest at some point over the course of early 2021. 

Taylor signed a promotional deal with Top Rank in January, and with Ramirez under the same banner, this Super Lightweight corker shouldn't be the most difficult to make. 

Despite all the noise being made about this potential unification, England's Jack Catterall may well decide to force his hand as a WBO mandatory to Ramirez, with the WBC & WBO belt holder pushed to the limit in his last fight against gritty Ukrainian Viktor Postol.

A fighter who has really demolished his way into world level contention is Liam Williams. There's been a remarkable upturn in fortunes for the Welshman since back-to-back defeats against Liam Smith in 2017, and a seven fight run of knockout victories has led to many, including himself, calling for a shot at WBO Middleweight champion, Demetrius Andrade

Williams, along with promoter Frank Warren, has made it clear that he will travel to the States in order to have another well deserved crack at a world title. Andrade, it seems, has other ideas, and has agreed to make his debut up at 168lbs on 27 November. Williams may well be in line to fight for the belt should the American decide to vacate. 

IBF Featherweight champion Josh Warrington's last outing saw him take care of Sofiane Takoucht in swift fashion on the back of a number of impressive victories over the full distance to defend the belt against Frampton and Kid Galahad.

Since, The Leeds Warrior has signed a promotional deal with Matchroom, leading Eddie Hearn to state that a potential unification with Chinese WBA champion Can Xu could be on the table in the not so distant future on home soil.

Headingley Stadium, home of the Leeds Rhinos rugby league team, has been mentioned as a possible venue for the bout, and would follow Leeds United's Elland Road in hosting a momentous title showpiece in-front of his vociferous Yorkshire supporters.

If the meeting with Xu fails to materialise, then Warrington still won't be short of fighters waiting in the wings for a shot. One of those fighters is high octane Mexican Emanuel Navarrete.

Navarrete actively mentioned the Yorkshireman's name in his post-fight interview having secured a unanimous decision victory over Ruben Villa to win the WBO Featherweight belt, left vacant on the back of Oscar Valdez's move to 130lbs.

The newly crowned champ was highly complimentary of Warrington's work, and seemed keen to test the waters of negotiating a deal for a tasty unification. 

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